The Whence of the Isms of (the) U(nited)S(tates)… by Marcia Mount Shoop


Thus, when enemies or friends
Are seen to act improperly,
Be calm and call to mind
That everything arises from conditions.
-Shantideva, Bodhicharyāvatāra

Marcia headshotThe early Indian teacher, Shantideva, calls humanity to a deeper exploration of the people and situations we encounter. While it may sound simple, his invitation can be very difficult for American mentalities. He is asking us to look at something more complicated than the individual who acts; he is pointing us toward the causes and conditions that give rise to every person, to every situation, to every moment.

This invitation to a more complicated space for understanding people and situations can be so awkward for American ways of thinking that our systems tend to label this approach as hostile to such core values as individual accountability, freedom, and liberty.

It is difficult in a culture defined by individualism to encounter this precept of conditionality without so much suspicion. How can we give space to the causes and conditions that give rise to situations and not let people off the hook for things at the same time? How can we look at the bigger picture and not lose the importance of the rights and responsibilities of the individual in the process?

The principle of conditionality extends our gaze beyond the individual into the things that give rise to all things. Realizing that nothing happens in a vacuum is not about letting people or ourselves off the hook for the things we do (especially things that cause harm), but it’s about stretching and expanding the way we approach life in the first place. iStock star trails

Far from violating the sanctity of the individual, such an expanded line of vision might actually end up enhancing how we make space for the uniqueness and worth of each person. That yearning for freedom from the yolk of enforced conformity and domination from an oppressive power were some of the motivating aspirations that gave birth to individualism in the first place.

Part of why this stretched and expanded sensitivity is so hard for Americans to practice is because we’ve been trained to see this world in terms of discrete entities, binaries, and static principles. These lenses that tell us to look at people as separate and distinct from each other, actions as either right or wrong, and individuals as the inviolable loci of rights and responsibilities, have formed the most basic building blocks of Western thinking. Seeing and understanding ourselves as enmeshed in cultures and communities, in systems and situations, and in ambiguities can feel awkward and unwieldy to these individualized habits of mind.

Lenses that increase our depth perception or that see the subtleties of color, of perspective, of unique experiences can feel threatening to some, like a dizzying array of things that erode a more discernible world. And these lenses that see more than meets the eye are often feared and attacked as repugnant to American values. People fear that the light these lenses cast is too morally soft. People may feel repulsed by the wayistock One Way Sign these lenses can see in the dark. These subtleties and ambiguities are too dangerous, too difficult to navigate. It can feel much cleaner, much more manageable to see people as separate beings in the glaring, clear light of static principles that assure who can be held accountable, whether it be for merit or for punishment. And the strict categories and boundaries of individualism also protect those who have the most power in drawing the lines and meting out the consequences.

There is evidence all around us of that being fixated on individualism helps to create the causes and conditions that give rise to separation, to hatred, to avoidance, to injustice, to diminishing returns.

Sometimes, our virtues can also be our most veiled and dangerous vices.

What are the causes and conditions that gave rise to the American psychic need to unencumber ourselves from our human family, from our complicated world? This dismembering of the human family has a genealogy that could tell us a lot about what got us here and how we can chart a path back home to ourselves and to each other. After all, the world needs a human family that is not at war with itself.

Marcia Mount Shoop is a theologian, consultant, and minister who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. She is the author of Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports (Cascade Books, 2014) and  Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ  (WJKP, 2010). Her newest book, co-authored with Mary McClintock Fulkerson is entitled A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory, and Eucharist in White-Dominant Churches, is set to be released this fall (2015) from Cascade Books. At www.marciamountshoop.com Marcia blogs on everything from feminism to family to football. 

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Categories: Abuse of Power, Ethics, Feminism, Gender and Power, Racism, Sexism

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15 replies

  1. everything arises from conditions

    What are the causes and conditions that gave rise to the American psychic need to unencumber ourselves from our human family, from our complicated world? This dismembering of the human family has a genealogy that could tell us a lot about what got us here and how we can chart a path back home to ourselves and to each other.

    Just last evening a friend was asking me what I gained from my genealogy research. You have given me an answer: I am re-membering a family that has been dis-membered.

    I know that my father did not want to remember because “it was too painful” (both his mother and his father were raised without fathers as their fathers died when they were very small) and that my mother’s father probably didn’t want to be viewed as having come from immigrants who spoke with an accent.

    I also mentioned that finding relatives who held slaves in New York caused me to see that my previous belief that “slavery had nothing to do with me” is not true. This did not make me feel personally guilty, but rather helped me to see that I too am firmly rooted in American history.

    everything arises from conditions

    We can begin by recognizing that, and move on from there.

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    • Thank you, Carol. Your comments are a vivid illustration of what allowing oneself to swim around in a rich and thick immersion in context, genealogy, history, and causes/conditions can yield. From my experience, the gifts of such immersion are profoundly life-giving and they feed my understanding of my unique possibilities. Thank you, again, for sharing some of your experience–your insights add a rich layer to the conversation.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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  2. A very different and interesting topic for FAR, thanks Marcia!

    But I’m going to disagree with your opposition to Individuality. From an artistic standpoint, it is far more preferable to me. Nature is also a mistress of creativity in terms of her vast and amazing diversity, as well as her support and maintenance of individuality as an evolutionary necessity. In nature it is not a question of survival of the fittest, it is a question of survival of the most adaptable. And so uniqueness keeps offering new ways of adaption to a changing world.

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    • I agree with you about evolution, but again this gets back to Shantideva’s quote, that evolution happens in a context, in certain conditions. Individuals adapt to a niche- because there is a niche! What may be a fantastic adaptive trait in one set of circumstances (short stocky branches for the top of the mountain) may be completely maladaptive in other situations (short branches can’t compete with long branch neighbors on the forest floor).

      The concept of evolution does fit in well with Shantideva’s teachings and would help with understanding context, but there is a strong push-back by conservative religious groups to these theories.

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      • Hi nmr — Love the tree analogy!! As regards the push back of religious groups, I looked around the Net to see if I could glean some deeper understanding of our topic here. I found that the Christian faith considers the “Body of Christ” as representative of communitarianism. And yet Christ was a single and very unique individual. And his uniqueness was what enabled him to stand up to the hypocrisy of his time and for which he died. He spoke his mind, he did not join the fold, he did not conform, he was not one of the many. He looked to his own vision, and in that sense, he was a true prophet.

        In my understanding, the advancement of humanity requires the courage of extraordinary vision and hope, along with constant renewal through individual creativity. One of the things I love about FAR is that many different writers, with many different points of view, take turns acting as leader each day — how incredibly refreshing!!

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    • Dear Sarah,

      Thanks for reading and for commenting. I hope you will go back and read through my post again after you read my respond to your comments here.

      Your concern about individuality is one I share. This post is actually a reflection of that concern. To that end, individualism is not the same as individuality. Individualism is a philosophical framework that begins with the discrete entity of a self that can somehow be set a part or thematized over and against things like context, culture, and the mysterious inheritances we all embody in human life. Individuality, in contrast, is the phenomenon of the uniqueness of each person.

      I have no opposition to individuality in my post–my gaze is focused on the faulty framework of individualism for building community, for transforming cultures, and social change that actually honors the uniqueness of each person. In fact, my post is really about how to make more generous space for the uniqueness and particularity of each person. With this distinction in mind, I would welcome a chance to hear if you read through my post and still see something problematic in terms of the honoring of individuality/uniqueness. If so, I need to make myself more clear!

      Thanks so much for your comments and for expressing your concern.

      Peace,
      Marcia

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      • Marcia, thanks. This statement still doesn’t clear itself up on a second re-reading of your post — It sounds like you are attributing all the evils of the world to individuality? whereas I see the uniqueness of personhood as something to rejoice in and which gives us hope of new vision and new creativity.

        “There is evidence all around us of that being fixated on individualism helps to create the causes and conditions that give rise to separation, to hatred, to avoidance, to injustice, to diminishing returns.”

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      • Dear Sarah,

        Thanks for letting me know that you still are having trouble following my point. Is there something at stake for you in not seeing/accepting the distinction I offer in my response to you between individualism and individuality? I actually make no mention of “individuality” in my post. Individualism is the object of my inquiry. Can you tell me more about why those two concepts (individualism and individuality), which I see as clearly distinct, are one and the same for you?

        Thanks for the conversation!

        Peace,
        Marcia

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      • Yes, I see the distinction you are trying to make. Individualism, however, is defined in my dictionary as “belief in the primary importance of the individual and in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence.” I think many people will be confused by the nomenclature. Forgive me, Marcia, for being a pest on this. It just sort of jolted me all those negative attributes by way of defining the roots of “Individualism.”

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      • Thanks for clarifying, Sarah, about where you are getting your definition of individualism. If we go with your definition, then I would say that my critique is focused on the assumption of “independence” that is listed in the definition. I think that assumption of the independence of the individual and the ensuing framework is deeply problematic and harmful. None of us are independent of the causes, conditions, cultures, and inheritances of the world we inhabit.

        I describe this problem in my post as the philosophical assumption that individuals are discrete and separate entities. I am suggesting a whole different metaphysic of personhood/ontology in my post. It may, indeed, be a jolt to many and it may be also confusing and disorienting. It is a very different worldview than the one we are taught in U.S. culture. My book, Let the Bones Dance, goes more in-depth on this topic. If you are interested, I hope you will read it and let me know what you think.

        Please know that I appreciate your questions and this conversation. You are not a pest! You are a conversation partner. I am glad to have more clarity on where the issues are for you. For me, the assumption of “independence” is the problem. I hope that helps you understand where I am coming from. The unique particularity that you value is at the heart of my work. I am glad we have connected.

        Peace,
        Marcia

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      • The process metaphysic recognizes both the interdependence of life and within it the power of every individual to add a degree of novelty.

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      • Yes, Carol, the process metaphysic is deeply resonant with this understanding of uniqueness and particularly within the fabric of a shared world of radical interdependence. My constructive theological work uses the category of feeling from Whitehead’s metaphysic as its connective tissue.

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  3. Excellent blog! Everything has a context, but sometimes we forget that or don’t see the context.

    Who else remembers the olden days when the phrase “situational ethics” was both enormously popular and widely hated at the same time? People who liked the phrase thought it explained a lot, especially context, whereas those who hated it thought it violated God’s law, that there is only One Way to see things and act and react.

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    • Dear Barbara,
      Thanks so much for your comments. Yes, I do remember when “situational ethics” was the great dirty word lodged against those who wanted to look at a richer description and understanding of context and conditions. I particularly remember it around death penalty discussions. U.S. culture still struggles mightily with this false binary–that somehow looking at causes and conditions waters down our capacity to hold people to account. Mass incarceration is the grotesque offspring of this refusal to look at things with a more nuanced and less binary lens. Racism is fed my these same binaries as well. Thanks, again, for giving us such a clear example of how this has hit the ground in U.S. culture.
      Peace,
      Marcia

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  4. We are all hoping John gets to coach at IU. He’s like really really good. We don’t care about wins. It’s all about shaping these young men. I’m so glad you are involved. You are so wise.

    – CTC

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