Friday, November 27, 2009

Social Karma (third of a three part series on karma)

At Shift Happens, a couple weeks ago, an audience member asked Emanuel Kuntzelman what he thought of social karma. The answer provided some food for thought because the audience member and Kuntzelman had two different definitions of social karma.

The audience member defined social karma similar to my extrapolation about individual people's karma with our interdependent web of existence. International corporations and governments will grow unchecked, destroy the environment and dictate our social experiences for the sum of a downward turn on the scale of karma. Failure to act leads to bad karma, and contributing to the good through action is the only way to create good karma. Makes sense to call this phenomena 'social karma,' as it affects networks and requires action upon and within networks to correct.

Kuntzelman provided a novel definition of social karma. Instead of karma referring to collective cause and effect in the interdependent web of existence, Kuntzelman defines social karma as our individual socioeconomic inheritance.

White, black, asian, Native American. American, European, Russian, African, Australian, Brazillian. Your birth in a country, state, county, town, parish, nation or wherever. Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Unitarian Universalist or whatever religion. Upper class, middle class, lower class. Freeman, slave.

Social karma, to Kuntzelman, are the physical characteristics we're born with and the behaviors and bearings we learn in our families and communities that determine how we are treated and are allowed to treat other people. Social karma affects the opportunities in our lives, the type of childhood we have and possibly, on the negative side, the challenges and limitations thrust upon us by the people, communities, social networks and society around us.

This use of social karma provides a good term to boil down the fact that social norms, prejudices, traditions, practices, laws and other social factors influence our expectations of how others should treat us and how we should treat other people.

The term doesn't necessarily provide us with any practical tool to directly affect the world or to provide further wisdom in any direct way. Rather, it bares open to us the advantages and disadvantages we experience in our everyday social experience that we wouldn't normally see on our own.

How often do we question things that we take for granted, especially when tainted with extreme happiness or extreme anger about our situation? Why blame the social system when we can pinpoint individuals that bring us pleasure or cause us pain? We all register pain and pleasure on such subjective levels that even the smallest gesture or injury can cause some of the most extreme reactions.

Since we all have social karma, however, we have all been influenced by the social dynamics in existence, by all the networks in which we mingle, from family to work to friends to school cliques to political groups to religious associations to even the varied histories we've inherited. Unless we become conscious of our social karma, it will continue determining our behavior as our social networks direct us on what feels like a natural path, from one semi-determined network to the next semi-determined network.

Frankly, after the barest research on Wikipedia, I think the word dharma from the same cultural and religious tradition as karma addresses these matters of social and cultural determination. Dharma creates an issue, though. Dharma, I believe, espouses that it is a virtue to follow these determined paths and not break out them. Doing so would cause chaos in society. No one wants an unstable, changing society, do they?

For someone who wants to change the current progress of society, using dharma as a vocabulary word might be counterproductive unless they can sell people on the term ‘dharma’ without following the determined path as virtuous part. Using social karma as a term to address subversive dharma could end up being more productive. In the end, it comes down to the dynamic between the producer/performer of transformation and the audience of transformation.

I would consider myself between producer and audience. Even though encouraging positive transformation feels good to me, I want to come up with a compelling argument for the transformation I feel good about.

Dharma and social karma will help me figure out a good rationale for my desired transformation. In the end, though, they simply provide linguistic tools to understand the social and cultural constructed status symbols that we use, surrounding ourselves with tools for protection and negotiation.

How could dharma and social karma be used by you and other people to help improve the world?

Links of Interest: Emanuel Kuntzelman, dharma

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