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The politics of well-being can turn into the politics of separatism

The dean of Claremont McKenna apologises and resigns for a racially insensitive email

This week, I read an interesting book that came out at the start of this year about the Black Lives Matter movement, called They Can’t Kill Us All, by Wesley Lowery. It tells the story of one of the defining protest movements of this decade, which shone a light (or, rather, a phone camera) on American police’s excessive use of force against black people. The BLM movement was a sort of citizen journalism network, sharing disturbing videos of police shootings, and on-the-ground reporting from protests.

The book taught me a lot, including the fact that a quarter of those fatally killed by police in the US are in the middle of an acute mental health crisis. A similar statistic exists in Canada. I came across several stories of families calling the police out of fear a mentally ill relative would harm themselves. The police arrive, and within minutes, the person is shot dead. We’re lucky to have less gung-ho cops in the UK, who are trained to tackle people in the grip of a psychotic episode.

Another thing which struck me was that what started as a street protest against police brutality turned into a wave of campus protests, which were to some extent a protest around feelings – feeling safe, feeling you belong in an institution or society.

The first Black Lives Matter campus protest took place an hour’s drive from Ferguson, in the University of Missouri, or Mizzou as it’s known. A group started by three Mizzou students – like the founders of BLM, they were all black queer women activists – protested the university’s lack of an official response to the police shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, and also its perceived apathy towards incidents of racist hate speech on the campus.

The students felt awakened by the protests on the streets of Ferguson – the language of BLM is repeatedly one of spiritual and civic awakening. How would they join the fight against systemic oppression and white supremacy in the United States?

At a homecoming parade, the group surrounded the car of university president Tim Wolfe, but he failed to talk to them. A month later, when he did come to speak to the group, he failed to accurately define ‘systematic oppression’. That was when they started demanding his resignation. One of the group went on hunger strike, the football team joined the protest, and Wolfe finally resigned. Here’s one of their protests.

It was, suggests Lowery, ‘one of recent history’s most significant victories for student activism’. It hasn’t been a great victory for Mizzou, where freshmen enrolments have fallen by 35% in the two years since the protests. Students have been put off, apparently, by the sense Mizzou is either a hotbed of black radicalism or a swamp of white supremacy.

Throughout 2015 and 2016, Black Lives Matter chapters opened at many other universities, particularly liberal arts universities. They followed a similar pattern – a protest against a perceived moment of racist speech or stereotyping on campus and the insensitivity of response on the part of university authorities, which morphs into a more sustained protest against the racist history of the university (statues, founders, mascots) and the systemic racism of the United States.

The various chapters published their demands – you can read them online here. Sometimes, chapters would demand apologies or resignations from university presidents or deans for their insensitive response to racial incidents – in at least four universities, they did apologise and / or resign.   

Protestors would also often demand mandatory diversity training for all students and staff, as at Iowa State University:

While Iowa State currently enforces both an international and US diversity requirement for degree completion, we find that this is not sufficient to address racism on this campus. These approved courses often neglect intersectionality and are not uniformly assessed, meaning some people could pass a course by correctly guessing on multiple choice exams rather than engaging in meaningful dialogue. This course will educate students on the history of racism, sexism, and homophobia in the United States and on the structures of privilege that continue to perpetuate such systems today. Once this literacy is established, students will be asked how they can challenge oppressive systems in order to make the campus and the country more inclusive for marginalized groups.

Chapters also often demanded more funding for black faculty members, higher enrolment of black students, the overhaul of curricula to highlight the contribution of people of colour, and the creation of new centres or departments for African-American studies. This is from #liberateMSU, the chapter from Michigan State University:

We demand the establishment of a Department of African American and African Studies with an annual supplies, services, and equipment budget of at least $200,000, twenty graduate assistant lines for the doctoral program, and, at minimum, ten tenure-stream faculty members by Fall 2017. We demand the construction of a free-standing Multicultural Center with its own budget from the University to support social and academic programming by Spring 2017. We demand an increase in tenure-stream faculty whose research specializes in Black Politics, Black Linguistics, Black Sociology, Black Psychology, African politics, Black Queer Studies, Hip-Hop Studies, African American Literature, African Literature, and Decolonial Theory. All these faculty hires must be approved by a panel of Black student leaders and will be tenured in the Department of African American and African Studies.

Chapters frequently demanded more funding for counselling services for the trauma of black people. This from Emory University:

We need institutional, primarily, financial support, for black students in the face of trauma and other racial events on campus, nationally and in the world at large.

And, in connection with this, chapters often demanded the creation of black-only safe spaces, as at Michigan: ‘We ask for a safe space for black students on campus that is away from the daily stresses of navigating white spaces. This space will be a place of emotional and social support and a place to decompress from the daily stress of being a Black student at a Predominantly White Institution.’ Some colleges, including Harvard, have also introduced black-only graduation ceremonies.

Right-wing journalists and commentators have had a field day with all this, both in the US and beyond, calling the protesting students ‘coddled’, ‘snowflakes’, ‘hysterical’, ‘anti-white’ and so on. 

One liberal-turned-conservative commentator, Shelby Steele, who is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford, thinks it’s an example of America’s inability to get over its ‘original sin’ of slavery and racial oppression. African-Americans have been encouraged for the last 50 years, he says, to embrace an identity of victimhood as a means to money, power and prominence, and white liberals, who feel guilty over America’s past, support that identity. White liberal America and black America are, in his estimate, two cultures locked in a Manichean ‘cold war’ in a single country’ , both stuck in ‘a moral manipulation that exaggerates inequality and unfairness in American life in order to justify overreaching public policies and programs’; its ‘enforcement arm’ is political correctness.  

The idea that African-Americans are systematically oppressed in contemporary America is, he says, a lie, which destroys African-Americans and American politics, but one cannot deny this lie without being labelled a racist or, in his case, an Uncle Tom.

He says:

The word that comes to mind is pathos. To be that profoundly out of tune with the freedoms and opportunities that almost smother you, and to continue to think of yourself as a victim, is suicidal. It’s a tragedy. If you want to scare the living hell out of the Black Lives Matter movement, look them in the eye and say ‘what would you do if you weren’t a victim? What are your career plans? What are you going to do to develop yourself?’ The black-as-victim mentality allows them to avoid that. So we get generations of mediocrity and failure.

I am too far removed from American culture to know if this rather startling critique is true (this review of his book in the New York Times makes some valid points in response). I am ignorant of the large scholarly debate over whether 60 years of affirmative action have worked. It seems strange to me – an ignorant foreigner – when a young protestor says to the dean of Princeton: ‘This university owes me everything. My people built this all.’ But she’s not alone in believing that – around 60% of African-Americans believe descendants of slaves are entitled to reparations (see the graphs below), which some economists estimate should amount to around $3 trillion. 

There are objective facts beyond feelings – African-Americans account for 12% of the American population but only 6% of the college population, and they are more likely to drop out. They are particularly under-represented in STEM subjects. There are white racists on university campuses. Many universities and their founders do have racist histories, and why not change a name or take down a statue? And university administrations can be clumsy and insensitive in their response to racist incidents.

In terms of feelings, do African-American students have worse mental health than other groups, particularly at Predominantly White Institutions? An organisation called Healthy Minds Network does an annual survey of 34,000 American students’ wellbeing, on 23 campuses. It found that African-Americans are twice as likely as Whites to feel they were treated unfairly because of their race. However, their sense of belonging on campus was roughly the same as other ethnic groups; the percentage of African Americans reporting depression, anxiety or suicidal ideation was roughly the same as other ethnic groups; and they were roughly as likely to seek counselling (Asians are the least likely ethnic group to seek counselling, because of a sense of stigma). 


Another survey by Gallup found that black graduates who went to Historically Black Universities and Colleges (HBCU) – which are usually predominantly African-American – had higher personal, social and financial wellbeing than black graduates who went to Predominantly White Institutions. The survey found that more than one in three black HBCU graduates (35%) strongly agree that they had a professor who cared about them as a person, a professor who made them excited about learning and a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams; only 12% of black non-HBCU graduates strongly agree they had all three experiences. This connects to another recent finding – that black students who had at least one black teacher at school were significantly more likely to finish school and consider college. So ethnicity does matter when it comes to finding teachers you relate to and who you feel encouraged by. 

Being a minority and feeling like an outsider can be emotionally hard. It can lead to weariness and withdrawal. I imagine it’s somewhat alienating to be a right-wing college student – while people who identify as liberals account for one fifth of Americans, they account for half of American academics. One third of first-year students identify as ‘liberal’ or ‘far left’ – the highest figure since 1973. Republicans on campus report being physically attacked.

Our social networks don’t help – the internet was meant to bring people together, but it’s fragmented into Black Twitter and White Twitter, liberal blogs and right-wing blogs, which affirm rather than challenge our biases. We don’t talk to each other – the 2013 American Values Survey found that white people’s social circles are 93% white, while black Americans have social circles that are 65% black. Perhaps because of these bubbles, American views of BLM are sharply divided – only 35% of white Americans see the movement positively, compared to 83% of black Americans (only 22% of Americans approved of the diner sit-ins in 1961, by the by).

One gets a growing sense of pessimism and exhaustion from American culture, perhaps from western culture as a whole. A sense that conversation with ‘the Other’ is impossible, that withdrawal, separatism or angry denunciation is the best tactic. A sense that we should withdraw and surround ourselves with ‘our own’. A recent viral blog, now a book, by black British feminist Reni Eddo-Lodge, is called Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. One hears dark rumblings across the Atlantic about the need for white or black nationalism and the likelihood of another US civil war (it’s about 35% likely, according to a recent poll of security experts at Foreign Policy). 

Engaging with the Other – African-American, White, liberal, Republican, cis, LGBTQ, Christian, Muslim, male, female, rich and poor – is hard, awkward, discomforting, depressing, exhausting. But it’s necessary. It’s sometimes enriching. Occasionally, it leads to friendship and love. Above all, it’s essential to one’s education, one’s moral growth, and to the continued survival of liberalism.

We need to help students feel centred and secure in their identities, but we also need to raise people who are able to speak outside of their bubbles, to meet in that uncomfortable space and be able to bear it with patience, articulacy, courage and grace, as James Baldwin did while debating William Buckley at the Cambridge Union. And we need to be prepared to go into that space ourselves, to discover our own parochialism. ‘Are you uncomfortable?’ asks the young protestor at Mizzou in the video clip above. ‘Then I did my job.’ The same is true of university professors.

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What’s the evidence for reincarnation?

Things used to be so much simpler

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I’ve believed in reincarnation longer than I can remember. It must have started in a previous life. I’ve never really examined my core belief. It’s just been there, part of the furniture. But a new book has stung me into examining that comfy old sofa. Do I really need it? Is it time to chuck it out?

The book is Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright, an American popularizer of evolutionary psychology and author of best-sellers including Non-Zero and The Moral Animal. Wright has spent much of his literary career trying to construct a scientifically-valid moral philosophy to replace the Baptist faith he lost as a teenager. Now, in Buddhism, he has finally found it.

The book should really be called ‘Why my version of Buddhism is true’. Wright’s Buddhism is secular and naturalistic. He assures us early on that he’s not championing ‘the most exotically metaphysical parts of Buddhism – re-incarnation for example’. He tells us Buddhism has some shockingly radical ideas – there is no self, emotions are usually delusions – but re-assures us that these ideas are supported by modern science, and would ‘fit easily into a college psychology or philosophy course’ (indeed, he ran such a course at Princeton and you can do it at Coursera in September).

Wright’s secular, naturalized Buddhism is all the rage among western intellectuals. There is Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, who (like Wright) is a follower of Vipassana meditation minus reincarnation. There is Owen Flanagan, a leading virtue ethics philosopher, who proposes a Buddhism shorn of ‘the mind-numbing and wishful hocus pocus that infects much Mahayana Buddhism’. There is Sam Harris, New Atheist provocateur, who thinks Buddhism is ‘unique among the world’s religions as a repository of contemplative wisdom’, but still says ‘there are ideas within Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the virgin birth plausible by comparison’.

And there is Stephen Batchelor, who spent many years practicing Buddhism in Korea and India, and is now trying to develop a secular Buddhism. In After Buddhism, he writes: ‘I find it disturbing when Western converts to Buddhism with a background and upbringing similar to my own [ie rational humanist] uncritically adopt beliefs – in karma and rebirth for example – that traditional Buddhists simply take for granted.’ Unlike Flanagan or Harris, Batchelor doesn’t argue his secular Buddhism is superior to animist Buddhism: ‘My approach simply reflects an embedded cultural worldview that I could no more discard than I could wilfully cease to comprehend the English language’. Secular rationalism is simply the core belief he grew up with.

I want to address three questions. First, does a naturalistic Buddhism make sense? Second, is reincarnation utterly incredible? Third, does it really matter what we believe about the afterlife?

Firstly, does a naturalistic Buddhism make sense? I don’t think an entirely materialist-mechanistic Buddhism makes sense, unless it finds a place for free will and moral choice. As Richard Gombrich argues in his excellent What The Buddha Thought, the Buddha’s teachings on karma – as ye reap, so shall ye sow – makes no sense if we don’t have free moral choice.

Can one remove reincarnation without the building of Buddhism collapsing? Yes, but it challenges the Third Noble Truth – that it’s possible to attain a permanent end to suffering in Nirvana. That was the whole aim of the Buddha’s teaching, if I understand it correctly. Very few people actually do seem to attain Nirvana (in the sense of a permanent liberation from the self and from suffering). I’ve met a lot of Buddhists, but never an Enlightened person. Have you?

Either the Buddha was selling us a dud; or the journey to Liberation takes place over many lives; or the dharma only brings us occasional release from suffering, rather than permanent Liberation. Wright writes: ‘The object of the game isn’t to reach Liberation and Enlightenment on some distant day, but rather to become a bit more liberated and a bit more enlightened on some not-so-distant day. Like today!’

OK, but this is a different game. This is not the game the Buddha was playing when he sat under the bodhi tree and refused to move until he was Liberated. This is not the Great Crossing – there is no other side we can realistically hope to reach. And a bit of me wonders, if there is no Liberation, whether it’s worth it to forego the attachments of this life and sit on that cushion for many, many hours. If there is just this one life…maybe just go for it, play the game of this life, this world, attachments and passions and all. Sure, it will hurt, but it will be over soon.

Removing reincarnation also removes the Buddhist explanation for suffering and misfortune – that they’re karmic retribution for past misdeeds. It means that bad things happen to good people because life is random. The universe is not moral, bad people live wonderful lives without punishment, good people live awful lives without reward. Deal with it. This secular Buddhism seems close to the pessimism of late Stoicism – life is tough, the universe is amoral, but wisdom helps us bear it before we die.

Second, is reincarnation a ridiculous belief? Well, it’s certainly weird. How the hell would it work? You’d need some cosmic filing system, to match your soul with its virtues and vices to the proper re-birth. Most species don’t have the capacity for moral choice, so what decides their rebirth? Why is the human population growing?

Materialism, by contrast, is very clean – when you’re dead, you’re dead. No need for an elaborate soul-clearing system. That’s why most academics are publicly materialists, although 25% of people in both the US and UK believe in reincarnation, including a quarter of Christians and many Jews (particularly Kabbalists). Materialism has its own weird stuff to explain, of course – like how matter becomes conscious. But reincarnation is still a very weird theory.

I think I’ve tended to accept it, perhaps, because my two greatest spiritual heroes – Plato and the Buddha – both argued for it. If they were so wise about ethics and psychology, maybe they were right about the metaphysics too. Maybe when you reach their level of spiritual awakening, re-incarnation doesn’t seem so fruity. Some contemporary meditation masters say they remember past lives, such as Sharon Salzberg and Russel Williams. But the Buddha himself said we shouldn’t take things on trust just because of ‘the seeming competence of the speaker’.

What about scientific evidence? There was a Canadian psychiatrist called Ian Stevenson, who headed up the University of Virginia’s psychiatry department, and spent most of his life investigating cases where children claimed to remember past lives. He was given $1 million by the inventor of the Xerox machine to carry on this work. Stevenson spent decades travelling the world and investigating cases, and claimed to have discovered around 3000 reliable instances where children knew things about previous existences that were corroborated by ‘former relatives’.

According to Stevenson’s findings, people tend to be reincarnated around two years after they die, usually in a place near where they previously lived. They may retain desires and fears from their previous existence (if they drowned, they might retain a fear of water). They tend to forget their previous life by the age of six or so. Stevenson also suggested birth marks relate to death-wounds from the previous existence.

All rather strange, although some leading Skeptics are quite open to his research. Jesse Bering, author of The Belief Instinct, researched Stevenson’s work and decided: ‘I’m not quite ready to say that I’ve changed my mind about the afterlife. But I can say that a fair assessment and a careful reading of Stevenson’s work has, rather miraculously, managed to pry it open.’ Sam Harris also says he found Stevenon’s books ‘interesting, and I cannot categorically dismiss their contents in the way that I can dismiss the claim of religious dogmatists’.  Others, however, suggest Stevenson could be very prone to confirmation bias – he was looking for evidence to support his pre-existing core belief, after all. And why did none of the children recall previous existences as animals?

Finally, does any of this matter? Does it matter what we believe about the afterlife?

Certainly, humans have traditionally believed that our beliefs about the afterlife matter. The ancient Greeks venerated the Eleusinian Mysteries above all other rituals precisely because they thought initiates ‘died with a better hope’ for the afterlife. The Mysteries reduced their death-anxiety by improving their hope for the afterlife – just as psychedelics do, according to recent trials.

Christianity is also founded on the central idea that Jesus’ sacrifice enables the resurrection of the faithful in heaven. If that belief is not true, ‘if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable’, says St Paul. The belief in posthumous judgement animated medieval culture, inspiring its great cathedrals, its vast economy of penance and indulgence, its constant reminders of death.

Since the decline of Christianity, western culture has embraced a more Epicurean view – death is the end, there is no God and no eternal judgement, so get the most pleasure from this life while you can. But in fact our faith in the finality of death can make us somewhat neurotic about success and status – we’re anxious to leave something behind us once we’re gone (a family, a book, a selfie). I’ve wondered how western culture might change if our beliefs about death change, as presumably they will.

I think my beliefs about the afterlife inform how I live and feel. The near-death experience I had when I was 24 helped to heal me from PTSD because it gave me the strong belief there is something in me beyond the ego, which can’t be harmed and doesn’t die.This helped me overcome my ego-anxiety. 

Groundhog Day – would you behave differently if you knew you had multiple lives?

Since then, my faith in the afterlife has somewhat faded but never gone. It occasionally makes me more detached about my ego. I reflect that I have been many different people, of many shapes, sizes, sexes, colours and talents, so why get anxious about this latest incarnation? In mystic moments, I imagine life as a computer game where we get infinite rebirths – would we live differently if we really believed this? Would we get less wound up, and stop to appreciate the beauty of the game?

No, probably not! We’d get just as absorbed in the game, just as caught-up in the movie, just as attached and emotional. The fact is, our beliefs about death don’t affect us much, because life is so damn absorbing. We barely think about death until we or one of our loved ones die. When you compare religious and non-religious cultures, there’s just as much wrong-doing, and cruelty, and avarice, and vanity in both. Any belief can be held wrongly – a belief in reincarnation could make one lazy, or unkind, or proud of one’s position in the social hierarchy.

I think Stephen Batchelor is right – the truly radical thing in Buddha’s teachings is that he said our beliefs about the afterlife are of secondary importance. Don’t get hung up on it. We can’t know for sure. Practice the dharma now, see what happens, see if it makes life better. He is supposed to have said:

Nowhere does a lucid one

hold contrived views about it is or it is not,

How could he succumb to them,

having let go of illusions and conceit?

The priest without borders

doesn’t seize on what he’s known or beheld,

Not passionate, not dispassionate,

he doesn’t posit anything as ultimate.