Writing about controversial topics is challenging. Doing so in a way that both stands tall in the truth, and also expresses your commitment to Buddhist ethics is even more difficult.
In the wake of the Wikileaks uproar, as well as attempted legal constrictions of free speech coming from places like the U.S. Congress, it's becoming important for bloggers to consider not only what they value, but also how they write about what they value.
There has been some back and forth in recent weeks between Buddhist blogger Bill Schwartz, Elephant Journal, and the Buddhist community Kunzang Palyul Choling (KPC). Essentially, the situation began with a post Mr. Schwartz was writing for Elephant Journal that contained criticisms of KPC, which led KPC to send Elephant Journal a legal letter threatening a lawsuit. All this before the article in question was actually published.
Waylon Lewis, publisher of Elephant Journal, said the following in a recent post:
1. I received a letter from KPC’s board with a legal letter attached. I’ve had a ton of communication with them and it’s all been pleasant and respectful.
2. I’m not sure–I’m no lawyer–but I knew that, not being able to afford a lawyer, that was the end of Bill Schwartz’s fun at the expense of KPC on elephant. I’ve encouraged him to write on other subjects. I can’t risk eight years of work and the potential of elephant to be of benefit if I’m without legal representation or the means to afford it.
3. I’d love for something positive to come out of this–I’ll use your wonderful forum as an opportunity to invite both parties to discuss this with the benefit of all sentient beings in mind. If either will take me up on this offer, I’ll serve as a mediator. They can DM me at twitter.com/elephantjournal or email@example.com
First off, I find it quite troubling that a Buddhist community would respond to an unpublished article about them with lawyers. Even if they have been friendly and respectful, there's something really off about bringing out the legal hounds on a small time religious blogger like Mr. Schwartz, and a niche online publication like Elephant, which is doing quality work for sure, but doesn't even have close the stature as, say Tricycle magazine of Shambala Sun.
This morning, however, Mr. Schwartz published a guest post over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt giving his views on the matter.
The post begins with a short narrative about his interest in writing the post, the potential legal action brought on Elephant Journal, and the subsequent blocking of the writing in question. However, then Mr. Schwartz turns on the Buddhist community in general, making statements like the following:
When Travis May published a blog on Buddhadharma about the KPC SLAPP Scandal the editor removed it. Was KPC threatened? No, it wasn’t threatened. Worse, it simply doesn’t care. Why? It doesn’t care because Buddhists don’t care. None of the glossy Buddhist magazines is willing to cover this story. Buddhists don’t believe in a free press.
But surely Buddhist bloggers care? Nope. One Buddhist blogger informed me he wasn’t interested. It would be too much work. It’s much easier to write about wisdom and compassion instead. His audience will just eat that up and ask for more. There is no upside to a Buddhist blogger in harshing the mellow of his audience over something of such little or no interest to Buddhists as a free press seems to be.
The response of individual Buddhists has been even worse—unsolicited dharma advice on Tonglen, sending and receiving. We are to exchange our attachment to our right to free speech for the peace of mind that comes with caring only about ourselves. I kid you not. That’s what Shantideva taught. This is the path of the bodhisattva. The Buddhist response has been that it’s perfectly acceptable what KPC has done.
In my opinion, there are at least a few fundamental errors being made here. Assuming that this issue with Elephant Journal and KPC is widely known amongst Buddhists is completely flawed. Assuming that whatever responses he received represent the views of either "Buddhist bloggers" or Buddhists in general, is also completely flawed. Third, assuming that the "glossy" Buddhist media - i.e. Tricycle, Buddhadharma, Shambala Sun, and perhaps a few other publications - don't care - or that these publications are an accurate representation of the "Buddhist community" (whatever that is) is also a huge stretch at best.
One of the difficulties in writing powerfully and engagingly about controversial issues is that often, our emotional responses take over, and shut out those who could be potential allies. It's critical in any effort to bring about social change, or to safe guard current rights and liberties, to not alienate the very people who you'll need to do the work on the ground.
It's very possible that both Mr. Schwartz and Elephant Journal have been screwed in this situation, and that we Buddhist bloggers and writers might have some serious issues on our hands, but the sweeping generalizations, unsubstantiated accusations, and lone wolf energy of Mr. Schwartz's post make it difficult for those of us who might be sympathetic to respond and perhaps act.
Another problem here is that there are a lack of specifics that would help readers understand what happened, and why this particular blog post was considered threatening by the leaders of a Buddhist community. We don't have the post in question to read, nor much in the way of specifics about the contents of said post.
As someone who readily applies Buddhist ethics to social action when I deem it appropriate, I have a deep interest in seeing such work represent, as best as we can, the values and teachings of our tradition. Part of doing so is being careful about what issues we raise and engage in, and to ask questions, and be rigorous in our reflections about issues that arrive at our doorstep - such as this current situation.
I'd love to hear from others on either this issue, or how you engage social/political issues through a Buddhist lens.