Archive for May 27th, 2008

Instant Karma?

The actress Sharon Stone said recently, in a rhetorical question, that the Chinese earthquakes could be “karma” for China’s crackdown on Tibetan demonstrators. People should be nice to each other, she noted, and the Chinese were not being nice to the Tibetans. Now, normally I’d just file this under “silly things celebrities say” and not note it. It’s like blaming gays for Katrina, America’s ‘moral decay’ for 9-11, or saying that God sent Adolf Hitler as a “hunter” to persecute the Jews and push towards creation an Israeli state. But this one is interesting on a couple of levels; first, karma is an interesting concept; and second, her statement illustrates a fundamental fallacy in our thinking about the world, our ability to abstract individuals into groups.

Consider: the Chinese government orders a crack down on Tibet from Chinese troops. Then an earthquake hits China, killing, making homeless and creating orphans out of hundreds of thousands of people who had nothing to do with the decisions on Tibet. Most of these people were ordinary Chinese trying to create a better life for themselves. Why would they pay in karmic terms for the deeds of the government and the Chinese soldiers? Add to that the awkward fact that the earthquake by all reports has created a benefit for the government. People stopped talking about Tibet, and suddenly sympathy for China is immense. China has loosened restrictions covering reporters, and in a very cynical way some Chinese officials could be pleased that this happened, it changed the conversation completely. In a weird way, this hurt the Tibetan protesters, whose story now is yesterday’s news.

This error of collectivism, treating individuals as part of some kind of whole mass, and then rationalizing what happens to them by blaming the larger whole is, indeed, a major cause of atrocities and war. Look at Americans who attack “Islam” or “Muslims.” An Indian man in a turban was attacked shortly after 9-11. “They” attacked us, everyone who is part of “them” is guilty. And, of course, any American who has traveled recently finds that Americans are often insulted for the acts of the US government. Rwandan Hutus justified exterminating Tutsis, the Nazis killed Jews, gays, and gypsies, and in Bosnia Serb and Muslim slavs killed each other, considering the other to be more animal than human. Stone’s comment is typical of an error made across the political spectrum, rationalizing violence against many because of the acts of a few because of ethnicity, religion, or the country of their citizenship. That error is so common and widespread in our thinking that we’ve ceased to recognize it, and it shows in our political debates.

So what about Karma? I’ve always found it a compelling concept, the notion that in some spiritual sense our actions in the world have consequences. Or, being a philosophical (as opposed to political) idealist, our thoughts and ideas all have consequences. Is that possible? If so, it certainly would not be some crude “do something bad or think something bad and you’ll experience something bad.” I doubt very much that fantasizing about using a James Bond like missile to blast a car that just cut you off will cause some tragedy to befall you! In most cases, consequences are probably instant and subjective; you let little things bother you, and you’ll be in a bad mood and maybe not accomplish as much or miss out on opportunities. Bad moods tend not to be pleasant. Anger and irritation hurt oneself more than others.

If there is such a thing as karma which transcends material reality and connects destinies in a kind of synchronous relationship, it’s probably built around mutual learning more than punishment and reward. As anyone with kids knows, sometimes punishment is necessary for learning, and rewards are often useful as a response for good behavior. But what if there are connections between us, what if we aren’t just discrete individuals but connected not within separate ethnic or religious groups, but as humanity? For Karma to be real, that would have to be the case (and indeed those religions who embrace a notion of karma have at base an underlying sense of unity, often even involving what we consider inanimate objects). If that were the case, then you’d have two kinds of karma, a kind of personal karma where conditions in your life exist to foster your own growth and learning (again, not in a crude punishment and reward manner), and a second, more universal kind of karma to which Stone so awkwardly alluded. In that, world dramas might be played out in ways to try to break whole societies and cultures out of counter productive beliefs and values. Suffering would not be punishment of an individual, but an individual’s contribution to some greater lesson.

If that were the case, then in a weird way, Stone’s comments could be salvaged. It wouldn’t be that China was being punished, but some people in China (or Burma) engaged in tremendous sacrifice to try to shock their societies and cultures to change. And, before you throw Candide at me and lump me in with Pangloss, note I’m just speculating, and if one were to go this route, that wouldn’t lead to a Panglossian “all things happen for the best” conclusion. Instead, the key would be how we respond when we see and experience things like that — do we reach out to help, do we question how we have a society where people can suffer so? Do we learn? Of course Karma, like concepts such as heaven, hell, the devil, a hidden Imam, a choosen people of God, etc., may be a bunch of bunk. I am skeptical of all these concepts. Yet their existence and persistence suggests to me that while they may not be literally true, concepts classified and organized into religions in the past might contain kernels of truth we can speculate about, using reason while understanding the limits of reason. So consider this post playful speculation. And now I’m going to go listen to an old John Lennon song.

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