Sunday, March 3, 2024

Not Even Not Zen 343: Biomythography - Note 85, Cultural Identities

Terminology and the Times We Live In

Generally, people don’t have much emotional understanding of how great the differences are among our cultures. We don't get to live in different societies (there's not enough time nor enough travel in our lives) and, in particular, we underestimate the gaps in comprehension imposed by the eras in which we live. 

Nowadays, the linguistic terms for many aspects of life are changing. Having more gender terms is a big social movement. This sort of language drift is natural. It happens more or less constantly. Sometimes it leaves me behind or I find I've gotten too far ahead in some way. I have internalised Buddist, Stoic, and Daoist terms and definitions because they are appropriate to the way I think. For a while, this put me ahead of some American cultural shifts. Since then, a lot of our sub-cultures have adopted aspects of these schools of thought. They've added to the lexicons of them as well, so I find myself needing to catch up.

It surprises me still how much the Buddhist outlook affects my everyday, moment-to-moment living. (Although I refer to Buddhism here for the sake of being understood, Daoism and Stoicism would be as appropriate. All three philosophies share a core set of values.) 

Sometimes I hear trending phrases like, "I identify myself as ..." from a Buddhist perspective. A basic tenet of Buddhism is the need to erase the 'self.' Identity is not merely irrelevant; it's contra-indicated by the philosophy. This makes the current, popular obsession with identity seem like a wave of anti-enlightenment. Perhaps it is. 

We don't need to know a person's identity to treat them well. We don't need to know, maybe, even if they are a person or not.

Of course, part of the difference in the context of 'identity' is generational. Maybe the trend in terminology represents a group of people taking an outlook in their sub-culture that I did not take, that was not even a concept when I was young enough to be influenced by it. Maybe I am bereft of modern conceptions, like my old boss was when I mentioned the term 'people skills.'

Early in my computer science career, I had a supervisor who was fairly nice and constantly made a bad impression. He had a grating voice. You could hear him in a crowd of thousands without him raising his volume. He looked unathletic. He wore unfashionable clothes. Worst of all, in his conversations he always challenged everyone else's ideas. That was his conversational reflex, a habit burned into him by either his family or his academic environment. 

If you proposed a solution, he would say "No, that won’t work! This is how it works. Here’s why."

He expected you to challenge him back. It was how he conversed. It was how he solved problems. If he was shown wrong, he changed his view to something better almost instantly - a highly admirable trait. To me, it became obvious how to challenge him casually. To his co-workers, apparently it was not so obvious. Many of the doctors he worked with hated him. His fellow scientists found him irritating. His bosses tried to fire him. 

He was so bad with people, I tried to coach him how to be better. (He accepted the coaching, too; he knew he had problems with his co-workers.) In the process, I remembered an odd moment from when I was growing up. One of the neighbors on my block turned to another and said, "Well, you are either good with people or you aren't."

For a moment, I wondered why such an old memory would come to me. Then I realized: my boss belonged to that generation. He had grown up with the idea that you were either good with people or you were not. And he was not. Once he had understood his place, he never tried to change it. The idea that you are born a certain way is a self-fulfilling prophecy in that sense. Eventually, he didn't want to hear anything more about improving his people skills.

Moving back to the concept of identity - the current emphasis on it can feel like anti-enlightenment activity but maybe it's really not. When people study Buddhism, Stoicism, or Daoism, they mostly focus on improving themselves. The canons of those systems focus on how an individual can be better. What they hardly ever mention is how cultures can clash, how one sub-culture might affect another, or any other aspect of people in large, organized groups. In the context of groups, using the term 'identity' may mean something different than it does in the context of individuals. Admittedly, it might not be different enough to avoid reasonable Buddhist objections. But still, subscribers to the Way may understand the word 'identity' in this group sense is meant to be interpreted as a place within a culture.

Saying, "I identify as a Buddhist" might not signify anything more than "I am an office worker." There is not necessarily a problem with either statement. If one arises, it's likely to come from how the person making the statement is clinging to a sense of identity. No matter how noble, ignoble, or simply socially aware a sense of identity happens to be, the attachment to it seems, to me, to be the real issue. 

Picking up these senses of identification in their context and then putting them down when the context changes should be fine. 

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