chimp and human DNA 1 percent

This week William Irvine, a philosophy professor in at Wright State University in Ohio, wrote a short piece for TIME magazine on insults (he is the author of a book on the topic). The premise is relatively simple: we are social animals driven by desires to reach the top and, of course, to hold back others who might compete with us. He writes:

What I realized was that the pain caused by insults is really just a symptom of a far more serious ailment: our participation in the social hierarchy game. We are people who need to be among people. The problem is that once we are among them, we feel compelled to sort ourselves into social hierarchies. If we were wolves, we’d fight to establish the social order of the pack. But since we are humans with outsized brains and language, we use words instead.

But, because we are so smart, we can also withdraw from the “social hierarchy game,” as he calls it. “In practical terms, this means becoming an insult pacifist: when insulted, you carry on as if nothing happened. Or if you do respond to an insult, you use self‑deprecating humor: you insult yourself even worse than they did and laugh while doing it.”

Interestingly, the same day a friend posted this from the Tibetan monk and founder of the Geluk school, Lama Tsong Khapa:

When I remember, see or hear living beings
speaking harshly or hitting me
may I meditate on patience,
and, avoiding anger, speak instead of their good qualities.

By developing, in the stream of my being, the pure wish,
which is based on bodhicitta,
holding other beings dearer than myself,
may I quickly bestow supreme buddhahood on them.

Je Tsongkhapa seems to take the advice a step further. No self-deprecating humor there, but instead actively praising the good qualities of his verbal attacker.

I don’t know about you, but I would have a very hard time doing this. At least in the short run. My strategy in the past has been metta-bhavana practice, as taught in the Triratna Buddhist Community (then the FWBO). In that practice, we ‘build’ on successive levels of cultivating loving-kindness; first ourselves, then a friend or supporter, then a neutral person, and then a ‘difficult’ person, finally ending by sending out loving-kindness throughout the world. This is a slow process – I could spend weeks working on one difficult person at times, and I’ve even found that difficult people who had been neutralized through the practice sometimes slipped back into the difficult category, but it does work.

Getting back to William Irvine’s suggestions:

  1. Carrying on as if nothing happened? Do-able. I do sometimes ignore or ‘massage’ around insults (and, thankfully, I don’t get directly insulted much, but in academia and here in the wonderful world wide web there plenty of ‘biting’ comments to go around).
  2. Or if you do respond to an insult, you use self‑deprecating humor: you insult yourself even worse than they did and laugh while doing it. This sounds a bit tougher. Perhaps its part of being an introvert, but my experience in such situations is that it works if you’re quick on your feet with words, and I’m not. But it’s something to consider.

And Je Tsongkhapa?

  • “I meditate on patience, and, avoiding anger, speak instead of their good qualities.”  Meditating on patience I can definitely do more. And, as I experienced with the metta practice, once the ‘outer shell’ of pain at being insulted/wronged/etc dissolves (which, again, can take time) all that is left are the good qualities. After all, if there were a person in whom you could see absolutely no good quality and this person insulted you, would you really feel it? Would it matter?

The difference between the philosopher’s solutions and the Buddhist ones seems to be the standpoint from which each approaches the problem (and thus the solution). The philosopher gives a Darwinian story to frame experience, and thus escapes the problem by navigating the ‘game’ better. Yes, he talks about ‘withdrawing’ from the game, but it doesn’t seem that this is exactly what he means. He’s still in it. But when insults come, they no longer broadside him. He deflects them or absorbs them. This allows for his receptivity to kick in and relationships to grow, which is great, (after all, it moves him ‘up’ in the hierarchy).

However, the Buddhist approach seems to be a bit more radical. It shifts the standpoint to a universal moral standpoint (in the metta practice we often think of a phrase such as “may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering” and direct it toward all of the individuals in our meditation). Buddhists use teachings like, “remember, all beings were once your mother;” and, “all beings fear suffering and seek after happiness;” and of course the changing nature of all of the Eight Worldly Conditions: gain, loss, status, disgrace, blame, praise, pleasure, and pain. Remembering all of this, one not only lowers the shields, so to speak, but one is compelled to actively care for and comfort those we can in the world.

I know some Secular Buddhists might shy away from the idea that we could actually see all beings as having been our mother or that each being has some common core that we could love – and love in a similar way for all beings. However, I find this perspective appealing none the less, if only as an ideal toward which we each should strive.

Now, if any of you loggerheaded elf-skinned miscreants wish to take issue with any of the above, please at least make use of the Shakespeare Insult Kit in so doing.

No Comments

  1. Doug Smith on March 11, 2013 at 4:28 am

    Welcome to SBA blogging, Justin! I also find ‘right speech’ to be one of the deepest and most difficult part of Buddhist sila practice. In the comparison between the philosophical and Buddhist approach above, of course there’s no need to decide: it’s good to have a toolbox of options to help deal with difficult situations.

    That said, one key difference I see between them is that Irvine seems to be presenting us with how we should behave in an abstract, rational sense: perhaps true as far as it goes, but I find these kinds of suggestions almost universally impossible to follow in practice. The difference with Buddhist suggestions for metta bhavana and so on is that they are methods for changing the way the mind approaches these situations emotionally in the first place. They are a kind of cognitive retraining rather than a guidebook for how (not) to respond.

    As you point out, they take a lot of work. I’ve had the same experience of getting to the right place emotionally and then slipping back. But the key thing at least in my practice is that I can get to the right place, at least for a time. And that makes me sense that the approach is more likely to be of long-term benefit than simply telling oneself that it’s wrong to fight back because one is ‘participating in a social hierarchy game’, true though that may be.

    Or to put it another way, the philosophical approach seems to me to work through reasoning while the Buddhist approach takes basically the same reasoning and finds a way to package it emotionally. I think the latter approach is more likely to lead to true and lasting cognitive changes, though I suppose it would be good to put that to a well-designed test!

    • justinwhitaker on March 11, 2013 at 7:09 am

      Thanks for the warm welcome, Doug! I agree that it’s not an either-or; I’m sure there are times when I have and can use self-deprecating humor to good use; and I think the idea of ‘just ignore it’ is in line with some of the Buddha’s teachings, as in the Dhammapada:

      133. Speak not harshly to anyone, for those thus spoken to might retort. Indeed, angry speech hurts, and retaliation may overtake you.

      134. If, like a broken gong, you silence yourself, you have approached Nibbana, for vindictiveness is no longer in you.

      • Doug Smith on March 11, 2013 at 7:44 am

        Oh absolutely, the Buddha advocated ignoring provocations. A good place to see this is somewhere like the Vepacitti Sutta:

        This is the only thing, I deem,
        That will put a stop to the fool:
        Knowing well the other’s anger,
        One is mindful and remains calm.

        Or the Kinti Sutta (MN 103):

        … [If] ‘I cannot make that person emerge from the unwholesome and establish him in the wholesome.’ One should not underrate equanimity towards such a person.

        Not to mention the parable of the two-handed saw, of course.

        Problem in all this is to actually make it work in practice. I argued before that although a rational approach has many clear benefits, it doesn’t really engage our volition with the same power as the emotions. This is what psychologist Jonathan Haidt got at with his understanding of how moral emotions get in the way of moral reasoning.

  2. Linda on March 11, 2013 at 8:24 am

    Great post, Justin, on a really big and challenging topic, too. It touches on what is happening in my life at the moment since I have, temporarily, returned to the workforce (as a temp, so I do mean “temporarily”). I have a co-worker who has cornered a good place for herself on the team and sees me as threatening her position of power, though I have not the least interest in taking her job away from her. (Funny how her perception of a need to hold onto that power creates a situation in which she feels forced to defend it — she’s making up the situation and causing herself stress; the very definition of dukkha!)

    When she started playing power games (for example ignoring me when I was standing in front of her asking for her help) my reaction isn’t, as it once might have been, to get angry or defensive or back at her, which it might once have been, but to just find another way to do whatever needs doing, and to say aloud for all to hear that this is what I will have to do (so that I am not appearing to “go behind her back”), and then just do that. None of which would likely have been my solution prior to taking up Buddhist practice (I would have taken it personally).

    Also, I find she has my compassion. This is tricky, because I don’t feel I can say anything about how I feel without pushing her buttons. I can’t say “I’m sorry you’ve created a situation in which you feel so much fear,” — right? But this is what I feel, and it is actually a little odd to feel no ill will toward her, but instead find myself wishing there was a way I could help her see that she’s battling ghosts she has, herself, created, and that all she has to do is let go of her fear and they will be gone. I spend time mulling ways to make this visible to her, but haven’t found anything that will actually work “in the real world” (I could do it if there were more Buddhist-thinking people in the world, but not in the world I actually live in).

    The last thing I’d like to say about this is taking it to a meta-level, and ask if anyone else finds this to be true. One of the problems I think I am having with taking my practice out into the world can be seen in situations like this one I’m outlining, and it is this: The reactions I have in these situations are not reactions that anyone else I am dealing with has ever seen in anyone else, and they can’t read me and my behavior accurately at all. People they have encountered in the past don’t behave the way I do from the motivations I have, so they can’t figure out why I do what I do. Because they don’t know what to make of the way I act, they make up wild theories that are their best guesses based on how they think people are motivated, and not only do they not come close but it usually makes things worse. If I say, “I have no interest in taking over her job” I will get a “Yeah, right, sure” look out of them. If I say, “All I want is for us to do a good job as a team” then I am seen as a do-gooder. Well, I guess they are right about that, but it puts me so far outside the norm that I get seen as just a weirdo.

    There is no way to “opt out of the game” completely. We are social creatures, and there are social standards. I can’t speak plainly about why I behave as I do and still be accepted within the society I live and work in. I find this to be a conundrum.

    • justinwhitaker on March 11, 2013 at 12:43 pm

      Many thanks, Linda.

      Yes, I have a feeling a lot of this ‘hits home’ with our day to day experiences.

      I’m not sure if this is helpful for you or others, but I often find that letting people I’m around know that I am a Buddhist (even if that label is difficult at times) generally gives them the expectation that my responses will at least sometimes be a bit outside of the norm.

      With some difficult people, I have found that finding something in common to talk about helps, it can be something superficial like fashion or sports, or something more personal, it’s just a matter of finding something in common. From there, you can ‘work back’ to other issues if and as needed, but often that little spark of connection helps the other person lower their barriers and see you as an okay person rather than as a competitor in the ‘game’.

  3. pg on March 12, 2013 at 12:06 am

    I think it’s truly excellent that you understand compassion even in this difficult context. But have you read about emptiness? From a Buddhist perspective it’s just as important to change the way you see insults. Emptiness is a difficult topic to explain. Hope you find these links interesting.

    Excerpt from:
    Thus one should consider: “Being angry with another person, what can you do to him? Can you destroy his virtue and his other good qualities? Have you not come to your present state by your own actions, and will also go hence according to your own actions? Anger towards another is just as if someone wishing to hit another person takes hold of glowing coals, or a heated iron-rod, or of excrement. And, in the same way, if the other person is angry with you, what can he do to you? Can he destroy your virtue and your other good qualities? He too has come to his present state by his own actions and will go hence according to his own actions. Like an unaccepted gift or like a handful of dirt thrown against the wind, his anger will fall back on his own head.”

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