Which side are you on?

This past Thursday was a day of contrasts.  It began with a fellow meditator referring us to Thich Nhat Hanh’s talk about Are You Sure?

One advantage of Zoom meetings is that you can quietly leave the room without fuss, which I did to avoid causing dissension in the sangha.  I’m not sure whether some of my fellow Buddhists don’t confuse “Are you sure?” with “there is always truth on both sides,” or with “all truth is relative,” which translates to “there is no truth.”  I’ve heard one lead teacher preach that because all views can be seen as wrong views depending on the viewer, there is no standard of truth.  He was confusing views (ditthi) with truth (sacca).  He forgot that the canon applies the label “views” most frequently to ideas that conflict with the “truths” taught by the Buddha.  So we end up saying that we shouldn’t judge, say, racists.  Just try to discern where they’re coming from.  That tendency both worries and angers me.  Sorry, two very non-Buddhist reactions.

In his essay in this weekend’s New York Times MagazineThe American Abyss,” the historian Tim Snyder writes:

When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. Without agreement about some basic facts, citizens cannot form the civil society that would allow them to defend themselves. If we lose the institutions that produce facts that are pertinent to us, then we tend to wallow in attractive abstractions and fictions. Truth defends itself particularly poorly when there is not very much of it around, and the era of Trump — like the era of Vladimir Putin in Russia — is one of the decline of local news. Social media is no substitute: It supercharges the mental habits by which we seek emotional stimulation and comfort, which means losing the distinction between what feels true and what actually is true. Post-truth wears away the rule of law and invites a regime of myth.

The point  of “Are you sure?” is to argue–with oneself, but also with others.  As I’ve said before, I like to argue.  In fact my Ph.D. dissertation was all about planning as a process of arguing about what to do.  There I pointed out that arguing does not always mean a process where we attack and defend ideas that we’ve already adopted.  Rather arguing works best as an open process of back and forth learning.  One problem we have today is that we have people who want to engage in this kind of open exchange, like Better Angels, with people who often don’t.

My day ended on Thursday evening with a political education session that began with the classic union song “Which side are you on?”  Sung by its composer Florence Reece, wife of a union miner, who wrote the song on the back of a scrap of paper after company thugs trashed her house looking for her husband.

[Verse 1]
Come all of you good workers
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how the good ol’ union
Has come in here to dwell

Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

[Verse 2]
My daddy was a miner
And I’m a miner’s son
And I’ll stick with the union
‘Til every battle’s won


[Verse 3]
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair


[Verse 4]
Oh workers can you stand it?
Oh tell me how you can
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?


[Verse 5]
Don’t scab for the bosses
Don’t listen to their lies
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance
Unless we organize


As Florence Reece says at the very end, “Now all of you know which side you’re on, and they’ll never keep us down.”  Tim Snyder’s argument about standing up for truth.

The meeting that began with “Which side are you on?” included participants from a number of different groups from different states.  The presentation delved into the history of workers’ battles with Henry Ford so you can imagine where the discussion went given where we started.  Ironically, given how my day began, one participant commented that perhaps she was in the wrong meeting.  She was distressed by all the talk of “sides” and “conflict.”  One of the organizers gave a very kind and supportive response to her.  Nevertheless, he is one of the most militant among a crowd that operates along the lines of “Politics is about conflict. Assuming otherwise only empowers our political enemies.”  As I saw Thursday evening, nothing about that way of living gets in the way of being kind to other people.  After all, such militancy is motivated by love.

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