Friday, November 09, 2012

The Consciousness of a Conservative

Back in 2007, the ad calling General David H. Patraeus "General Betray Us" caused a major uproar in the right-wing blogosphere.  The people behind the ad were condemned as cowards and traitors, and it was suggested that at a time of war, such speech amounted to nothing less than an act of treason.  Free speech is all fine and good, it was argued, but words, images, and ads that might weaken the troops morale could endanger those troops and lead to loss of American life on the battlefield.

Of course, we're still at war now, although it's hardly ever mentioned, and those very same conservatives who were so outraged at negative depictions of a General are now mercilessly attacking the actual Commander in Chief, even to the point of questioning his citizenship, his faith, his patriotism, and his loyalty. 

And on top of that, the General they were so staunchly defending ironically now has to resign his post as the head of the CIA due to an extramarital affair - a betrayal of his own wedding vows. 

My point is not to throw stones at a man during a humiliating and difficult time in his life, it's to point out the rampant hypocricy in politics, where one side feels their officials should be held above criticism and ridicule while the other side slings mud mercilessly, until power is transferred and the roles reversed - along with the attitudes about criticism and treason.  How can each side so conveniently forget its previous position and engage in the exact conduct they found so appalling when the other side was doing it?  This same question applies to the use of the fillibuster during congressional proceedings, by the way.

To put the questions a little more broadly - how can intelligent people see things so differently from one another?

I have many friends and acquaintances here in red-state Georgia who are staunch conservatives and right-wingers, yet who are also well educated, intelligent, informed, and compassionate, kind and generous in their personal lives.  And they look at me and wonder how I can be so well educated, intelligent, informed, and c., k., and g., and not see things their way.  Why, we both wonder, doesn't the other "get it?" 

I've bought this question up to some of my liberal, Democratic friends, and they usually can't even buy into the premise of the question - that some conservatives can be intelligent and compassionate.  I usually don't even get the question out to my right-wing friends before they're already objecting to the very premise of the question.  

Then, meanwhile, back at the zendo, my study of the dharma has been focused on what the Buddha called samskara, the link between ignorance and consciousness in the Chain of Dependent Origination, a term that has usually been translated as "mental formations" or "constructs," but can also mean perceptional filters, habitual attitudes, memory, and prejudices.  It's what has been referred to as "schema," a preset conception of the way of things, through which we perceive the world around us.  

The interesting thing about this, and its relevance to the discussion above, is that the Buddha placed samskara between ignorance and consciousness; this is, it arises without our knowing or realizing it, and it colors and shapes our consciousness.  It would be as impossible for the conscious mind to directly perceive our own samskara as it would be for us to see the eye through which we view the world, although we can clearly see it at work in others.  It is created in our pre-conscious mind and by the time consciousness arises, it has already been shaped and formed through the filter of samskara.  It is, in the words of Red Pine, all the things from the past that provide us with a prefabricated set of guidelines with which to perceive and deal with the world as we experience it in the present.

So the very way we perceive things - from the world immediately in front of us right now to the world brought into our living rooms by the media, from The President of the United States of America to his generals and his political party, from the needy and the so-called 47%  to the wealthy and the so-called 1%, - has nothing directly to so with our intelligence, education, compassion, etc., but with the filters we've picked up in our lives through our past experiences, what we've heard, what we've seen, even what we've dreamed.  These filters cause one person to see a homeless victim of neglect and abuse reduced to begging on the street, and another to see a lazy, unmotivated opportunist wanting others to pay for his mistakes.  It's like some of us are wearing red-tinted sunglasses and other are wearing blue-tinted sunglasses, and we can't understand why we can't agree on the color of white paper.

Liberals are not necessarily dumb and conservatives aren't necessarily smart, and vice versa, although it often appears that way to each other.  The faculty of intelligence has nothing to do with it.  One side isn't necessarily generous and the other selfish, although it often appears that way to each other.  The faculty of compassion has nothing to do with it.  But different upbringings, different life experiences, different information, and, yes, different news and media outlets fabricate the filters through which we perceive things.  And some of the people who perceive things one way are intelligent and others not, some of the people who perceive things the other way are compassionate and others not, but these attributes arise after consciousness is formed and thus can be perceived and studied and understood (or misunderstood).  Samskara, those filters, templates, and schema through which we perceive, are pre-conscious and thus outside of our knowing.

The practical lesson is this is not to look at those who see things differently and conclude, "Well, they can't help it.  Their view is irrevocably affected by their perception," but to realize that your view is also just as irrevocably affected, and that it's therefore pointless to try and argue about who is right and who is wrong.      

So what, exactly, does all this have to do with General Patraeus again?  Well, nothing directly, but as the Kiefer Sutherland character in A Few Good Men observed,  it's always entertaining when we get to cut into an officer or two.

No comments: