Friday, September 13, 2013

Exceptionalism

unexpected beauty on the wilderness trail

Vladimir Putin certainly made a big splash in the U.S. yesterday with his New York Times' "op ed" piece. I think it's rather odd that someone like Putin, with his dismal record with regard to respecting everyone's dignity, should be lecturing about human rights. But, apart from that, I do very much agree with what he had to say about the danger of exceptionalism. 

It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy...We are all different..we must not forget that God created us equal.

I agree with what Mr. Putin had to say - not only as it applies to America, but as it applies to all nations and all people everywhere. 

As I see it, "exceptionalism" means that an individual, a group, culture or nation sees themselves as being better than another, and thus entitled to more from life - entitled to greater respect, more resources, more comfort, better housing, more access to food and water, better jobs - entitled to more and better everything. 

Exceptionalism is certainly not endemic to America, exceptionalism is a human weakness, a characteristic of the bloated ego. 

When the rich (of any country) think that they are entitled to more out of life than those who are poor or on the margins, they are seeing themselves as exceptional. When the dominant race expects more than the minority, when men think they are entitled to more than women, when citizens and residents expect more out of life than immigrants, exceptionalism prevails. When Christians or Jews or Muslims think theirs is the "true" religion and therefore entitled to receive God's greater favor, exceptionalism prevails.

I think Putin was correct in declaring that it is "dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional." I think it is dangerous and harmful because this kind of attitude is an act of the ego. Exceptionalism pulls the flow of life inward to build up a bloated ego, and whenever that happens, it's dangerous and harmful. It makes us less than human. 

I am a follower of Jesus who taught that we find true peace in life when the flow of our life pushes outward rather than pulls inward. He invited humanity to live in what he called "the Kingdom of God." He invited his followers (and all humanity) to work together at building a new world order in which every human being had a place of equal dignity and respect at the table of life. And he taught that we will only be "fully alive" when we live in the "Kingdom of God." 

In similar fashion, the Buddha taught that we find enlightenment when we realize that the isolated individual self (the ego) is an illusion.  We find enlightenment when we realize that there are no different "others" - we are all woven together as the one fabric of the cosmos. 

The Buddha also taught that the main cause of our suffering comes from pulling life inward rather than extending it outward.

Maybe that's it - it's not so much that "exceptionalism" is dangerous, as it is painful. It causes us to suffer.


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3 comments:

  1. The right word would be cultural relativism

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  2. An important point, I think, is that one should not confuse exceptionalism with love of country. It makes me recall a disagreement I had with progressive Presbyterian Pastor in Los Angeles who turned down a request I had made to sing a patriotic hymn at the service coinciding with U.S. Independence Day. He felt, I think incorrectly, that by doing so we would be underscoring American exceptionalism. However, I believe it would simply be an appropriate expression of our love for our country and our prayer that our country, its leaders and residents fare well. When, on Mother's Day, one sends a gift or other expression of love to one's mother, it's simply saying "I love you" and not claiming that she is the best mother in the world.

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