Saturday, March 29, 2014

Colbert to the left of me, white men to the right

And here I am, stuck in the middle with Assalayana.

Lately, I've been feeling like the legendary Assalayana, a 16-year-old student of the Brahmans who was given the unenviable task to dispute the Buddha's assertion that all castes are capable of enlightenment. And not just to dispute that assertion, but argue it head-to-head with the Buddha himself.

Needless to say, Assalayana didn't like this task. While he was an excellent student of many subjects, he knew that the Buddha was unassailable in debate. And it was quite possible that even before his personal encounter with the Buddha, he agreed with the Buddha's premise: he tells the Brahamans that the Buddha teaches Dhamma, which, when capitalized, is the Pali word for truth (lowercase it more closely translates as "dogma" or "doctrine"). So Assalayana tries to get out of this assignment. The Brahmans, however, impose their will, telling the erudite teen that if he's going to go down a loser, do it in battle.

And indeed, Assalayana goes down. So hard, in fact, that the youth droops into a deep depression right before the Buddha's eyes. Seeing this, in his immeasurable compassion, the Buddha shares with Assalayana a final Dhamma lesson that immediately convinces the youth to devote himself as a lay follower of the Buddha.

I've been thinking about Assalayana's experience recently in connection with the divisiveness regarding the #CancelColbert trend and the incendiary debate it has sparked.

For background, it began with a Tweet from @ColbertReport, an account connected with the Colbert show. The Tweet, which reportedly has been deleted, read: "I'm willing to show the #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever." That Tweet, in and of itself, was extraordinarily offensive and struck me, at least, as being very much out of Colbert's character.

The Tweet launched the hashtag #CancelColbert, thanks to @suey_park, which rallied hundreds, if not thousands of non-white people expressing their outrage.

The Tweet came from this segment on his show, which was largely devoted to lampooning Daniel Snyder.

It also ignited a litany of counter-tweets from predominately white people whose message was essentially, "shut up all of you, it's satire you stupid .... (insert racist expletive/ad hominem of your choice)." That activity attracted attention from a multitude of ostensibly liberally-leaning news and information websites that most of which, in my opinion, immediately adopted a defensive and reactionary point of view.

Suey Park was invited on to HuffPo Live to talk about the issue, but was gaslighted by the host who shut her down as soon as it became apparent to him - a white man - that he wasn't interviewing a subservient, docile Asian woman (her segment appears at roughly the 30 min mark). It's worth pointing out it was Suey Park who behaved absolutely professionally despite the circumstances.

What astounded me was I found myself defending that anger regarding the Tweet, as well as its original context within the segment it was attached, against liberal white men and journalists that I normally would have thought to be allies in these circumstances; I was not deflecting attacks from right wing reactionaries (although they came out of the woodwork as well, as expected). My sense of astonishment soon became dismay as I realized from the many others I engage with on Twitter that this was not surprising at all, that white liberals remain blinded to a large degree by their privilege. And that blindness was glaringly apparent.

Of course, I was ridiculed for failing to grasp satire and how it works. And yet, presumably liberal-minded white men couldn't hear my message when I said that white men need to stop presuming they are the arbiter of what is or is not offensive to non-whites. But as the writer in this post so prosaically points out, satire is meant to punch up, not down; it's designed to ridicule power and those that hold it, not the victim of that power. No one, however, was listening; it was a perfect storm of white men clamoring to justify another white man's behavior because it was "art."

"He's playing a character, you dumb shit, don't you get that?" opined one on Twitter.

I had others "explain" to me the full context of the original episode while they arrogantly presumed I had not seen the full clip, that I was reacting only to the original Tweet.

I felt my shoulders metaphorically slump just as Assalayana's had. The premise that Assalayana was sent to defend against the Buddha was a very racist notion that the Brahmans were the highest caste, that no other caste was equal, and the only way to become part of that caste was to be born in it. The Buddha methodically destroys that delusion, yet all Assalayana can say is, Yes, I agree with you Goatama, but this is how the Brahmans believe.

It is the delusion of privilege, and Assalayana is feeling the pressure of having been sent to defend that privilege while simultaneously clearly seeing it is delusion. He feels helpless and overwhelmed, and right there in front of the Buddha, he slips into despair (It really is a fantastic sutta to read).

But the Buddha does give him an out by offering the compassionate hand of the Dhamma and Assalayana readily accepts the gesture. By doing that, the teen willingly walks away from the Brahman culture that gave him his education and taught him many vitally important lessons. Yet that single delusion, so tenaciously held by even the most erudite of the caste, made being part of that system of thought unpalatable for the teenaged Assalayana.

I do wish I had the Buddha's debate skills. For now, I will continue to muddle through life, shedding a bit more of my privilege every day because in the end, it is my karma that I carry, no one else's, and I create my karma on my own, no one else creates it for me.


  1. September 20, 2014

    Dear Richard,

    I don't know you as this is the 1st time I've been to your blog arriving from The Endless Further.

    Please forgive any presumption. Your blog on the Colbert tweet was excellent and your pain was very evident.

    Then there were no subsequent blogs. I am compelled to ask - Are you okay?

    May you be free from suffering and the root of suffering.

    With metta,
    Quinn Eurich

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  3. Why has it been so long since a post? I just started reading your amazing blog and I hope you’re okay.
    :) :)