One Sunday in April when the trees were flowering and a cool wind blew through in advance of rain, I attended a workshop on Grounds entitled, “Learning to See One Another: Meditative Practices and Social Justice.” Eboni Bugg, the presenter, advocated the notion of an expanding self. Don’t think of yourself as a solid rainbow, she explained, but rather as droplets of water interacting with light. This perceptual shift allows a form of contemplation as the Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt defines it: taking a “long, loving look at the real.”
Bugg explained a cascading series of reactions that occurs when we experience a contracting of the self: this contracting leads to the perception of difference, which leads to the development of preference, and then the conferral of privilege, which ultimately gets exercised as power over others. This is where Bugg positions contemplation as an antidote and a form of social justice. We can practice contemplation to create a countering, expanding sense of self to avoid stepping on others.
The first episode of Katie Couric’s America Inside Out offers viewers another chance to look at Charlottesville and the weekend of August 11-12 through the lens of her camera. Watching the premiere recently, I was struck by the power of the gaze. In the classroom, the “gaze” has a theoretical history, first as a film studies technique and then as an adopted gender studies analytical tool. In film studies, the gaze is a way of understanding spectatorship, explaining how the camera situates the viewer to accept as their own perspective that of the camera. Feminist theory adapts this concept to think about the ways we move through the physical world in gendered bodies, as gendered beings, either as lookers or looked-upon.
Some of the most powerful moments of Couric’s episode, for me, were those in which the camera was engaged in encounters and conversation with specific people. While Couric and her respondent were shown in the same frame for some of these conversations, many others were edited to show only the respondent. The viewer then has the experience of stepping into the shoes of the camera person or the interviewer – stepping into dialogue, in a way, with the respondent. The exchanges with the members of the alt-right are painful, their intensity increased by the immediacy of this editing technique. The viewer must confront the fear and hate, physically experiencing the pain driving and being inflicted by the encounter. Where these encounters were painful, others were profound in a quieter way. The camera recorded the purposeful strength of the members of the clergy assembled that weekend. As clergy members linked arms and the camera interacted with each, one after another, the careful viewer could see them drawing upon inner strength, a preparation for the encounter which their gazes over the top of the camera communicated. Mindfulness appeared to be one of the tools they brought to their work that weekend.
Although one side worked assiduously to keep the debate at the surface level of whether a statue belonged in a park or not, the contemplative “long loving look at the real” reveals so many deep layers of pain and determination to end the infliction of pain driving participants. It is not surprising that conversation about social justice topics are contentious. By their very nature, they are topics that demand a nuanced response situated in a world that rewards the quick and the visual, a world that has become word-impoverished.
During a promo for the series that aired in the middle of the episode, Couric called for more conversation around the series’ topics. As a viewer, I found that that moment pulled me out of the August days where I had been, bringing me back to my living room miles from the Downtown Mall. Questions immediately flew through my mind: How do we do this? How do we engage opposing viewpoints in a sustained manner? While the topic is of utmost importance, we need some low-stakes ways of discussing such charged issues so that people have room and space to grow. When the Women's Center hosted Loretta Ross as our speaker for the Community MLK Celebration in January, she reminded us that many of our allies are problematic allies, and it is in our best interest to work with them. This is another level of engagement, and those of us who are passionate about this work benefit from finding people who can serve as sounding boards for us in our efforts, helping us make sense of what we perceive and channel it in a useful way.
It was a few days later that I attended Eboni Bugg’s workshop, and these questions were still foremost in my mind. Positioning contemplative practices as a form of social justice work, Bugg introduced us to The Tree of Contemplative Practices. Bearing witness, she assured us, is peace-making. I turned off the Couric special and asked myself what insights I could take away from it. Would it change any minds? Was that its intention? Would it provide us with a tool to help hard conversations about race in America have impact? For those of us engaged in social justice advocacy - with our problematic allies, as well as friends and family who might not yet see the issue the way we do - I hope so. I’m confident that if we follow its model, imitating its insistence on holding everyone within its gaze, that it can help us to see each other, to engage in the dialogue that we need to heal the wounds of racism.