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Fuck Your Right Speech (Are You Listening?)

Illustration by Shing Yin Khor, CC via Wikimedia Commons.

Have you encountered it, too? Habitual reactions to social justice criticism and activism that evoke the integrity of personal good intentions to deflect charges of unavoidable (but often unacknowledged) complicity in structural and systemic oppression. Or instead of moralizing by appealing to individualist authenticity, they might evoke universalizing platitudes: you know, like All Lives Matter, Love Trumps Hate, and all that guff. Perhaps you’ve had to confront this sort of ignorant, cowardly moral posturing in social media commentaries, about how your constant political protesting is too depressing or pessimistic, or that your relentless activism is too angry or divisive to resolve conflicts.

I trust you’d have experienced how emotionally and spiritually draining it is having to repeatedly respond to such reactions.

So why don’t we fuck this shit?

I want to propose ethicopolitical experiments to explore situational tactics to thwart this ignorant and even cowardly habit of moral posturing. What might it be like to develop various counter-tactics of “fuck your good intentions,” “fuck your All Lives Matter,” “fuck your Love Trumps Hate” — and even “fuck your Right Speech?”

This is risky work. I am not going to claim this is “skillful means.” But I have enough self-love to know when to say “fuck you and fuck off,” thank you very much. This is a more basic act of taking response-ability for the label of “social justice warrior” that is used derogatorily for those of us who just wouldn’t STFU about injustice. Shouldn’t it be clear what to expect from us, then, if this is what we are? Warriors are not in the business of making people feel good by pandering to desperate cravings for validation and authenticity. Warriors fight.

Three tactics.

Tactic #1 — Set your boundaries and be clear who or what the problem is.

The Akkosa Sutta provides a lesson on how to deal with the harmful effects of acts from others, like insult. The tactic is very simple. If we don’t accept the attempts of others to draw us into acts with harmful consequences, then they will have to keep and bear those consequences themselves.

When oppressed people encounter reactions like “All Lives Matter” or seemingly compassionate reminders about how our angry protests might be divisive or that we should always remember that Love Humps Tate—is this not an insult? An insult to the those whose actual suffering we are calling attention to with our anger, by depicting those who are enduring the humiliation of longterm oppression as ignorant about the importance of love. Fuck off. Make them take back the harmful consequences of their insulting behavior by remaining stubborn and unreasonable in the face of all their cowardly moral posturing. Keep them frustrated, keep them unnerved, keep them worried.

 

Tactic #2 – Reject, refuse, do not play the lose-lose game of white reason and respectability.

There’s a wonderful passage in a blogpost entitled, “Evidence,” by feminist thinker Sara Ahmed, which I’m terribly fond of. It has been such a source of insight and inspiration in its frankness and simplicity.

No matter how much evidence you have of racism and sexism, no matter how many documents, communications, encounters, no matter how much research you can refer to, or words you can defer to, words that might carry a history as an insult, what you have is deemed as insufficient. The more you have to show the more eyes seem to roll. My proposition is simple: that the evidence we have of racism and sexism is deemed insufficient because of racism and sexism. Indeed racism and sexism work by disregarding evidence or by rendering evidence unreliable or suspicious – often by rendering those who have direct experience of racism and sexism unreliable and suspicious. This disregarding – which is at once a form of regarding – has a central role in maintaining an order of things. Simply put: that evidence of something is deemed insufficient is a mechanism for reproducing something.

Did you roll your eyes as you read this? I did. Because it is true, isn’t it? No matter how logical or supported our reasoning may be, or even when we try to use emotional appeals of morality, we are still met with skepticism or outright rejection—or worse, more moral posturing. And I am speaking as someone with able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual male-passing privilege; there are others who have to deal with this shit a lot worse than I do. My takeaway from this passage is that the game of white reason and respectability is rigged. It is a lose-lose game because the starting and continuing premise for the unearned affordances of trust and civility of systemic whiteness, is its stealing and robbing and continuing crushing of the human dignity of others. It is a parasitic system. Do not engage with it. Each time we try to reason with it or try to appeal to its moral integrity (does it even have integrity?), is to let it feed off our human dignity. Stop. Starve the White Troll.

Image by Johnny Silvercloud, Creative Commons, Flickr.

 

Tactic #3 — Reverse the onus of building trust.

Where it is safe and viable, expose privileged (white) people to the feelings of embarrassment or shame or guilt they’re accustomed to getting away with at the (unacknowledged) expense of others; do not gift trust and respect to them automatically, so that they must confront for themselves whether they deserve trust and respect or not, and thus perform the necessary hard work to build trust and respect with others.

The first two tactics are beginning to alert us to the nature of this fight test we are experimenting with, and this third tactic requires some elaboration. The fight test I’m proposing is not about abusing the targets of our protests or criticisms, even though our stubborn and unreasonable tactics might require harsh, no-bullshit expressions of “fuck you and fuck off.” Rather, the fight test is about being clear who or what should be responsible for the systemic consequences of harm that arise intentionally or unintentionally in the encounter. (Let’s not forget that mindfulness is not nonjudgmental but ardently heedful, discerning, clearly comprehending.) The objective is not to determine culpability, which is to apportion blame and to mete out punishment. The objective is to foster an ethos of response-ability, which is a reparative task of healing damaged lives and repairing broken worlds.

To this end, it is important to be mindful of the dangers of what professor of peace, justice, and human rights studies, Jill Stauffer, describes as ethical loneliness.

Ethical loneliness is the experience of being abandoned by humanity compounded by the experience of not being heard when you testify to what happened.

Becoming mindful of ethical loneliness will help us to become more responsive towards the everyday harm of systemic violence, which is not only suffered through large-scale orchestrated acts but also in mundane heartbreaks. Ethical loneliness occurs when people suffer not only the harm of systemic conditions of injustice and inequality, but the added harm of having their suffering — and calls for recognition, and justice — trivialized or ignored.

To illustrate the dangers of ethical loneliness, Stauffer explores gaps and faultlines in truth commissions convened for survivors of genocidal and totalitarian violence — in Africa, South America, and Western and Eastern Europe. She recounts scenarios from these truth commissions and international tribunals where the failure to properly listen resulted in ethical loneliness. Those bearing witness only fixate on affirming stories of harmony, resilience or the overcoming of tragedy, and fail to listen to stories of anger, resentment, or destruction.

The fixation on positive stories paints an overly simplistic picture of reparative justice, by assuming there is no place for uncooperative, difficult expressions and encounters in the task of political healing and repair. But expressions of anger and resentment in the face of the continuing neglect of suffering are a form of reasonable action. If we learn how to listen to them by staying with the trouble and discomfort they provoke, we might hear in anger and resentment a call for justice, a call to address the neglect of the harm suffered and for assurance that violence will not recur.

But as I’ve said, the dangers of ethical loneliness do not just relate to largescale instances of injustice. Because we confront it in mundane heartbreaks, too — like when a seemingly trustworthy friend suddenly tells us that our relentless protests against racism are making them uncomfortable Or when they tone-police us by reminding us about Right Speech, Love Trumps Hate, and all that. It never fails to surprise, yet it is unsurprising, how such reactions of fragility recur.

Or as it happened to me in a scenario that didn’t even involve anything as dramatic as racism. I once tried to tell a senior academic I was having a tough time because of the financial-material insecurity I’ve been facing, being precariously employed for so long. I told the person that the severity of my situation hit me one day when I found myself freezing up in the middle of a supermarket aisle, just caught in a state of panic, finding myself unable to decide on purchasing something basic. But the other person responded to my expression of vulnerability as casual chat with a joke: “Oh, were you at the frozen food aisle?”

To be clear, this is a good person. But this person is of a very different, privileged world. I don’t think this person was listening attentively to what I was saying, even though they heard my words. An encounter of mundane heartbreak which robs dignity from those expressing suffering.

This failure to listen is not simply a matter of personal shortcoming. It is a kind of systemic failure that comes with the affordances of privilege, particularly the unearned affordances of trust and civility that is secured and continues to be secured at the (unacknowledged) expense of the dignity of others. So let’s fight the violence of the system with clear comprehension of the dangers of ethical loneliness, by making it difficult for those shielded by systemic privilege to ignore the calls of justice in expressions of anger and resentment. All the fucking incessant talk of Right Speech—what about listening?

If you are on the receiving end of these sorts of stubborn and unreasonable acts of refusal, it is understandable that feelings of embarrassment, shame, guilt, and even humiliation, are difficult to face. Oppressed or marginalized people face them everyday, especially in encounters with a please and thank you—so much Right Speech! We lose a little of bit of the self, a part of the self dies, each time we encounter habitual reactions that rob us of dignity by denying (if only unwittingly) the suffering we endure or protest about. But the precariousness of the self reminds us of a truth about exposure to otherness or what is not-self. Sovereignty is not to be independent but to be dependent because we need others to acknowledge and gift recognition of dignity to feel valued as a self. Without these ties of entanglement, how are we going to heal from the harms we suffer and inflict on one another?

So it is not with malice that I am proposing this fight test to confront you with difficult feelings. Because it is with hope that—should you feel your taking-life-for-granted troubled a little, your sense of self dying a little—then maybe there is a chance for us to build trust and respect together, a chance for us to perform the shared promise of #makingrefuge anew from situation to situation with response-ability.

I am taking response-ability with the label of “social justice warrior” by starting fights with these three tactics—1.) of setting boundaries and being clear about the source of the problem; 2.) of refusing to play the lose-lose game of white reason and respectability; and 3.) of exposing the harmful consequences of dehumanization by confronting oppressors or privileged people with difficult encounters they habitually avoid or difficult expressions they are afraid to listen to.

If I am starting fights, I am doing so by exposing us to vulnerability, because exposure to vulnerability is a basic existential fact of life that is also socially produced in the service of power: vulnerability is something we share-in-difference. If I am starting fights, I can only trust you are listening to what I’m trying to say, when you hear “Fuck your Right Speech.”

About the Author

 

Edwin Ng describes himself as a postcolonial “Western Buddhist” convert because, even though he was born and raised in Singapore where he was exposed to the Buddhist customs of his diasporic Chinese ancestral heritage, he only embraced Buddhism after he migrated to Australia and discovered Western translations of the teachings. His interest in the cultural translation of mindfulness is motivated by the lived tensions of straddling multiple cultural and intellectual traditions, and of attempting to cultivate mindfulness to support scholarship, pedagogy, and activism within and against an increasingly corporatized academic regime.

But Ed has just left fifteen years of life in Australia and is now jobless and catless and he has no savings. He needs time to grieve and heal from the trauma of toxic academia. Ed is unsure if academia is where he should be fighting, but he is looking for a fight.

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Comments (10)

  • Leonard

    So:
    Racialize reason as white — and reject it.
    Use language of sexual domination to respond to the the Buddhist precept of Right Speech — and reject it.

    Perhaps given the direction of this community it would be most honest to drop the names Buddhist and Peace
    in name as already in spirit.

  • Macaroni

    “unearned affordances of trust and civility of systemic whiteness, is its stealing and robbing and continuing crushing of the human dignity of others”

    It is the western world (ergo causcasion society) that bought most medical, scientific, industrial, philosophical and democratic advances to the world, so I sincerely hope the author of this article is true to his cause and rejects all ‘white’ inventions – including rejecting any medical treatment from a white surgeon, or any bridge built by white engineers. The sheer racism of tarring a whole ethnic group with the same brush is astounding. The author seems to have a massive chip on his shoulder. He must have an awful lot of time on his hands to construct such deluded fantasies. And he has the cheek to do this in the name of a so-called peacful religion. Let me tell you something: most of us don’t live our lives obsessed with race and “victim mentality.” I’m a teacher and a mother. I get up at 6am each morning to drive an hour to a school where I spend the day teaching kids and everyday I am abused, threatened, disrespected by teenagers and sometimes even their parents. Does that make me a victim? Not once does that thought enter my head. Does it make a difference if I was black or white or asian? Do I look at my colleagues differently because they are a different colour to me? Of course not. Because I judge a person by the content of their character not the colour of their skin. Does my baby have ‘white privilidge’ just because she’s born white? Even though we have no money and live in a tiny house and drive 20 year old cars? No. Of course not.

    Sadly as the illustration shows in this article, the author would rather stick his middle finger up and swear profanities at me because I hold a different opinion to him.

    You know what would be truly buddhist, truly spiritual? To let go of the narcissistic self-riteousness and sense of moral superiority for a five minutes and actually engage peacefully and lovingly with your so-called enemy, open up a dialogue, have a grown up conversation. You might actually learn something.

  • joi wolfe

    leonard, macaroni, i hate to be a rigid grammarian, but you both spelled white fragility wrong, repeatedly.

  • Macaroni

    Joi Wolfe – I didn’t use the word fragility once in my reply but if I made any grammatical errors it’s probably due to the fact I’ve not had more than three hours sleep in a row in the last six months and I generally don’t reply to articles as these days it’s impossible to reason with lefties they would far rather throw as hominem attacks around rather than engage in meaningful intelligent debate (as we see with the authoritarianism of “no platforming”). Anyway I have a baby to look after so I’m not going to waste more time here. Adios, or should I say to this author, zaizian.

  • joi wolfe

    wowsers, way to run on assumptions and miss the point.

    i’m somewhat taken aback at your characterisations and dismissal. i suppose i shouldn’t be, given the previous post.

    perhaps you are not familiar with the term “white fragility” as it’s used in anti-racist work.

    if so, may i suggest: https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/white-fragility-why-its-so-hard-to-talk-to-white-people-about-racism-twlm/

    something that i feel is so deeply important as a buddhist in this work, is the concept of wrathful compassion. this is what i understand edward’s post to be about.

  • Rich

    How do people change? It is important to have a meaningful grasp of this issue. For the most part, blaming and shaming do not facilitate change. Discharging one’s (justified) anger and rage towards someone you believe capable of change is infrequently the best foundation for catalyzing and/or supporting ongoing change. Often, it triggers reactivity and reactance…and these are generally not your friends on the path to social change, justice, and freedom. Discharging anger towards people you asses to be unlikely to change creates volatility, and only rarely does it foster a change of heart. Just my opinion, but I hope anyone reading this might reflect on what conditions brought them to undertake change, and particularly, what conditions fahave, for you, faclitated the emergence of your own wisdom, such that it could be brought to bear on the coarsest levels of reality.

    Setting limits and boundaries is very valuable. Doing it without using the language of reactive hostility is even more valuable. Let’s consider eschewing the F bombs, and their misuse of good dynamic energy and impulse to pursue a more just, less racist system

    When it comes to learning, it is almost always best to ask questions that point one in the right direction: Do you hear that bird? Do you know what kind of bird it is? Do you know where it perches (treetops, ground level)? Do you know what its nest looks like? Do you know what it eats? Etc., etc. If we engage curiosity and and elicit a lingering look in the direction of the phenomenon of interest, it is possible that the other might see what we hope they will see, and that they will take it in, and perhaps even that any reactivity is not a response to “outside input”, but to an inner conflict of ine’s own. And we can always dispense useful information (“that is a vulture, and it eats dead animals”).

    Diagnosis is not useful to the person being diagnosed, and self diagnosis is often more damaging (because it is rooted in a superficial understanding of one’s own process). So maybe we could dispense with any discussion of “white fragility”, and perhaps dialogue in a way that is immediate and heartfelt, and does not invoke a layer abstraction that might distract and become reified.

    Just a few thoughts…if you find them offensive or unhelpful, please accept my apologies.

    IF the words of my Buddhist friends are merely the socially liberal version of Fox News diatribes and self-justifications, then we are lost before we out of sight of the trailhead.

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