We came into this world never choosing our history. A sexual union of our parents brought us into physical existence. We had no choice in the matter. Some of us are blessed to be brought into the world with love and are fortunate to be a part of a household that loves us unconditionally. The fate of many others, however, is less benign.
As we inevitably experiment with life’s options we are often guided by those who love us. In the best households we can try different things, make mistakes and know we will still be loved and supported.
Many of us are not so blessed. For such children parents and significant others offer only conditional love. We need to meet their needs before they will bestow affection on us. The anxiety and instability that children experience in such relationships lead inevitably to dysfunction and trauma.
But the other function of this lottery of life is that it bestows on us our gender, our nationality, our race and generally our social circumstances. Most of the characteristics that seem to be so fundamental to identity politics are seemingly randomly bestowed on us without any influence of our own.
So who are we really?
You know I like the use of parables as a teaching tool. Let me relate to you one of the parables I have written about my little Buddhist hero, Augustus. In this story Augustus comes across a prince and his retinue. The prince asks Augustus to join him for a while. He calls to one of his men to bring up a spare horse which Augustus mounts and joins the prince at the front of the procession. The following records Augustus’s conversation with the prince.
“You have an impressive procession here,” said Augustus. “Who are you?”
“You are obviously not from these parts,” replied the other, “or I am sure you would know of me.”
“That is true,” replied Augustus, “And you must be a grand personage to have such an elaborate retinue; but the truth is, I am a man also, and you do not know of me either.”
The leader laughed. “You do not seem to have any respect for my status.”
“Well,” said Augustus, “It has always seemed to me wise not to appear too humble to the haughty or too haughty to the humble. But come tell me about yourself as it seems important to you.”
“Well,” the other responded, “I am Claudius, Prince of Parmissium.”
“How intriguing,” replied Augustus. “You have a Latin name just as I do. My name is Augustus and I am not prince of anything except perhaps, of my own interpretation of the world. What are you doing in these parts my good prince?”
“I am come to bestow an honour on a lady who has served my people well. Her name is Maria and she is a healer and benefactor of my subjects.”
“Oh, that is interesting,” said Augustus. “It is she I am journeying to see also. You must be an exceedingly good and important person if you can bestow an honour on Maria. Her deeds are honourable enough in their goodness and devotion. You must have a position of even greater moral authority if you can add to her standing.”
The Prince frowned. “But of course,” he said. “After all, I am a prince.”
“And so you are, and so you are, my Prince,” said Augustus. “You must indeed be a wondrous person, if you are a prince. Tell me what did you have to do to become a Prince?”
“There is nothing to do to become a Prince. My father was a Prince and I inherited his title. We are a family of courage and integrity. We have fought with valour and we have ruled wisely. My title is my inheritance.”
“Oh then your Princehood is an accident of birth? You are fortunate indeed to have this title. It is a matter of good fortune. There is nothing you did to earn it?”
The Prince was getting angry. “My ancestors earned it and I am of their blood; therefore it is my right!”
“Be calm, my Prince. When title and privilege come to you from your ancestry, it is natural that you believe that you deserve these honours – that is the way of your tradition. But in the end you cannot take on those characteristics that you do not possess in your own right. However you present yourself to the world, the world is not long disposed to take you for who you are not. Your subjects will yield to your authority as a Prince but they will not attribute to you any Princely characteristics that you do not demonstrate in your day to day relationships with them.”
Augustus’ companion thought a while and Augustus could see him out of the corner of his eye shaking his head. In the end he said, “You are rather impertinent, traveller, to talk to a prince in this way.”
The Buddhist smiled. “Remember, as I said earlier, it has always seemed to me good practice not to be too humble to the haughty nor too haughty to the humble.”
The Prince’s companions riding close behind the two looked at each other in amusement, for indeed the Prince had a reputation for being both haughty and proud. They were enjoying the exchange, for Augustus was saying things to the Prince which they dared not.
“It is my belief, that at the very essence of our being we are all as one. I am driven to treat you just as I would have you treat me. Therefore, let us be honest with each other and let not our customs, race, religion or status stand between us. I am pleased to be here in your company on the way to see someone I admire also – Maria.”
“This is a strange teaching that you propose – ‘that we are all as one’! I am a prince and you are a mendicant. How can it possibly be that we are as one?”
“Your vision is too constrained my Prince. You define yourself as a Prince. What if tomorrow your people rose up and overthrew you. Who would you be then?”
The Prince spluttered in disbelief. “But that could not happen.”
“You may not think it likely to happen, but indulge me a little. If you were not a Prince who would you be then?”
“Well, if you press me, I suppose I would be Claudius, son of Julian.”
“So, you define yourself in terms of whose son you are? Does your father have others sons?”
“Well, yes. I have two brothers and a sister – but I am the eldest son, and therefore entitled to be called ‘Prince’ just as he was.”
“Oh I see. Then you feel you would have been a different person if you had been perhaps the second son?”
Claudius struggled with this for a while. “Well, no. I would still have been Claudius but I obviously would not have been the ‘Prince.’”
“So you believe that whoever you are is defined as Claudius. What if your parents had called you something different? Who would you have been then?”
“My little friend,” said Claudius, “You are indeed troublesome. Even if I had not been called Claudius then surely I would still be the man I am.”
“Well, we are starting to get somewhere here, my Prince. You have so far conceded that you are neither your title nor your name. Who do you think you really are?”
“I am a father, husband, brother, warrior and statesman. Need I go on?”
“Well, perhaps you must. What if you had never married, never had children, didn’t have siblings, and were perhaps a shepherd or a doctor, who would you have been then?”
“But this is pointless because it just happens that I am all those things. And there is no conjecture which will alter my history.”
“Ah. Then you are an accident of your history. Do you not think there is something essentially you that is beyond your history?”
The Prince paused a long time. Augustus was not inclined to hurry him and waited patiently for his response. The entourage progressed steadily up the road. The men behind them murmured in a subdued way, but those closest were listening very intently to this conversation. They were unused to seeing their leader challenged. Whilst the “clip clopping” of hooves on the path was a soporific underlay to his senses, Augustus was pleasantly relaxed, but his mind was still keen and alert.
After a time the Prince said. “Perhaps you are right. I suppose I am this mind and body that has been blessed by my history. I have never thought of it that way.”
“Well my Prince, you have come part way along this journey of investigation. Let us now examine further the concepts of ‘this mind and body.’ Let us begin with ‘this body’. Are you really ‘this body’? I am told that every cell in our body changes within a seven year period. You would certainly concede that your body is different now to what it was when you were a youth. Yet you always had an ongoing sense of ‘I’, despite the changes to your body. Do you really think that you can be your body?”
The Prince seemed to be getting a little annoyed again. He was unused to having people not agree with him, and even less so, question him. It was for this reason that those close by in his retainer were listening very closely and smiling.
After a time Augustus added, “Even our language gives this secret away. We say ‘my body’, implying that the body is possessed by something else. If ‘I’ were really my body, then the term ‘my body’ would be meaningless. Mind you the fact that we seem to be something located in a head atop a body, does in itself cause its own problems, For most of us our consciousness seems to abide exclusively in our heads, in our minds. As a result a boundary is erected between mind and body. This leads to various psychological and psychosomatic problems. But anyway for the purpose of this discussion let us be assured that you are definitely not your body”
“Well, then,” the prince responded curtly, “I must be my mind. My mind seems to be the focal point and the control mechanism regulating my existence.”
“So it may seem,” Augustus said, “But even that I would dispute.”
He could have used the possessive pronoun argument again, but because the Prince seemed to be provoked by the debate he thought he would take another tack.
“It seems to me,” he continued, “that your mind generates your thoughts. Is that not so?”
“Of course,” nodded the Prince.
“Well, let us be clear, you are not your thoughts – your thoughts come and go and yet your essential ‘I-ness’ is constant. Your mind is the theatre of consciousness, continually generating thoughts, weighing up options and making decisions. But you are aware of these processes, just as you are aware of your body. Anything that you are aware of cannot be the essential you. This is true not only of your thoughts but your feelings, sense responses, emotions and aspirations. Anything you are aware of is an object.”
“Enough,” cried the Prince. “You are too clever at telling me who I am not. Do the courtesy of explaining to me who or what do you think I am?”
“Well,” replied Augustus, “We have determined that you are nothing that you are aware of, because you are that which is aware. You are nothing you can see because you are that which is doing the seeing. You are nothing you can feel because you are that which is feeling. You are not your thoughts because you are the audience of your thoughts.”
“This is not a concept that I can easily get a handle on. What is this thing like that you say that I am. It seems very ephemeral. I seem to me to have more substance than that.”
“The problem,” continued Augustus, “Is that you continue to identify with those things that you can observe or experience. When you look out at the world you see a body and the workings of a mind and it is natural for you to identify with them. But as we have seen that is not who you are. And there is nothing you can experience that will allow you to identify with your essential self. Who you are is the ‘experiencer’, not the experience. The great sage, Patanjali related that the experience of bondage is the identification of the Seer with what is seen. This is the classic human dilemma. We identify our conscious selves with what we are conscious of. But we are not what we are conscious of. We are that which is apprehending. We are the Seer, the Knower, the Witness. We all are one at the level of the Witness. At this level of our being there are no monarchs, no chieftains, no celebrities, in fact no men and no women, no old and no young. These are the peripheral manifestations of ourselves as objects, the accidental outcomes of our inconsequential histories.”
These words of Augustus reflect some of the core teachings of Vedanta and Buddhism and have endured for millennia. (Patanjali, whom I quoted above, was an Indian sage who lived circa 200 BCE.)
But there are many who are not prepared to accept this ancient wisdom, but want to perpetuate the myth of a personally created identity emanating from Humanity’s much lauded Free Will. But such a concept soon withers when we observe the evidence.
The issues deriving from identity politics are, in their essence, issues of morality. They go to the substance of human behaviour and how we expect people to behave towards each other. Identity politics seeks to advantage various minorities on the basis of their particular, generally unchosen, differences.
When it comes to issues of character and moral development there is a school of thought today that moral sensibilities are innate in every child and that they only need to be liberated and refined. But such a position seems to me to be delusional. As I have written countless times before we are all the products of our genetics and our social conditioning, neither of which we are able to influence.
The eminent American sociologist, James Davison Hunter writes:
Whatever individual psychological processes are involved in the development of moral understanding and character, it is fair to say that a person’s moral development does not occur in a cultural vacuum. Neither does moral instruction. Both occur in a powerfully influential normative context.
Although our genetics determine that we are all physically different, it is, perhaps, our character that gives each of us our primary uniqueness. Much of it is acquired during our early socialisation, through the acquisition of language and in our natural participation in everyday life. In our early years we receive most of our moral instruction and the motivation is to conform to the expectations of our parents and significant others. We in fact often use emotional manipulation to teach our children. They come to know that what is “good” is that which mum and dad approve of and reward them for. On the other hand what is “bad” is what these people of influence disapprove of and perhaps punish them for. In the worst cases the people of influence resort to anger, shame and ostracisation to enforce conformity.
I suppose in many ways you might say that family values, in many households, as dictated by the parents are imposed on the children as the price of inclusion.
As we get older in order to feel included, many of us are compelled to promote the values of our particular “family” or “tribe” just as we were required to do to gain the approval of our parents when we were young. But now our “tribe” is no longer determined by our family association but by such things as our gender, nationality, race and various ideological positions such as whether we believe in climate change or the efficacy of inoculations! And the problem that arises here is that many of the members of such “tribes” devalue the humanity of those who don’t belong to their particular “tribe”.
The corollary, for example, to the ethos that “black lives matter” is that other lives don’t matter as much. “Tribe” members are required to adhere to the tenets of their particular “tribe”. Climate alarmists for example cite the research that confirms their particular point of view and are adamant that “the science is settled” whilst ignoring considerable evidence suggesting that the climate changes we are experiencing are well within the range to be expected from historical records. Feminists claim that women are discriminated in employment because they are less represented in the fields of science and mathematics, ignoring the evidence that when given the unencumbered opportunity men and women tend to choose different vocations.
Augustus was right. Our egos contrive to have us latch onto inconsequential characteristics to make us feel special which then drives us to exaggerate division and separateness at the expense of our essential oneness. This focus on separateness is the greatest enemy of love, which offers the greatest opportunity of resolving the human dilemma.
Of course black lives matter but it is not a cause to be promoted at the expense of a broader humanity.