The Colonialist Lie of Personal Responsibilty
Get over it. Move on with your life. Stop wallowing in victimhood. These kind of blunt, snappy phrases sometimes get tossed around in Buddhist circles as dharma. Teachers desiring to jolt their students employ them, often with reminders about impermanence and the lack of a solid, fixed self. Others, regardless of status, hitch them to appeals to “be present in the now” and “let go of the past.” As far as phrases go, all of them might be skillful means in a particular situation. In general usage, however, these kind of pithy sayings ignore the complex causes and conditions of our lives, and can easily reinforce the very status quo stratifications that led to the suffering in question in the first place.
In a recent article published in The Province, columnist Naomi Lakritz wrote that aboriginal people need to drop “the victimization mantle” and take “individual responsibility.”
The essential idea, as Lakritz elaborated to me in an email exchange, was that aboriginal people should “move on” and stop “wallowing in the past.”
How can people “move on” from history, if history has not moved on from them? Aboriginal people point to their history so that we may learn our own. Our histories are intertwined, and have been so since the first European colonists arrived in this land.
The author goes on to catalogue abuses from Canadian history and also from recent policy decisions by the Harper Administration towards First Nations people, including the numerous “natural resource projects” that are, or will occur, on or near indigenous lands. Note that the author himself is a settler, part of the Millennial Generation contingent attempting to navigate the difficult waters of our colonial past and its devastating impact on the present.
In another response to the Lakritz column, Christina Coolidge, a member of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation, reclaims and reframes the notion of personal responsibility:
I am not going to dwell on the opinion of this woman, an opinion that is all too common in Canadian society however, I do want to discuss in brief the effects of the residential school system and the difficulty in living in a society that demonizes Aboriginal people for their pain, rather than embrace the truth of genocide in Canada’s not too distant past.
Yes, each of us is responsible for our actions; however, each of us is shaped by our experiences. We can find miracles among us, each and every day, as many of us crawl out from under the weight of addiction. We take back our lives, our dignity and our faith in Creator. We seek education, we participate in ceremony and we raise happy children in a healthy environment. There are those of us who have done this despite what was done to us; despite the violence, the sexual abuse, the neglect, the alcoholism; despite childhood’s filled with trauma that left us wounded right into the deepest part of our spirits. There are those of us who have asked for help, received counseling, have taken parenting classes, have learned how to shop for groceries, pay bills, get a driver’s license. There are those of us who are miracles to have first of all, survived but even more amazingly, to now thrive. And this is occurring more and more. I see evidence of this among all of my fellow Indigenous students at SFU, from every nation and background. I see resurgence of healing and of accomplishment in this colonized society in which we live.
One of the reasons I was drawn to Buddhism in the first place was because of the blended focus on individual experience and social context. That what we call “responsibility” is always embedded in Indra’s Net, our actions and non-actions infinitely reflected in the lives of others. I tend to think that part of the reason that many white Buddhists struggle with, or reject outright, notions of karma across lifetimes and/or the teachings of rebirth is that to embrace them means taking radical responsibility for the myriad of crimes from our past. You can’t minimize, deny, or blame others for the suffering wrought by colonialism, for example, if you truly accept the Buddhist karmic teachings and practice with them in mind.
The cult of the present that pop spirituality teacher Eckhart Tolle’s work springs from represents one method of skirting these issues, and hyper-focusing on what amounts to right wing notions of responsibility. Another approach comes in the form of secularizing the dharma, appealing to rational thought and “pragmatism,” like prominent Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor does. Note that Batchelor’s writings and commentaries privilege the modern and Eurocentric mind above all else, all the while claiming to be focused on locating “the core truths” of the “original teachings.”
It is privileged members of these groups that are probably most prone to uttering pithy statements like “just let it go,” or “stop being the victim,” but the issue is certainly not limited to them. The problem isn’t with the statements alone, but in the reduction of Buddhist teachings to being solely about individuals and their individual actions. A stance that minimizes or denies the collective, systemic patterns built from our muddy, colonial past and which are embodied (in different ways) by us all.
Buddhist personal responsibility cannot be shaped by my, or your actions, alone. Even the very act of “taking responsibility” for something is done in a collective context.
We are always reflecting each other. Even in our differences. There’s no way to avoid the mirror. Our colonial past/present is right here with us, in us, whether we see it or not. As is everything that came before it.
Indigenous and settler relationships are being shaken up all over the world. Whether or not we heal the past, and come together in the future depends upon how all of us handle the now.
Settler colonialists, regardless of race or background, are being challenged to face it all head on. To embrace the ancient, twisted karma that built our societies, give up notions of knowing exactly what needs to be done, and move forward in a radically different direction.
It’s a tall order. I hope we can pull it off.