Some months ago, Overland published an essay in which (as a scholar of Buddhist non-violent resistance) I detailed the now 120 self-immolations of Tibetan monks, nuns and lay-people, a number not including the case of an Englishman, a young man whom I knew and who was also an ordained monk in the same Tibetan Buddhist tradition as the majority of his Tibetan cohorts. He’d carried a Tibetan flag, in solidarity with the others, and burned to death on the same day in November 2012 as the transition to Chinese leadership of Xi Jinping. To this day his act, as a political statement, is denied and ignored by his own monastic establishment and organisation, and hence by the world at large.
I have also since found it near to impossible to garner interest in a longer, more detailed version of the Overland article, that itself engendered not a bare comment, from anyone, anywhere, and only a handful of tweets, ‘likes’ and shares – if these last are presumably meaningful indices for social utility or relevance. A man had self-immolated in principled conscience and solidarity with far too many others, and few cared to pay any attention. His friends and loved ones, at least in public forums, understood his act as a tragic loss. His suicide was recently privately commemorated, and has been laid to rest. End of story.
But the ephemerality of his demise, of my own honouring of it in the pages of Overland, and indeed of the 120 Tibetans whose plea for freedom has similarly slipped into marginalisation, made me think a little more about the nature of such sacrifice and what it means for the social polity. Because conditions now, in Australia, beg similar questions, in perhaps less stark, yet strangely more compromised ways because of our distance from extremity.
We like to think, in liberal society, that a fundamental concern for the other, especially the more vulnerable, lies at the very heart of the democratic welfare state. Our social policies, research programs and civil bodies are often designed to attend especially to the needs of the weak and needy, those who are unable, for a multitude of reasons, to manage their own successful negotiation of the economic, professional, and interpersonal imperatives of life in late-industrial capitalist society. Those who can’t quite play that game, as it is required to be played in order to meet the standards of life, both subjective and objective, that the social system will consensually judge as being a worthwhile one.
In other words, we care insofar as it comes inbuilt into our implicit agreement to the rules of this particular socio-economic game, along with all its other more or less explicit instrumental rules (paying taxes, fines, fees; entrusting personal data to the discretion of the state; accepting the terms of democratic governance, etc.). Within this consensual game, those who play well and fairly, as well as those who don’t, claim a conscious recognition of the values of universal human dignity, of equality of opportunity, of responsibility to her neighbour. We will assume every life as having an equally inviolable value and significance, worthy of respect, its sovereignty enshrined in a secular law of universal humanity that goes beyond mere legalism.
Yet these values are also the ones that leave us ambivalent about issues such as voluntary euthanasia, suicide (principled or otherwise) or, less often, abortion. How is it, we think, that life, of such intrinsic value, can be taken away, by ourselves, with impunity? Most of the editors and scholars who turned down my longer study of the Tibetan self-immolations (and their sole Western counterpart), presumably did so on the basis of some obscure but powerful sense that I was endorsing political suicide, or could be interpreted as doing the same.
Yet it was not a question of indulging some personal opinion of mine; it was a matter of the advertisement of fact. Still, the editors didn’t want to risk any taint of culpability; they thought that to uphold liberal freedom means to uphold the normative claim of the inviolability of life, that life must not be threatened, diminished or disvalued in any way. Of course, they are right.
Yet their moral concern, which also seemed like a moral diffidence, a feebleness, given the gravity of the sacrifices by the Tibetan and English monks, appeared to say a lot more about their own preservation of a certain sense of self than about a genuine concern for the recognition of Tibetan human rights. A curious paradox: we will express our true moral concern for Tibetan sovereignty by quietly downplaying the ultimate, radical sacrifices they, and now a Westerner, have made on its behalf: that’s how much concern we hold – enough to appear to not hold any concern at all.
No-one enjoys the thought of suicide, even that of a total stranger. At the same time no-one lives someone else’s life for them. Every day each of us passes in the street a few hundred or more lives that go on without us having the barest minimum of direct or meaningful influence, agency or onus over them. Each other’s life is their own affair, just as mine is to me.
What gives me cause to hold any moral guardianship over another’s life? On what basis can I possibly pretend to step in and claim some authority over the inviolable integrity or decisions of that life? It has never been, and never will be, my own life, no matter how close to or enmeshed in it I may become, no matter how deeply and richly I may have come to value and love the person whose life they embody.
We like to imagine we hold moral concern for the destinies of others’ lives, but this is not true. It is, more truthfully, an illusion of the liberal-democratic ego, perpetuated by post-Enlightenment liberal rationalism, codified in law and global institutions of the super-ego such as the UN. More accurately, more closer to reality, we could say we are essentially indifferent to the lives of others: indifference not as a value-judgement, but as a phenomenological truth. We have an ethical concern but not an existential concern. No readers responded to my essay, and no editors would touch its more developed thesis, just because they didn’t have that kind of concern, simply because they weren’t that interested in 120 Tibetan people and a single Westerner, burning themselves to death. They thought they did, and at the level of thought they do, but in fact they don’t. There is a deep fissure between the two, of which we are largely unconscious.
Great amounts of government funding go into heritage conservation, with a thousand young students beginning degrees in art or cultural curation every year. Nonetheless, in the last few weeks Chinese authorities in Lhasa have been able to raze to the ground the oldest and most important of Tibetan Buddhist temples and religious pilgrimage sites, to make way for a massive underground carpark and above-ground shopping-malls and hotels catering to the millions of Han Chinese tourists rushing to the new themed tourist ‘Shangri-La’ into which they have turned old Lhasa. It is like pulling down St Peters to put up a few Pizza Huts.
Despite an international campaign submitted to UNESCO during recent weeks, nothing has been able to stop those bulldozers from permanently destroying the living symbols of an old, high culture –thousands of irreplaceable years old. You see, we care, in the ego’s mind, in the safety of liberal self-consciousness – just, not really, not in fact.
There is a very similar dynamic with regard to asylum seekers arriving in boats on Australian shores from Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and everywhere else where, we know, consciously, that intolerable conditions pertain. So, consciously, we know we should care, and indeed, at one level, we do. At the same time, the existential truth is that, just as we don’t care whether the person in front of me on the bus will suicide tomorrow, we also don’t care whether that person who chooses to get on the boat in Indonesia, lives or dies. It is their affair, not ours.
Some might even suggest it would be unhealthy to walk around feeling true care for someone we have never seen and will never know, so very far away.
Of course, we do care, when we think about it. But not in truth, not in fact. Which is why the Rudd ‘solution’ – to put these interlopers on some obscurely not-too-distant but not-too-close patch of ground, a bit like sweeping dirt under the rug, out of sight, but not quite out of mind, is the perfect and most honest real metaphor for how we actually feel, in this particular game of liberal democratic enlightened capitalist compassionate self-interest. Obviously, we care. It’s just that – we don’t really. And maybe it’s time we came a bit clean about that.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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