RANT ON/ CFC is a Big Self-Congratulatory Pile of…(now with even a bigger pile…additions)

[Nov.16, 2009-Now they have a store where you can get your very own plaque of this non-event. They won’t tell you the price-you have to email-a limited edition hand made thing-and they won’t even give a picture but say it will “will be hung in significant religious and secular locations around the world.” Not getting many “affirmations” and “acts” on the website either-It took months and $100,000 to come up with four vague paragraphs which in summary state “We weren’t nice before but we will be now. I swear and you’d better swear on it too.” Talk about self-indulgence.][Dec. 21 2009- the price has now been listed at $200. Still no picture]

CFC means Charter for Compassion. It is a topic I’ve ranted on before here (Fashionable Compassion) and I still agree with myself about that initial impression. Well now after all the meetings, publicity, videos, travel, web sites, consultations, partnerships etc. it will finally be unveiled on Nov. 12, 2009. So here’s what they suggest you do about it.

Share the Charter with your family, friends and community. Attend a celebratory event the week after the unveiling. Organize an event in your town. Encourage your religious leader to give a service on compassion. CFC website

Sounds like fun. Sounds like we can all sit around and feel warm and yummy for having nicey-nice thoughts for an hour or two. And then what?

Here’s a bit of an analysis of this mush-fest called The Charter for Compassion, it’s Council members, contributors, partners and efforts.

Council of Conscience Members

There are 18 members to the Council for Conscience that are organizing this endeavor under the auspices of the TED prize (more on that little doodad later). Here are some statistics (3 tables in 1 to save space) involving these folks taken from the CFC website, their biographies and links provided by them.

Current Locations Number of members Religion Either Stated or by Institutional Affiliation Number of Members Profession (some belong to several categories) Number of Members
United States 9 Islam 6 Religious leader of a congregation, group or religious body 12
United Kingdom 2 Christian 5 Author 12
South Africa 2 Judaism 3 Director/president of an institute or council 11
Egypt 1 Quaker 1 Professor 9
Malaysia 1 Buddhist 1 Doctor (MD or PhD) 7
Netherlands 1 Hindu 1 Royalty 1
Palestine 1 Unknown 1 Performer (musician) 1
Switzerland 1

Seems like the Abrahamic faiths are well represented as are the upper class intellectuals and the First World nations. In the titles of these folks, aside from Dr. and Prof. we have the Grand Mufti of Egypt, an Archbishop (Anglican), a Bishop (Episcopalian), a Sister (Catholic), two Rabbis, several Rev. and a Baroness. There are also 2 monks, Hindu (Vedanta-US based) and Buddhist (Switzerland based with Thich Nhat Hanh’ s organization), the latter is also a Prof.

Contributors

There are 113 written contributions posted on the website even though it states that ”

  • December 18, 2008

    Contributions to the Charter close. Well over 150,000 people from over 180 countries participated in the course of the six weeks.

Here is a statistical rundown of those posted.

Contributors by Country Number Contributors by Religion Number
United States 55 Christian 33
United Kingdom 11 Other-Agnostic/Atheist/Secular 23
Australia 6 Buddhist 17
Canada 6 Islam 10
India 3 Other-Faith based 8
Austria 2 Judaism 6
Egypt 2 Unitarian Universalist 6
France 2 Hindu 3
Malaysia 2 Baha’I 3
Netherlands 2 Indigenous 1
New Zealand 2 Neo-Pagan 1
Pakistan 2 New Thought 1
South Africa 2 Shinto 1
Taiwan 2
Belgium 1
Brazil 1
Chile 1
Denmark 1
Germany 1
Korea 1
Lebanon 1
Philippines 1
Singapore 1
Slovenia 1
Sri Lanka 1
Trinidad and Tobago 1
United Arab Emirates 1

These numbers seem unusual until you break the religion category down by location. One would likely think (assume!) that the representation of so many Buddhists for example might have come from some of the Asian countries listed. Or that the Christians might have come from Europe or the Americas. Well guess again.

Christianity
country numbers
United States 17
United Kingdom 3
Malaysia 2
South Africa 2
Australia 1
Brazil 1
Denmark 1
India 1
Lebanon 1
Netherlands 1
Nigeria 1
Singapore 1
Sri Lanka 1
Unitarian Universalist
country numbers
United States 6
Judaism
country numbers
United States 4
Canada 2
Islam
country numbers
United Kingdom 3
Egypt 2
Pakistan 2
Canada 1
United Arab Emirates 1
United States 1
Buddhism
country numbers
United States 13
France 2
Germany 1
Slovenia 1
Secular/Atheist/Agnostic/Non-religious
country numbers
United States 10
Australia 4
United Kingdom 4
Canada 1
Korea 1
Netherlands 1
New Zealand 1
Philippines 1
Other-Faith based
country numbers
United States 3
Austria 1
Canada 1
New Zealand 1
Taiwan 1
United Kingdom 1

So if we look at these groupings we can note the following:

-not one Buddhist currently in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, India, Bhutan, Burma, China, Tibet, Malaysia or Indonesia has made a contribution worthy of listing. And by the names and places on the website listed with the contributors it appears most if not all listed as Buddhist are “convert” Buddhists and not Buddhists by birth. That is an assumption on my part based on knowledge of naming conventions in these western countries and in Asia.

-not one Jew from Israel or anywhere in Europe has made a contribution worthy of listing. There is one Council member who is a Rabbi from the Netherlands. Perhaps that was deemed sufficient.

There are also no Jains, Sikhs, Parsis, Taoists, Confucians unless these fall under Other-faith based somehow. Although Other-faith based could well mean Quakers, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witness or related sects. Shinto, Baha’i and Neo-Pagan have found at least one voice each in the group. The Atheists/Agnostics/Secularists have quite a representation mostly from America and Europe.

It would have been very interesting to get more of the data than this “representative” selection. It is less than 1/10th of 1%. and if 180 countries were represented in the responses why is this selection so heavily weighted in the direction that it is?

Partners

There are too many partner agencies to list.  Some are the representatives of large collective or educational bodies such as The National Council of Churches USA, The European Muslim Network, Union Theological Seminary and The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

The vast majority though are “think tank” or mildly activist “projects” to promote intercultural and interreligious dialogue. They mostly seem to be “forums” for  communication about these issues. And many seem to be on-line only sorts of institutions or groups. Few people outside of the intellectual “inter-religious dialogue” community would have ever heard of most of them. Some describe themselves as educational in nature and others conduct projects towards furthering related ends. Some claim to be engaged in research to influence public policy by conducting meetings and forums for dialogue. (That word again.) They seem to be about manufacturing PR for this circle of “inter-religious, inter-cultural dialogue” experts.  Could this be part of the agenda of the CFC? Almost all of the partner agencies listed  are non-profits and donations and grants are getting a bit thin in the current economic climate.

So What’s the Agenda?

While I alluded to some less than obvious agenda in the paragraph above, I do not doubt the good will of either the Council members or the Contributors nor even some of the Partners in this endeavor. A “gesture” of focusing on compassion may well be a heart-felt action. And the people involved appear to sincerely believe in this action. A boost in the popularity of “The Golden Rule” isn’t a bad idea every now and then. But have they actually thought about it in the bigger picture?

It’s highly unlikely that The Compassion Charter is going to swamp Facebook, trend in Twitter or go viral on YouTube. It’s mostly a big Karen Armstrong love fest as she won a TED prize for coming up with the idea. And dammit she’s got books to sell. Lot’s of ’em. (as do many of the Council members)

There are closed little circles of “policy-influencers” in every aspect of every realm you can think of in international relations. Check the back pages of The Economist magazine some time and take a look at all the jobs for policy developers, governance advisors, consultancies, program officers, executive directors, project managers, panel experts, research associates, policy analysts and team leaders. It’s a huge growth industry and if you can speak this language of vague intellectual international diplomacy (use the word dialogue a lot for starters!) and know how to organize some effective PR without really committing yourself to anything other than not yawning too much at the meetings at 5-star hotels around the world then these lucrative positions can be yours too. And if you can write on your CV “member (or partner) of the Council for Compassion Charter” so much the better.

The PR Machine

This entire endeavor appears to be a big public relations road show for the groups and individuals involved, various authors, publishers, media outlets and corporates but especially  TED . CFC is listed as a project of the TED prize on the bottom of the web pages. Consider some of the corporate sponsors of the TED prize-AMD, Sun Microsystems, AvenueA/Razorfish, Hot Studio, Nokia, IDEO, Kleiner Perkins, @radicalmedia, Adobe and Photosynth. TED is an invite-only, high-minded, self-congratulatory, think-fest that gives prizes to its own participants based on…(what criteria? I don’t know there’s none listed on the website).

This particular group met just outside of Geneva Switzerland, one of the most expensive cities in the world. Why not Jakarta, Hanoi, Chennai, Sao Paulo or Colombo or Nairobi? Yes the Swiss really need the money this little road show/convention provides. There’s compassion in action for you!

In viewing the website of this intellectual make-work endeavor there is no expense spared to put up these luminaries and their support crew (someone’s got to run the projector, put the fancy tablecloths out and the bottled water-see photo) as well as videotape all of the speeches, design the website, promote the cause, ferry all these spokespeople-for-the-world around (plane, car, taxi etc), feed them (but certainly not at some roadside diner!), house them while on the road (expensive hotels aplenty in Geneva-check out Trip Advisor for some of the prices-at loose estimate they are over 500$ per night average and you can be damn sure these folks won’t share a room!), take care of their dry cleaning, polish their shoes, carry their luggage, massage their egos….

The Dalai Lama has nothing to do with this production and that’s kind of interesting. Although on the CFC website there is some attempt to infer his involvement by a photo of himself with Archbishop Desmond Tutu on this history page. Now the Archbishop is one of the people in the Council. Karen Armstrong attended a conference that included the Archbishop (although he did not show up) and the Dalai Lama and numerous Nobel Laureates. There was a panel of Nobel Laureates on compassion. She did not participate in this panel but made a separate statement. There is no statement from the Dalai Lama about this CFC initiative.  (BTW Shared sponsorship for the TED and this Peace Conference in Vancouver-Fetzer Institute etal)

The website of the CFC spins the situation with these words:

Karen Armstrong participated in a session on compassion in action at the Vancouver Peace Summit with the Dalai Lama and many Nobel Laureates.

which makes it sound like she was part of the panel and not giving a separate statement.
Winning a TED prize for making the best wish (appears that’s the criteria)  is a far cry from a Nobel. But this little PR group is doing it’s damndest to gain some profile by riding on those coat tails. And no doubt Karen Armstrong sees herself as future Nobel material. Corporate leaders and their spokespeople wishing to be seen as compassionate. Now there’s a wish worthy of a prize. Oh I see that’s under way already!

Is it just coincidence that this grand unveiling takes place on November 12 one day after Remembrance Day in many Western countries. The pathos of that occasion will certainly soften up the consumers, er, I mean audience for this wank-fest.

The Ridiculousness of It All

Compassion by association or in this case the appearance of compassion by the appearance of association is almost as nauseating as “green” oil companies. There are so many hidden agendas in this little propaganda escapade that it is impossible to take it seriously.

November 12 2009 I’m not going to bother with this attempt to sanitize some corporate conscience and promote these ideologues in their self-deluded efforts to “change the world” with this kind of ridiculously expensive shallow patronizing gesture. No I will likely do something a little more immediate and effective like give a literacy lesson to the lady who does my cleaning (like every day) or donate to the local temple for the upkeep of the monks or help a friend wash their car. I’m not mentioning that to give myself some kind of compassion wank. There’s just real stuff right in front of everyone that can be done without all the hoopla and advertising and bogus prizes and all that goes along with it.

Addendum:

Today is the last day of TEDIndia. The final two speakers were Shashi Tharoor and HH Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa. This is an interesting combination.

Shashi Tharoor is a well-known ambitious politician who just missed out on becoming the Secretary General of the United Nations.  Since that loss he’s been shouldering his way into Indian National politics with quite a bit of swagger and bravado-offending quite a lot of people along the way but the publicity has certainly done something to increase his Twitter and Blog followings. He is also an author with quite a number of books out. Additionally Mr. Tharoor has long been in the diplomatic circuit involved in many of the “policy” discussions that I’ve mentioned above. He’s one of those “expert panelists” that is often called upon to give his opinion on such matters. Many people speculate that he wishes to become Prime Minister of India in the not too distant future.  This certainly wouldn’t hurt the TED’s corporate sponsors who obtain special tax incentives for setting up business in India (there’s your outsourcing!) as well as free or nearly free land in what the government calls SEZs (Special Economic Zones).

HH Karmapa Ji is currently in a position, in India and abroad, of needing to raise his profile in light of the age of HH Dalai Lama.  It is not without political advantage to be in the company of perhaps a future Prime Minister of India, on the same dais giving speeches.

That both are likely  future ultimate leaders of their respective peoples is no coincidence at all.

PS.  Sponsors  for TEDIndia include Microsoft, Infosys,  Barclay’s Wealth, Nokia, Google, Cisco, Intel, CNBC and Thompson Reuters. (SEZs indeed!)

Blog reactions:

Apparently I am not the only one with questions about this exercise. Opinions come from the center as well as  the left and right sides of the political spectrum:

Here’s an opinion that appeared at the time the CFC was announced from BeliefNet The Limits of Karen Armstrong’s Compassion by Rabbi Hirschfield

Response to Charter of Compassion-call for Charter fo Justice on Hilda Raja’s blog

On Charlie’s blog he takes another tack Charter for Compassion

The Golden Rule Is Still Not Much of a Moral Principle on Brian Carnell’s blog

A rather tepid response from the Darwinia blog in Charter for compassion It states:

But this charter will have all the flaws of Armstrong’s treatment of the Axial Age, where she smeared together the diversity of culture and religion to make a sausage out of it. This tendency will vitiate her charter, no doubt…
Compassion is not really the common denominator of all historically given religion, and in cases where it is explicit the results are often paradoxical…There’s worse, but a positive approach seems harmless enough.
So best to wave the hand, remembering only to remember the numberless dead in the name of compassion.

In the newspaper blog of The Ottawa Citizen blogger Dan Gardner writes The shiny, happy, tolerant face of religion, mainly pointing out the “inclusiveness” (or lack thereof) of the project.

Some fundamentalist Christians are taking issue with this too in Moving Toward a One World Religion While a little heavy on the conspiracy theory and paranoia side one commenter Barbara wrote:

This charter is supposed to do…what, exactly? Show an overrealized sense of self-importance on the part of its contributers? I mean, c’mon. It’s just some writing on a website to call people to do something that they either will do or won’t do as followers in their own religions/faiths, and they either will or won’t follow their faiths faithfully. What IS it with people deciding to come together to write something that has absolutely no legal bearing whatsoever?

I will say that some extremists have some objection to this thing too but I’m not linking to those blogs as they additionally tend to be extremely racist and offensive.  I am only mentioning them as their existence is part of the facts of the spectrum mentioned above. Posts have titles similar to “Charter of Compassion: Technofascist Religion”

A Prayer for Athiests discusses a book by Karen Armstrong,  has an interview with her and in the conclusion mentions her reaction to someone manhandling her suitcase. Nice quote from Ms Armstrong, “It cost me over a thousand pounds!” (about $2000) For a suitcase? What’s it made of, titanium? Choice comments on her statements too.

Even Deepak Chopra (who thought I’d ever quote him?) jumped into the fray with veiled criticism in The Mystery of the Compassionate Brain where he discusses the neurology of compassion:

Which leads me to believe that compassion isn’t a mood, a moral teaching, an ethical obligation, or a social ideal. It’s a subtle activity of the brain, prompted by desire and will. You have to desire to be compassionate and possess the will to train your brain to fulfill your desire. I’m not implying that the brain does the work. It merely adapts to your intention. The brain learns new skills by forming neural networks, actual connections between brain cells. If you think of compassion as a skill, like learning to play the violin or walking a tightrope, then the brain must also learn this skill by developing a special neural network.

I don’t mean to sound inhumane. Compassion has been a spiritual ideal for centuries. But it has also been a frustrating failure for centuries. We can turn that around by being realistic…[as opposed to idealistic?-my note]

To be interested in compassion isn’t an ordinary thing in our society, even among mature, psychologically developed people…

At the very least, to be compassionate while not changing the brain can only be a temporary achievement, not permanent change.

From Alternet Karen Armstrong Weaves Bizarre Defense of Religion Many of her suppositions are examined point by point.

Another from scientist P.Z.Myers blog Blithering utopianism in the cause of ignorance

It is interesting to note in the blogosphere that the vast majority of posts mentioning the CFC are cut and paste directly from the CFC website or it’s press releases and media. And also full of Karen Armstrong quotes: “She says…” “She asks…”  Almost no one has added any personal commentary to them since no one has bothered to even think a little about this project. It falls into the “easy to think” category and is accepted without question.  Swallowing the media grift whole.

I also notice quite a few of the partners and defenders of this ploy to be introducing their own concepts to it which are not stated at all. This includes “social justice”, “equality”, “human rights” , “religious harmony” and the like. Many are attempting to inject their own agendas into this basically fluff piece of burlesque.  The only agenda stated on the Charter website is

the Charter seeks to remind the world we already share the core principles of compassion…

The Golden Rule requires that we use empathy — moral imagination — to put ourselves in others’ shoes. We should act toward them as we would want them to act toward us. We should refuse, under any circumstance, to carry out actions which would cause them harm.

There is no mention of anything else beyond that. Perhaps the folks who have latched on to this production should actually take a closer look at it.

The number of management and business blogs picking up on the “compassionate workplace” or “compassionate management” theme is increasing. It appears the business community has been struck by a new buzzword. By example:David Zinger’s 19 Links and Lessons for the Workplace:From Radical Brevity to Compassion at Work:-it has already become just another employee motivator on a big list.

As for these TED winners and projects of the past. Who remembers these? And what have you done to incorporate them into your life?

What did Bono or Bill Clinton wish for? They both won the prize previously you know.

Once Upon a School project by Dave Eggars. What was it about?

One winner said “I wish that you would empower Earthlings everywhere to become active participants in the ultimate search for cosmic company.” Who was it?

But hey all the nerds and big business dudes got to meet Bono right? So what else matters?

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2 comments on “RANT ON/ CFC is a Big Self-Congratulatory Pile of…(now with even a bigger pile…additions)

  1. Religion in the U.S. is two things: politics and marketing. I’m not surprised by the skewed representation from Western countries because in the West, religion is political. It’s all about outcome rather than process. And because there is no focus on process, the outcomes are always screwed up.

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