Reflections on Right Speech
Recently I was following a debate between two meditators (yes, we do debate). It ended with one of the debaters, whose views had been soundly taken to task, accusing the other of “wrong speech.”George Orwell, I thought, could not have imagined a more ironic outcome.
For those who are not familiar, “right speech” is a Buddhist concept, and is one of the steps in the Buddha’s eightfold path. Although the intent behind right speech is to help people behave skillfully by being truthful and not hurting others with words, in practice it can be anything but useful. In fact, it can be used to squash dissent, shut out alternative views, and put the brakes on important and revolutionary ideas. Wrong thinking about right speech can be a hindrance to innovation and authentic sharing.
The Wrong Speech Accusation
Few things stop a person in their tracks faster than accusing them of wrong speech. For those protecting their attachment to a deeply held view, such an accusation can be a trump card, a way to hold off challenges to beliefs that have become an identity. This is especially true when the person accused of wrong speech is persistent, critical and direct. This is often when the wrong speech card gets played in Buddhist circles, and staying with right speech actually takes some guts.
Sometimes a person can be rough, or even harsh, but still be engaging in right speech. To some folks this might sound crazy, but it is totally true. In reality right speech can be both gentle and kind or strong and challenging. It can be encouraging or dissuading. It can comfort and it can push others out of their comfort zone. It can make you feel great and give you a boost, or it can challenge who you think you really are. The Buddha himself was extremely compassionate, but he also jumped into many heated debates to give his two cents, and even called people “stupid” when they made ridiculous assertions (MN 4.8).
How can this be so? Right speech is not determined by how it looks to others. It is determined by the intent of the speaker and the context in which it is spoken. It can look divisive, harsh and anything but compassionate. But if it nudges the listener and the speaker in the direction of honesty, self-examination and awakening, then it is skillful.
(One caveat: if you’re reading this you’re not likely a Buddha (harsh, I know). So, be cautious with the name-calling and attitude when debating others. If the mythology around the guy was any indication, he was likely perceived as being compassionate even when calling a person “stupid.”)
The Wrong Speech Cop-Out
Some people use right speech as a cop-out, as an excuse for not confronting bone-headed superstitious thinking or even injustice when it presents itself. For example, deciding not to tell a person that they are hurting others, when they clearly are, is an example of wrong speech. This is not at all academic. Consider for a moment the many scandals in Sanghas that began with a teacher verbally harassing and belittling students. The most common question after such scandals is: why didn’t anybody say anything? In such instances right speech would be considered harsh and divisive if it were done at the appropriate time.
Another example is not confronting a person when they are speaking or behaving in a bigoted manner, or staying silent while public figures espouse hateful views. We have all too many instances of this in our recent history. Not openly disagreeing with these views when you have an opportunity to do so is not skillful. People who are genuinely on the fence about racism, homophobia, sexism and other social ills hear your silence as agreement – and that is absolutely wrong speech.
The point is that silence is likely the most common form of wrong speech.
How Do I Engage Socially, Politically, and Still Use Right Speech?
If you want to engage in right speech you need to think before you speak. In particular you need to consider a few things before you say something:
Is this false?
Am I trying to hurt this person?
Am I trying to serve my ego? To boost myself up in some way, to make myself look important, smart, or cool?
Is saying this just serving a favored identity of mine?
Am I confused and trying to hide it?
If you answered yes to any of these, then it’s best not to say anything. In other words, check your motivations for speaking. If it is selfish, hurtful, or comes from a place of confusion, then abstain. However, I would add one caveat. Before abstaining ask yourself this question:
Am I simply avoiding speaking up because it will be uncomfortable?
If you answered yes to this, then reconsider. Don’t let misguided ideas of right speech get in the way of doing the right thing.