The recent events in Paris have stimulated a lot of discussion regarding free speech in the press, blogs and across social networks and the issue of whether free speech equals having the right to insult others has been centre stage in discussion taking place in the UK. I wanted to say a few words on the topic and look at comments that have come from a number of Buddhist sources that I think are complicit in calling for the suppression of free speech. It seems to me that a lot of well-meaning folks are unable to distinguish between being nice and being socially and politically irresponsible, demonstrating at times a rather warped utopian view of the world which seems prevalent amongst well-meaning western Buddhists and liberals. Some of what I write here will be obvious to the politically informed reader, but I am writing it nonetheless, because it turns out that a lot of folks just do not get why a secular pluralistic society is so important and seem all to willing to start giving up on freedom of speech.
I teach English in Italy and have spent the last week engaging students in debate on free speech. I introduced the same questions with high school teenagers, university students and adults, and there have been consistent responses to the questions posed, which are more or less as follow:
1. Do you think free speech is important? Why?
2. Should free speech ever be limited? Why?
3. Is it right to punish people for the things they say? Who should punish them?
4. Does free speech allow us to offend people? Why? Why not? Are there exceptions?
Speech is energy in motion and it feeds movement. When we are mindless in our speech, it tends to go out and feed ongoing patterns of fixed referencing that define the roles we end up in, and identify with. These roles are multiple; an interwoven network of positions that emerge through creative belief manufacturing, the stabilising of dependable feelings, the fabrication of pre-set emotional modes and the fixation of linguistic patterns that affirm our stance in relationship to the fundamental symbols that make up our personal world in all its fictitious glory.
Speech is energy in motion. It feeds movement, and therefore, can lead us out of our ongoing patterns of fixed referencing, and release us from roles that are no longer ‘comfortable’, or helpful. Speech can be used to seed intent into our fields of experience, giving growth to budding, and then strengthening, awareness and new perspectives. The choice is ours. Do we wish to be imprisoned in half-asleep living, or wake up and step outside into a more authentic experience of our lives? There are risks of course, and it’s not really easy, but if you have tasted deep dissatisfaction with the fictitious illusions that makes up so-called normal, then you might just be ready to take a plunge into unknown depths.
Taking on the dialogue
Right speech is one of the easiest of the Eightfold path elements to relate to. Why? Because we are constantly engaging in speech, whether externally through conversation with others, or, through our internal dialogue, which is the inexhaustible conversation we sustain with ourselves. Speech provides ample material for us to work with as meditators and in order to pursue more constructive speech, the instructions are simple. The challenge for us, however, is to make the instructions fit our world, and our ongoing and unfolding experience. For Right Speech to become a path and a strategy for change, its basic fourfold ethical basis has to be applied with discipline and consistency.
Firstly, we need to experience and recognise personally how we actively engage in the four misuses of our voice, as well as get clearer on the intent that is behind our habitual speech patterns. As early Buddhism displays, lists can be very useful. Making your own list on when, why and how can be very useful as a basis for further action. In order to arrive at the point where these patterns become clearly visible, we need to continue in our practice of meditation so that awareness increases, and so that we can bring awareness into dialogues. Then, we simply need to ask ourselves some pertinent questions and leave enough space for honest and frank answers to emerge. The following might be a good start;
‘Buddhist ethics are based on the notion of harmony’
Introduction; intent and view
Falsification and fabrication lie at the heart of wrong speech. Together with destructiveness and cruelty they make up the dark edges that mark unmindful and unhelpful speech. Truth and authenticity instead are integral features of Right Speech along with modes of communication that engender understanding and harmony. In practising the Eightfold path, Right Speech marks a clear step off of the meditation cushion and into action. It marks a deliberate engagement with the world and therefore it contains a strong ethical dimension in order to give rise to a more responsible relationship with the world. As with any facet of spiritual development, it is useful to have some guidelines to keep us on the straight and narrow and assist us in avoiding potential pitfalls that may accompany the process of opening and awakening to a fuller and freer experience of life. Right Speech along with Right Action reminds us that our actions count. Maturity is a key theme and however evolved a person might seem to be, or feel themselves to be, maturity is an ongoing process of becoming more responsible and more responsive to the ongoing conditions we face.
Whether we are capable of carrying Right Speech into our day-to-day lives is dependent on our ability to align our communication with a form of Right View and Right Intention; both discussed in earlier posts. In order to discover more authentic and transparent modes of communication we need to establish a clear and workable intent, which if we are Buddhist, should ideally emerge from the desire to end confusion and suffering, as well as reduce our contribution to the global mess in all its myriad forms. Even if you’re not a Buddhist, such an intent is noble and perhaps worthy of your attention all the same. Starting with more modest intents is ok too and a simple wish to be less argumentative is a fine place to start.
If you’re motivated to work with your speech, know that a clear, self-generated and personalised intent to ‘cut the crap’ will be paramount in creating any lasting change to indulgent habits. Habits are by their nature impulsive, changing them will require discipline and commitment. Both qualities developed on the cushion.
The two primary elements in approaching this practice are;
1. Working with our actual experience
2. Deciding what is helpful?
Any subsequent elaboration of Right Speech would be well placed in relation to these two considerations in a pragmatic model. Right Speech continues in the way of dual activity having at its centre the renunciation of specific forms of speech and a dedication to actively using speech in a proactive and unitive way. These are the outer disciplines.