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Buddhistdoor View: Charlottesville—Identity and Personhood Gone Mad

White supremacists march at the University of Virginia. Photo by Edu Bayer. From

It is a credit to the enduring charisma of America that so many people outside of the US have been riveted and worried by the events in Charlottesville, where Neo-Nazi, white nationalist, Ku Klux Klan, and alt-right sympathizers gathered to protest the removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee, on 21 August. In the ensuing violence, counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed when white nationalist James Alex Fields Jr. drove a car into a crowd of anti-racist objectors. Fields has been charged with second-degree murder. As one Buddhist counter-protestor recounted: “Most protests I’ve been to have been against a system, or an organization, or going to war. But with this one, there were people on the other side. We weren’t protesting these people, exactly, but we were standing up against their hatred, the bigotry and racism. That’s a completely different experience.” (The New Yorker)

The moral equivocation by Donald Trump and the frenetic discussion in American media and politics about the existential ramifications of Charlottesville have been widely reported. Overall, we are in agreement with the various North American Buddhist publications, particularly Tricycle and Lion’s Roar, that have argued that one side—the side of the alt-right—bears the blame for the events, and that there is no “equalizing” the faults of the two sides. Religious groups should not just discuss the historical wounds dividing America (the Civil War, racial segregation, and so on), but also explore how they and their teachings could inform a way forward.

More specifically, how can Buddhist teachers and public figures contribute to the neutralization of far right ideology? At a practical level, this contribution will be one of non-violent engagement, but what should that engagement consist of? In this commentary, we would like to propose that it should involve a chipping away of the conceptual foundations that allow for such a deluded ideology to be constructed: namely, an extreme attachment to identity so intense that it manifests in harmful words and actions against others outside of this assumed identity.  

Counterprotesters in Charlottesville. Photo by Edu Bayer. From

The greatest hypocrisy of the white nationalist/Neo-Nazi/alt-right movements is their widespread claim to be beyond identity politics, an accusation that they frequently throw at left-wing causes, such as Black Lives Matter. Yet the tropes used by the alt-right reveal that identity is an absolutely core obsession. There are plenty of examples: the trotting out of tired anti-Semitic conspiracy theories like Jewish plots to eradicate “white culture” or to control the world. A profound insecurity of homosexuality and being seen as unmanly. A psychosexual fixation with non-white people making “cucks”* out of “race traitors” through miscegenation or inter-ethnic marriages. These widely used terms betray a preoccupation with the supposed purity of the “white” identity.

Their own arguments against the removal of the statues of Confederate generals** even invoke a specifically “Southern” identity. However, one could suggest that there are better heroes to represent the heritage of the South than the military men who took up arms to defend an economy and a secessionist faction dependent on the systemic and brutal dehumanization of African Americans. Even economic nationalism, while perhaps an understandable backlash against the neoliberalism of the past several decades, is tied up in assumptions about who “deserves” political privileges and in feelings of being “cheated” out of those privileges by immigrants or big business.

The only way to defeat the deluded ideology of the alt-right, the Neo-Nazis, and KKK sympathizers, is through total non-violence (except perhaps a proportionate level of self-defense) and by engaging in educational dialogue with individuals seduced by toxic beliefs and worldviews. Admittedly, it is immensely difficult to bring a divided society together, where there are painful fractures among communities and families and real feelings of hatred and disdain. It is also not easy to discuss serious topics that many see as ivory tower matters: identity, personhood, and the ephemerality of the self.

Protest in New York following Trump’s reaction to the events in Charlottesville. From

There are also further discussions to be had about the stunning lack of empathy on the part of the far right, which indulges in hysteria about “white genocide” or the enslavement of Caucasians. One Neo-Nazi marcher told Fox News that “The ******* Jew-lovers are gassing us,” and that he had survived a genocide when he was six years old. Such hyperbole and other violent rhetoric suggests that some have no understanding of what genocide actually entails, or of the terrible suffering African Americans have endured under slavery and segregation, or of what it means to be truly persecuted and abused as a group. Kind but firm (and persistent) attempts to encourage empathy should be another consideration in the dialogue.   

Americans who do not see themselves as affiliated with or sympathetic to the ideologies that have reared their ugly heads in Charlottesville have no choice but to talk with those who indulge in intolerance. We are all prone to identity wars and constructions of the self, from excessive nationalism to religious fanaticism, or even over-the-top loyalty to a sports team. The challenge here is that certain ideologies champion an attachment to identity. How can Buddhist leaders attempt to moderate the ideologies of movements that make a virtue out of attachment to the self? This remains a difficult and open question.

Adherents of Neo-Nazi/alt-right thought need to be persuaded to question the incoherence of the ideologies they follow. This will only happen through the courage, empathy, and eloquence of those who present the counter-arguments. Moral examples need to be set. It will be hard and perhaps come at a severe cost, as the family of Heather Heyer learned so painfully. But there has never been a better time to help suffering beings deconstruct the movements of hate they are promoting.       

* A submissive man sexually cuckolded by a woman.

** Most of which were not erected in the wake of the American Civil War, but during the era of segregation as a move to terrorize and hurt activists and allies of the emancipation movement.

See more

A Witness to Terrorism in Charlottesville (The New Yorker)
Everything We Do Matters, But Two Things Are Critical (Lion’s Roar)
Truth and Reconciliation Begins With Us (Tricycle)

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