You know it when you see it. “Everyone else says that … but I say this”.
Which is invariably meant to be expanded to, “All those mindless sheep incanting orthodoxy say that … but I—a courageous and innovative truth-teller—say this.”
It’s the fundamental framing of every conspiracy theory, endlessly, tediously invoked every time someone says “do the research”. But it’s also one of the most annoying cliches of academic writing, where for purely rhetorical reasons pretty much every scholar feels the need to define themselves by what they are against rather than by what they are for.
And you also see it all the little Buddhist cultettes, which establish an in-group defined by the rejection of “the mainstream”. By definition, if you don’t agree with their stunning new breakthroughs in understanding you’re just a sheep trapped in tradition. Dear god in heaven, it’s so very cringe. It’s the rhetorical maturity of someone forever trapped in a fifteens year-old’s bedroom, Metallica posters duly blu-tacked to the walls.
A man of wit and wisdom—namely Twitter’s Sonny Bunch—once said that it’s better to like something everyone hates than it is to hate something everyone likes. He’s right. Why not try liking things? It’s fun!
I remember once attending a presentation Prof. Charles Hallisey gave on his translations of Therigatha.
He was strongly questioned about his reliance on Ven. Dhammapala’s commentary.
He replied that the venerable commentator surely knew more about these texts than he did, and that he was glad for them.
It was a very instructive moment.
Thanks for this Bhante. It’s a super-annoying feature of online discourse. Particularly hilarious is this pattern:
A: “Everything you think you know is wrong.” [posts some quotations from their favourite teacher(s)]
B: “I don’t agree.” [posts some references and quotations]
A: “You’re just arguing from authority. Unless you refute these claims point-by-point in your own words I win.”
There is also a strange cognitive dissonance (if that is the right concept to use here) that seems to be going on as well; on the one hand studies and opinions are about something that happened 2500 years ago, something so profound, we are still trying to fully understand. On the other hand, a lot of opinions blithely assert that people back then cannot be intellectually as sophisticated as we are today and would not have thought of this or that, or no one in the last 2500 years for that matter.
The equivalent in Dhamma space is how some online teachers and posters waste a lot of time (and goodwill) explaining what’s wrong with their (usually wrong or oversimplified) understanding of how others are practising. That’s a huge red flag for me.
Great post. Yes. Thank you. I love that you used the word cringe.
We all have a limited number domains of expertise, where we can really engage and challenge other experts. Often those domains are localised. “Call Sharon. She knows more about resources for neuro atypical kids in the BC Interior than anyone!” (This sort of localised expertise is often the most valuable!)
And even when we are challenging other experts in one of our areas of knowledge, it is usually around specific issues, not foundational principles. True paradigm shifts are very rare.
And outside our domains of expertise it makes sense to listen to experts and ask questions, not offer whole systems of thought opposed to expert opinion. Reflexive contrarianism is just the flip side of blind faith.
And as said above, tell people what you love. So in that spirit… Bhante @sujato I just re-read your introduction to the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Love your introductions!
With respect, I’m actually a bit surprised to see you write this considering the many instances where you’ve presented a fresh, useful take on the work of your western predecessors and contemporaries. Could you give an example of where you’ve seen this most recently? Not that I’m disagreeing with it, but I guess I’m wondering what qualifies. At what point does an alteration become “oppositional” as opposed to “furthered” or “clarified”? Or more to the point, what degree of alteration is acceptable amidst what is considered traditional/orthodoxy?
If you are just referring to the emphasis on disagreement and overt rejection then I couldn’t agree more, and I have been very vocal elsewhere about it, but the very same degree of dissent is often implied in the appreciation of an alternative (sharing what is liked) while remaining silent in regard to what must be rejected in the process.
If one is presenting fresh ideas, there will be, of course, some contradictions with the ideas of others and this sometimes does need to be made explicit. To me, the key test is whether the emphasis is on how unique and clever one’s (or one’s group’s) ideas are and directly or indirectly, how misguided ones opponents are. This kills genuine conversation. Genuine conversation only happens when there is a clear willingness to consider that one’s ideas are not the final word.
Of course, noone is immune to some degree of this oppositional framing. We’re all human, after all.
Sure, and since it is often difficult for writers/presenters to predict how a position will be received, they should take the necessary steps to ensure that the tone is not entirely unwelcoming. The reader, as well, should exercise some restraint when their first impressions are those of disagreement. And when it is strictly a matter of personal preference, things get even more tricky, especially with the material we discuss on this forum. Yet, the responsibility still goes both ways. Attempting to praise and bolster a traditional view, for instance, can be unproductive when it fails to acknowledge the possibility of a matter being open to interpretation, thus leaving it in need of one (AN 2.25). On the other hand, openings are not enough of an excuse to completely dismiss a traditional view, let alone express gratuitous disdain for it in the process.
So, as much as I share the sentiment that arrogantly touting something as a new “major” breakthrough is both childish and exhausting (and I prefer not to see it), the idea that established tenets are somehow immune to criticism can be just as stifling (I realize this was not at all implied in the OP, but I think it is relevant here). Could we call this “promotional framing”? Accordant framing? Every which way you slice it, when it comes to words on a page, the matter is never going to be universally clear cut for every reader. So, not only may something be in need of interpretation to be grasped intellectually, it absolutely requires additional effort and development for it to be confirmed as correct. That alone is enough of reason to speak cordially and carefully on matters of Dhamma no matter what views you hold. By all means stand firm, but don’t ignore the inherent ambiguity that comes along with communicating.