The New Vigilantism: It's Still Violence.

It’s been years in the making. The embrace of identity politics by the Baby Boomer Insight Meditation Societies beginning in the early 90’s has resulted in last years series of vigilante actions by individuals, teachers and teachers councils, culminating in the unprecedented removal of teacher Noah Levine’s authorization by Spirit Rock’s EAR Council. Decades of identity politics rhetoric and a misreading of Me Too are justifying a new form of violent, online vigilantism. Buddhist teachers have not only failed to speak out against this type of violence, they have promoted and participated in this new form of vigilantism for career protection and advancement.

Vigilantes take it upon themselves to mete out justice rather than work with police officers, lawyers, judges, and the rest of our established justice system to find the truth.

The new form of vigilantism uses social media, promoting unfounded accusations and the repetition of those unfounded accusations to incite others to act outside the justice system. The destruction of a teachers reputation by a hundred casual Facebook smears, Youtube videos and “comments”. Online platforms Facebook, Reddit and others allow anyone to post anything, about anyone, without the platforms themselves having to fear being prosecuted for libel. Use of these tactics is violence. According to the logic of vigilantism , those unjustly assumed guilty in the court of public opinion are "collateral damage," their fate justified by the need for revenge on the part of all who have been wronged. A lust for revenge drives this attempt at mob rule.

The results of these acts of violence are the destruction of personal reputations without any due process protections. Those attacked may lose everything. Loss of respect in the community. The ability to make a living. Marriages and families may be destroyed. All without a day in court for those accused. The losses may be permanent. What is posted online today will never go away. Vigilantes risk starting a cycle of violence and lawlessness in which the victims of vigilantism then take the law into their own hands.

How are buddhists justifying participating in this form of violence when the Buddhas instructions against violence are so clear?

All accusations of harassment must be taken seriously. Yes, because of the potential harm caused to the possible victim. But equally serious is the potential damage to reputation anyone accused of this type of crime will suffer. Accusations and accusers should be subject to questioning, to cross examination. Subject to the full process of the search for the truth. As determined by our highly evolved and professional justice system. Our system of justice strives to protect all of us from false or unprovable accusations.

The tactics of online vigilantism are not the tactics of the civil rights movement. The movement for civil rights was won by those willing to call out injustice by acting within the system of justice. The only vigilantes present were those (racist whites) who resorted to violence against marchers and other civil rights advocates.

Online vigilantism has an illegitimate goal, the destruction of reputations based on rumor, that is violent and destructive. This is a misreading of Me Too’s original stated purpose, which is to increase reporting of sexual harassment and assault by removing any stigma among victims. The civil rights movement had clear goals. Political change through registration of voters. Election of new leaders. Changes to the laws. This process of working within a system for change without resorting to vigilantism is the example we need in an American Buddhism. The end of segregation and formal discriminatory policies in employment, education, housing, and finance are proof of the viability of the non-violent tactics used by the civil rights movement in the sixties. The origin of these successful tactics are the teachings of non-violence as employed by Gandhi in India. Then, adopted by MLK and the rest of the leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to destroy Jim Crow.

To call ourselves American Buddhists we should reject any form of identity politics based new vigilantism. Embracing the unambiguous teachings of non-violence. Looking to the example of the wise tactics of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as a way to end injustice. Educating ourselves and those around us in the non-violence precepts of the Buddha that align with the best principles of American democracy and citizenship.


—The American Buddhist