Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

Not long ago, Dr. Emrys Westacott, Professor of Philosophy at Alfred University, gave a thought-provoking talk at the Bergren Forum. His subject was snobbery, which he defined in this way:

Believing without sufficient justification that you are superior to another person in certain respects because you are associated with some group that places you above them in a social hierarchy.

Professor Westacott went on to explore this definition and to suggest that snobbery, so defined, may be unavoidable.

As definitions go, Professor Westacott’s strikes me as sound and useful. At the same time, it points toward something deeper than social snobbery. From the standpoint of Zen teachings, it identifies a fundamental ignorance of reality and a root cause of human suffering. And it also implies a remedy, both for snobbery and its underlying causes.

To begin with, the snob, as here defined, assumes that he or she is a separate, unchanging self. Once a Harvard graduate, always a Harvard graduate. Once a star, always a star. Yet even a moment’s reflection reveals that what one calls one’s “self” is anything but permament or solid. Perhaps our temperaments remain constant from day to day—and decade to decade—but our circumstances and identities, social and personal, do not. Today’s “superior” self may be something else tomorrow.

Beyond the impermanence of self, there is also the impermanence of one’s ideas. Because an idea has occurred to us, we tend to believe it. And, more often than not, we identify with it, calling it “my” idea and defending it against detractors. But in reality the unquestioned ideas that cross our minds, including ideas about ourselves, are no more solid or permanent than the caws of crows or the sound of the UPS truck arriving in the driveway. To take them at face value, or assume that they reflect reality, is to court delusion.

Yet even if we acknowledge that both our selves and our attitudes are subject to change, we may persist in believing ourselves superior because, as Professor Westacott’s definiton asserts, we are associated with a group that ranks high in the social order. But here again, that belief has feet of clay, because groups themselves are subject to change and revaluation. Yesterday’s darling–Lehman Brothers, for example—can become tomorrow’s pariah. In the current political climate, even “Harvard-educated” has become, in the minds of some, a political liability.

Given these realities, and given the unstable foundation on which social snobbery rests, it might seem odd that it continues to exist. Yet continue it does, bringing harm and folly in its wake. Is snobbery in fact unavoidable—a curse instrinsic to human nature?

Zen teachings would say no, because the very attribute that makes snobbery delusive—its insubstantial basis—also makes it vulnerable to dissolution. When practicing zazen, or seated meditation, we sit still and take note of whatever comes along, including the caws of crows and our notions of social superiority. I drive a Lexus. He’s still driving a Ford. Bringing sustained awareness to notions of that kind, we begin to see them for what they are. We begin to see through them. And over time, as our practice strengthens and our awareness deepens, we may recognize our place in the web of life, where no one is solid or separate, superior or inferior, and all depend on one another

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