Cross-posted from Max’s blog:
I’ve been thinking a lot in the last few weeks about privilege as a karmic phenomenon, and enlightenment as a pursuit of social justice.
Let me try to define ‘privilege’ in its social justice sense, for those who aren’t used to the term. Your privileges are advantages you have that most of the time you don’t even see because they’re too ingrained. If you’ve ever thought “so when I make the account registration page I can just ask people to tell me if they’re male or female”, that’s privilege—for lots of people the answer to the question ‘what’s your gender’ is so complicated and contextual it borders on offensive. (This can be true for whole cultures, so this statement also is pretty heavily culturally privileged.) Saying “well I worked hard in school so I got good grades on the SAT” displays other kinds of privilege—class privilege (kids from higher classes display lots of advantages on standardized testing) or ableist privilege (some folks’ mental conditions make standardized testing much more difficult for them). ”I love shopping in classy clothing stores—you get so much respect from the salespeople”—class privilege (I mean, obviously, right? The word class is right there in the sentence), racial privilege, cis privilege, etc. (Even the examples I’ve chosen here give you a sense of my privilege ecosystem: technocratic, classist, male, etc.)
So when Andy makes a statement that fellow-traveller Babs thinks is conditional—dependent, that is, on Andy’s position within the world—Babs can say “Andy, you need to check your privilege,” and (ideally) Andy can look back, realize how the the truth of his statement actually depends on who he is (his position, orientation & velocity in the world) in a way he didn’t realize, and think, “oh, right, my understanding is limited and I am now more aware of this and will remember it in the future!”
I think this is a great concept. Taken in the right spirit, it can help people be aware of their advantages, and live more lightly and compassionately in the world. But I’ve struggled to roll it into my daily psychology in healthy ways. I don’t know if other people have this issue, but it’s easy for me to fail over from “I’m aware of my own respective advantages” to “I am fundamentally broken and I should regard all my thoughts, words, and actions with such suspicion that I am reduced to a mute paralytic ball.” Which smacks, to me, of interpretations of doctrines of original sin that have prompted more psychological pain than good works in the minds of my friends who were raised in them. So, how to walk the line?
Now, let me try to define karma as used in the Buddhism I grew up with / around, for those who aren’t used to that term. There’s this World Religion 101 sense that karma is Fate kicking you in the metaphorical ‘nads for something you did in a past life—which isn’t the way that term’s used in the Buddhism I know. That 101 version of karma says if your life sucks now, it’s your fault and you should just stop sucking so bad in the future. The version I learned says: karma is social and physical cause and effect through history. We’re all the products of decisions made before our time—by our parents, and their parents, and the guy who cut us off in traffic and made us pissed so that when we got to work we were rude to the manager who then was a dick to the fry cook who then burned all her orders so everyone got horrible tips all afternoon and Brenda ended the month five dollars short on her electric bill. And so it goes. Our every action vibrates off in all directions, affecting people we hate and love and have never met. Best/worst part? We are, ourselves, in our identities and in our actions, the product of karma—our every deed and choice is, at root, a response to stuff that’s happened to us before.
The Buddhism I know (and I’m pulling threads of this from Vajrayana and Mahayana and Theravada and Chan, so the notion’s pretty widespread) says: faced with such a crazy situation, our response is—must be—to wake up. To seek freedom. To become aware of all the ways in which we are constantly being produced by and bearing karma, the ways we inflict suffering and make choices not because we want to, but because (our background / our current condition / our psychological problems / our own blindness to the true nature of society) made us into a person who makes those choices. Karma is a state of being unfree—you think you have free will, but actually you’re stuck doing the things karma tells you to do. When you’re awake to the ways in which your actions are predetermined, you can act as a dampener for these karmic vibrations—when you become aware that suffering is being enacted through you, you can stop it. You can save people “downstream,” calm the network, and improve conditions for everyone.
See how these concepts connect? Then you’re smarter than me, because it took me a long time to get this far.
I thought for years that the Buddhism I knew was weak on social justice, because all that stuff about karma and suffering looked very psychological to me. If you wake up in the way I’ve described, you feel better about your life and you’re nicer to people around you, and what does that change? Well. It changes a lot when you think about privilege as a karmic phenomenon.
Privilege isn’t pre-existing. It emerges from history—infinite vibrations passing through these webs of karmic connection from the beginning of time to now, billions of choices conditioned by animal fear or by other choices made earlier. We don’t realize that the life we live, the way we think, is oppressive, in part because the oppressions from which we benefit (and which are inflicted upon us) are the result of other people’s actions which themselves were karmically determined. We don’t realize that we are the hungry ghosts, wandering around devouring one another’s entrails. Waking up to that reality, we can stop inflicting unthinking damage on those around us, on our societies, and on ourselves. And we can come to common cause in the struggle to wake up the universe as a whole: to damp the reactive flows of karma, the unconscious infliction of pain, and live a life of freedom and joy.
I think this means that Buddhist mindfulness techniques can be a huge help in recognizing, and defeating, our own privilege, and in preventing ourselves from inflicting harm on others. The same metacognition that lets a meditator recognize “this is an emotion” and let the emotion go, or that “I am thinking now” and stop, can be used to wake up to our own privilege and our defensiveness of that privilege, and to stop inflicting reflexive harm. By being aware of our, and everyone‘s, karmically determined nature, not only in reflection but in real-time (in the middle of a conversation, say), we can meet others as fellow sentient beings rather than as puppets of our ancestors’ fears.
And as we reach for that goal, we can also start to work toward the bodhisattva vow: toward the liberation of all sentient beings. Which is a big thought, and this is already a long blog post, so maybe I’ll just leave the essay here for now.
(Crossposted at Myth, the Universe, and Everything)
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post at my home blog, I went to hear fellow Substrater Max Gladstone read at Enigma Bookstore in November. I was playing around with my camera’s video capture, and I successfully recorded Max’s section of the reading. It’s about twelve minutes, and if you’ve not had the chance to hear Max read in person (or if you’ve not heard an excerpt from Two Serpents Rise,) check it out!
Though I should mention that my first novel, Into the Reach is now republished in a new e-book edition, most of this post is dedicated to how Max Gladstone is all over the Internet right now. Why is this? His new book in the Craft series, Two Serpents Rise, is out on October 29!
Here’s what we’ve missed since August.
- On September 25, XO Orpheus, featuring stories by Max and Madeline Miller, released. The collection got some great reviews on the whole (including a star in Booklist), but if you’re just interested in the Substrate contributions, Madeline’s story was also made an e-book single, and Max’s story is also available on Tor.com.
- Speaking of Tor.com, Max participated in a writing prompt there on October 9; you can read his response to “The Paper Airplane” here.
- And not least, there’s an excerpt from Two Serpents Rise, so you can whet your appetite for the new book before it’s out!
Max is getting ready for an in-person tour and a blog tour coming up; we’ll try to post more details here at Substrate, but the real news source is over at Max’s home page.
Happy e-book birthday to Madeline Miller! Her short story, “Galatea,” which will be in xo Orpheus this fall, comes out today as an e-book single. You can get it at B&N, Amazon, or Kobo for $2.99, or at Diesel for $2.68 (through their rewards program).
Check it out!
It’s been a couple of weeks, so I thought I should post the update on some of the Substraters in motion:
- Max Gladstone is just finishing up his West Coast tour. Did you see him? Have any photos from his book tour? Tell us in the comments! Updated: he’s also doing a reddit contest, and has notes from the tour, plus kind words from Elizabeth Bear.
- Madeline Miller was just featured in the Publishers Weekly article, “Women’s Prize Winner to Publish E-book Original Short Story.” Her piece from the upcomign anthology, xo Orpheus, will also be published as an e-book single, “Galatea,” this coming August. Keep an eye out!
- In tangentially related news, the New York Times has just caught up to Max’s ideas about how law and magic are related in “The Rules of Magic” by OpEd contributor Emily Croy Barker. Emily, you should pick up a paperback copy of Three Parts Dead!
- Nathaniel Rowe was quoted as an expert on ThomasNet News’s Industry Market Trends article “How Can Businesses Better Manage Data?” by Faye Rivkin.
- Alana Abbott is in the home stretch for her upcoming Choice of Games game, “Kidnapping at Willow Creek.” Expect more news on that front soon.
If you’ve seen any Substraters — or our work — in the wild, let us know!
Friend of Substrate Lindsay Archer, who has done the cover art for the Redemption Trilogy (by me), will also be at SDCC at the Signal Fire Studios booth #4300. Stop by and say hello!
In other exciting news, Vlad Barash, who in his non-fiction-writing life is a computer scientist, won with his co-authors Honorable Mention: Best Paper at the International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ice-wissum). Congratulations, Vlad! The paper topic? How emoticons cross cultures. The theme of ideas crossing cultures through technology also runs through LukOL, which you may have noticed from his snippets here at the blog. You can read the full paper here.
- San Diego Comic Con, July 19-21
- Powell’s Books, Portland OR, July 25, 7:30 PM
- University Bookstore, Seattle WA, July 26, 7 PM
- Borderlands Books, San Francisco CA, July 27, 3 PM
- Hyde Park Books, Boise City ID, July 28, 3 PM
For the full details, check out Max’s blog.
I’m incredibly excited for the October release of Max Gladstone’s next novel, Two Serpents Rise, and according to Publishers Weekly, I’m not the only one. The book, set in the same world as Three Parts Dead, just received a starred review in the latest issue of PW — the review may be behind a paywall, so I’ll recap a couple higlights:
“Gladstone outdoes himself in this exciting and imaginative return to the brilliantly realized world” of 3PD; 2SR is a “taut and unique blend of legal drama, fantasy, and noir.”
A few crit meetings ago, Madeline brought in a story that had already been accepted to an anthology that she wanted to touch up and make as tight as possible. The pre-orders for that anthology, xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths, have just gone live at Amazon and at Barnes and Noble. Not only will Madeline’s excellent story — based on the myth of Pygmalion — be featured, but Max Gladstone also has a story included. There are several other familiar names on the cover — many of them award-winners and veterans in the SFF field — so Madeline and Max are keeping great company.
You can pre-order at the links above, visit your local library and request that they pre-order it for the shelves, or stop by your local independent bookstore to see if they’ll get it in for you. The pubdate is listed as September 24, but you don’t want to forget about it between now and then, right? Go reserve a copy today!
Substrate met a couple of weeks ago now, and we had a great meeting in which it was learned that my flash fiction is better if it becomes a full short story, and Vlad’s LukOL is getting progressively more awesome, with many comments on earlier drafts really helping to shape the way it’s turning out. It’s been fun to see the novel progress and develop as Vlad goes along!
And I blogged about freelancing here, in which I shared my motto, shamelessly stolen from Firefly, as seen below.
So all of us Substraters are keeping busy, writing and living and getting ready for the craziness that always seems to transpire over the summer!