Occidental Orientalism

Kaitlin Cho, Opinion Columnist

Too often, the good-hearted leftist makes a critical mistake: in an attempt to behave sensitively and to not say anything unjust or offensive, they swing back around to the other side of the horseshoe and end up discriminating against minorities. Minorities are often dehumanized two separate ways: they are either denigrated, made out to be “inferior” and “below” their oppressors, or they are forbidden from flaws; they are forbidden from complexity of character. In both cases, minorities are denied their humanity and are held at a firm distance – whether that be down in a pit, or up on a pedestal.

Back when GENS was Encounters, one of the texts we read was the Therigatha, a collection of Buddhist poems written by female nuns. Another classmate and I were to lead discussion on a poem where a nun recounts her six prior lives where she burned in hell, was reincarnated as different castrated animals and suffered in slavery.

We were assigned to lead the discussion in pairs. I suggested to my groupmate that we could ask about the poem’s perspective on punishment, poverty, caste and its implications that people “deserve” the suffering (or lack thereof) they experience. Not too long before in class, we had discussed religion as not just something people practiced, but also as a tool for the upper class to maintain the status quo. I thought this topic could be academically relevant to us, and on our discussion day, I posed my question to the class.

There was uncomfortable silence. “Um,” one student said, “I don’t know if it’s our place to discuss this.”

The conversation warped from the text to the class’s collective reluctance to answer my question because it would be “offensive.” Offensive to what exactly? Buddhism? Asian people? Surprised by the pushback, I argued that if we were talking about Christianity, I would ask similar questions, about the implications of hell as a punitive answer to sin or the English monarchy’s usage of Christianity to validate their rule.

“The issue is that we’re all coming from a Western perspective, so it’s not right for us to criticize them,” another student said.

Part of what bothered me so much was that term, which felt almost accusatory to my ears – Western perspective – which I felt the student applied to me too easily. I’m Asian-American, a child of two Korean immigrants. Was I coming at it from a “Western” perspective? Was I so American that it overpowered any Korean cultural heritage I had, rendering me unable to have an “Eastern” perspective? In order to answer those questions, I had to wonder what exactly was the difference between those perspectives.

That student’s well-intended comment contributed to an Orientalist division of “East” and “West,” generalizing huge swathes of geographical location into singular “perspectives.” Asia is huge, and there are many different kinds of Buddhism. Does a Japanese Shinto priest have the Eastern perspective to talk about this early Buddhism that originated from India? What about a Korean Protestant? An Indonesian Muslim?

Did we, in our liberal arts bubble, think no scholars – Eastern or Western – had ever dared to ask similar questions or make similar criticisms? Were we excluding an entire religion from any querying that might possibly reveal some “problematic” trait out of our supposed concern for its practitioners? Was doing that – exempting important marginalized texts from anything but positive dialogue – meant to be non-discriminatory?

I didn’t make my Encounters presentation to criticize Buddhism; I did it because I was genuinely intellectually curious. I approached it like I would with any religion – something that is, in my opinion, inextricable from philosophy, society and the material conditions it is practiced in. How else were we supposed to understand it?

I consider it a sign of respect to seriously engage with something critically. It is anywhere between patronizing to intellectually lazy and cowardly to refuse even contemplating a critical question, and to say an entire religion is not my place.

Nothing is perfect. No idea, no society and no person. When we deny an idea, society or a person their capacity to be flawed, we deny them their strength, complexity and humanity. 

Listen – I get it. I, too, when discussing a marginalized culture (even if it’s my own), hesitate. We live in an oppressive world that is cruel enough already to minorities. I don’t want to add to that hurt. I don’t want to offend people. I, too, am afraid that my biases and limited experience and knowledge will lead me to make unfair judgments or say something harmful. But cultural sensitivity should not mean cultural segregation. When we’re afraid, let’s not run away, avoid the topic and move away to easier questions; let’s talk about it.