‘Right Speech’ & the Struggle of Sharing Our Opinions Online
Buddhism instructs us to cultivate sincere, empathetic, loving-kindness speech. On the internet, that's a challenge.
Buddha is very clear on that aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path which is Right Speech.
He describes it as:
“Abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, and abstinence from idle chatter.”
There are other terms sometimes used to talk about these things, such as divisive speech, etc. But I’ll use these terms for the purposes of this post.
As a YouTuber, I think about Right Speech as mindfulness practice a lot. As a wannabe artist, I also think about the need to provoke, even to offend, the sensibilities of others so as to spark a discussion.
How can these two desires be reconciled?
I would love for my words to never cause any upset, but realistically speaking, that can never be achieved. You cannot take a position on any issue without being the offending party to the people who take the other side on that issue.
This is an unfortunate fact of reality.
Anything you say will be good for one person, bad for another. So you have two options. Never say anything because you don’t want to participate in the offending game, or just say what you really think and deal with the consequences. But what are those consequences? Well, some people have been beaten, murdered, etc over their views. Others have been elevated to positions of high esteem. So the opinion racket is not a game without a substantial risk/reward factor.
So to what degree should one remain locked in endless deliberation over what is “right speech?” How much should I be concerned about my safety versus my desire to express what I really think and what I really feel? Can any amount of thinking about this problem, as opposed to just doing, bring me to any sort of truth or knowledge as to what is the proper speech to use, or should I just trial and error it until I figure out what works?
I’ll try to breakdown my understanding of the precepts outlined above.
1. Abstinence from false speech: I see this as making the genuine attempt to be as honest as possible in describing one’s positions, feelings, thoughts, and views on any given matter. It is better to be honest and offend than to be deceptive in order to gain praise. Otherwise, there is no authenticity in the conversation. Truth, subjective as it may be when considering the malleability of perspectives, comes before the desire for social approval.
2. Abstinence from malicious speech: this is speech that is intended to inflict hurt upon another. Is it wrong, always and objectively, to use words as insults, to tear down, to shame, or to otherwise try and effect change in the world? There are many people doing this sort of thing, particularly in the realm of politics. Smearing is the name of the game, and character assassinations seem to be the focus of both the pundits and their followers. Buddha would say that to use violent speech against another is to allow that violence into yourself. Furthermore, I ask myself often, what if my art offends, hurts feelings, or provokes, not because I desire in a malicious sense to cause that kind of upset, but because it will happen anyway regardless of what I express?
3. Abstinence from harsh speech: perhaps this has some overlap with malicious speech. Both can be considered as divisive speech, causing disharmony instead of harmony with one’s words and expressions, as well as gossiping, raising one’s tone of voice, and all that sort of stuff. What is the difference between gossiping and becoming a pundit with one’s channel, who remains fixated upon discussing the views, life, and times of other people? Is that not just higher-level gossip? Is that the most appropriate way to talk about ideas, or is there another way? I think I can handle not raising my voice, but how then to make sure people who read my text comments read it in the correct tone, and not in a tone that they themselves are projecting upon it? I think I’ve discovered that oftentimes, we read comments in a tone that is wholly off from what the original poster intended, and so there is a significant mismatch there.
4. Abstinence from idle chatter: I take this to mean I should talk about what is important, and nothing else. Now, I don’t think this has to be taken too seriously. Idle chatter is what most of us make throughout the day. In other words, “small talk.” I don’t believe that everything we say has to be connected to the bigger picture or to some pressing concern in society or elsewhere. But I do think it means I should, in a general sense, try and make a consistent effort to express views that are of true value to people, as opposed to wasting their time with endless small talk or diversionary entertainment.
Right Speech is really Buddhism’s philosophy on what is empathetic, sincere, and loving-kindness speech. I think this is important because… well…
Words have power.
If you need proof, look around. Pundits and ideological giants are the ones leading the social media [shit-circus] at the present moment (is the word “shit” a violation of Right Speech?). In the past, tyrants such as Adolf Hitler used words to create narratives that made entire nations galvanize behind their fascist programs.
Words can coax people into violence, or talk them out of it.
Words can soothe pain, or create more of it.
Words can help us understand our lives, or make it more confusing.
Words can save a relationship, or doom it to failure.
So I do think this Right Speech thing is pretty important to think about. But there are many who pay no heed to this sort of thing, and will actively tell you to weaponize hateful speech, so long as it is directed at the proper people who need to be at the receiving end of it.
For instance, if you are opposed to Trump, you may think that it is okay to continuously serve out hatred against him and his supporters. Likewise, if you are for Trump, you may think it’s okay to do the same to those who do not support him.
And then there is the question of what is an acceptable form of humor. Is sarcasm passable? Sarcasm is a very hurtful form of humor for the party on the receiving end of it, but it’s exceptionally funny for those who aren’t. So is sarcasm acceptable in one’s conduct, or is that an element of humor that is better left behind?
And so I am left with the same question, how much should I think about this, as opposed to just jumping in and sharing my opinions?
Will my words ever do anything if I constantly hold back what I’m really feeling inside, because I’m trying to cautiously avoid causing as much pain as possible?
Or is it something craftier than that, something colder, something that offends in a smooth criminal sort of way? I’m reminded of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which triggered and upset, very deeply, a large segment of the Star Wars fandom.
Now, Lucasfilm knew what they were doing with that film. They knew the direction it took would make a lot of people very angry, and that they would likely remain angry about the whole thing for a very long time, yet they did it anyway.
Is it excusable because we happened to not be the offended party? What about if we are the offended party next time around, is it then inexcusable?
Is there a way to drop out of that whole thing altogether and stop reacting to every recent development in the manner of some programmed droid? I’m interested in that question. But at the same time, talking about unfolding developments is really the only way to stay relevant. Opinion pieces, and indeed even art, will fail to spark a discussion if it is not related to things as they are happening right now.
So what if I am not a reputable, well-known, established artist, who has his life all figured out, with some mission that he’s ready to preach? Should my art try to align itself with someone else’s viewpoints, to avoid expressing the truth within, which is that I just don’t really care to have it all figured out right now?
I think that would violate the first precept outlined above, which is to abstain from lying.
I could pretend, very easily, mind you, that I have some sort of answers to give you, some sort of valuable opinion on this or that, backed up facts, data, convincing philosophical arguments, etc, etc. But it would be a lie because I have no such things.
My philosophy at the present moment is a philosophy of unlearning what I’ve learned, and then seeing what I learn after returning to that original void, or vacuum, from which things arise.
Most people do not want to unlearn. They want to keep on “learning.” Stuffing their heads with knowledge. Or to use a Zen story, filling that cup up with water until it starts to spill over.
We chase opinions, endlessly. Searching for better arguments, better theories, better answers, better counter-arguments, snarkier rebuttals, better advice, better programs for living, and this and that.
What if you see the folly of that, and so decide to not concern oneself with such matters? To simply dwell in the present moment, and express whatever it is that’s there, right now, in your life, in your mind, and in your body?
I’m very interested in such things. But it does make this “right speech” thing kind of difficult to figure out. Because I don’t really have anything to talk about. And in many ways, creating art is the opposite of talking about it.
This is not to say, in some sort of elitist way, that the artist is superior to the critic or person discussing art. But the two activities do require a different emphasis as far as where one’s focus is.
And so now I’m left wondering how my art, if at all, will attempt to be “Right Speech” in its expression, or if it’s even possible, given the easily offendable, sensitive nature of my human kin.
Only one way to find out. Go forward.