Fuck Your Right Speech (Are You Listening?)
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.
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.
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.
Are you riled up for a fight — that you want rooted deep in Buddhist practice?
Seven Buddhist teachers — majority POC and LGBTQ — talk anger, politics, and dharma.