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How Right Speech Goes Wrong in Social Activism

When groups of folks discuss social and political issues, right speech is like a black squirrel standing tall amongst a sea of grey ones. So much of the time, we’re in reactive mode, tossing nuts from our heads rather than gathering them from our heart-minds. This seems especially true when groups are large, people don’t know each other, and/or the topic is so hot button that anything said can become a trigger for upset.

Right speech, in my view, is non-violent speech. Whether we’re talking about informal conversations between practitioners, or the use of formal methods like Marshall Rosenberg’s NVC to mitigate long standing conflicts, non-violence is at the core. Which maybe is obvious, but somehow, returning to that touchstone seems difficult for most of us a lot of the time. Especially in the middle of talking about issues like racism, sexism, state sanctioned warfare, fracking, police violence, abortion, and the like.

Amongst social activists, things often fall apart when we move down to the next level. Heated debates about methods, tactics, and political philosophy frequently spill over into personal attacks, hostile critiques, and even hate filled tirades. Attempts to silence and power grabs are commonplace in the activist world, often mimicking the very political and cultural structures that the groups aim to overthrown and replace.

The Eightfold Path is filled with teachings for the practitioner/activist to apply in social action settings, but among them, right speech seems to be the one most in need of attention.

From the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta comes the following:

And how is one made impure in four ways by verbal action? There is the case where a certain person engages in false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty [i.e., a royal court proceeding], if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ Thus he consciously tells lies for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of a certain reward. He engages in divisive speech. What he has heard here he tells there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he tells here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus breaking apart those who are united and stirring up strife between those who have broken apart, he loves factionalism, delights in factionalism, enjoys factionalism, speaks things that create factionalism. He engages in abusive speech. He speaks words that are harsh, cutting, bitter to others, abusive of others, provoking anger and destroying concentration. He engages in idle chatter. He speaks out of season, speaks what isn’t factual, what isn’t in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, & the Vinaya, words that are not worth treasuring. This is how one is made impure in four ways by verbal action.

Being the “one who knows” is so seductive. Those who appear to know tend to get to lead. They get looked up to. They get praised. Even those who languish in a minority opinion get attention by appearing to know something.

Claiming to not know when you do is also seductive. Getting out of responsibility is one possible benefit. Not having to say something you know will upset others is another. False not knowing is a great way to maintain a certain reputation. How many people with reputations of being “nice” regularly lie about difficult issues to avoid conflicts necessary to bring resolutions or uphold justice?

Engaging in divisive speech is highly seductive. How easy it is to spread gossip about those you disagree with, knowing that doing so might tear their groups apart, or create within that person or people self hatred or even violent reactions. I have witnessed how gossiping in social activist groups tends to be used, in part, to bond factions. It’s used as a way to build factional power, either defensively against a larger part of the group, or offensively to overwhelm a smaller group.

Abusive speech is seductive to the extent that it’s tied with perceived or actual power gains. Which I think is important to note because occasionally right speech is very fierce, and even harsh sounding and biting. Whereas abusive speech is about power over others, right speech from a fierce place is about attempting to right the power balance. To compassionately wake up someone, or a group of someones.

Speaking “words not worth treasuring” points to one of the main practices needed to uphold right speech: skillful listening. So much of the verbal conflict in the world, which sometimes spills over into physical conflict and violence, stems from a failure to listen well. When “I” am insistent on being heard, or for whatever reason can’t handle staying silent or being in silence with others, then space tends to get filled up with unskillful and/or unnecessary words.

I have more to say about this topic, but in the spirit of lean speech, I’ll stop here. How do you handle right speech in your social action work? Do you have any success stories you can share with the rest of us? Have you had any attempts at right speech go wrong? What made them successful?

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Comments (17)

  • Mushim

    Buddhist Peace Fellowship used to have a program called BASE (Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement). This consisted of small groups, some of which had specific focuses of activism, that met intensively for 6 months. I was the Dharma mentor for Diversity BASE, an outstanding group of spiritual activists organized by Kenji Liu and Swan Keyes. At one point, one of the BASE members, a person who was in multiple identity groups targeted for oppression, said, “How can I fully express my truth and my experience without invalidating anyone else’s?”

    I thought that was brilliant, and that it summed up right speech in social activism. And, there is no one answer to the question.

  • Susmita

    “How can I fully express my truth and my experience without invalidating anyone else’s?”

    I will just replace the phrase ‘my truth’ with ‘my feelings’. I recently heard in a program called ‘total transformation’ all feelings are real but not all feelings are valid. That stuck with me.

    When we are reluctant to enter our own pain, we cannot relate to others’ suffering well. We tune out instantly and get lost in half-truths and mixed storylines edited according to our level of tolerance and acceptance..

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    “How can I fully express my truth and my experience without invalidating anyone else’s?” I totally agree Mushim. This is a brilliant way to ask this challenging question.

    It also makes me think of how some of us are “under-expressers” and some “over-expressers.” And how when awareness of this isn’t present, no matter what you do, you tend to fall into your pattern. Fully expressing can be really scary, especially if you have generalized fears of saying too much, being exposed, or stepping on others (as opposed to specific concerns about differences and different needs). Whereas with over-expressers, this question might solely be about navigating those differences, while also watching that they don’t unnecessarily overwhelm folks in the process.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    “all feelings are real but not all feelings are valid.” Yes, this seems accurate to me Susmita. I would say that “my truth” is larger than feelings, but includes them. Part of the process is learning to discern the feelings that are not valid, so that they don’t overtake the rest of what you’re offering.

  • Mushim

    Susmita and Nathan, thanks for the enjoyable discussion. Regarding the right speech koan ““How can I fully express my truth and my experience without invalidating anyone else’s?” — I didn’t want to say anything that would identify the individual who said it — this person is a brilliant longtime social justice activist — but I do want to explain a little more why “express my truth” is, to me, not the same as “express my feelings.”

    When a person who self-identifies as part of a group that is targeted for oppression is expressing their thoughts and experience to people who are in the dominant group, a common way to dismiss and devalue what that person is saying is for the dominant group folks to say, “Why are you feeling so angry?” In other words, say it’s a U.S. person of color in a U.S. white group. The person of color is expressing their truth of having experienced racism all their life, in large ways and in daily micro-aggressions. If their experiences and their way of expressing themselves is frightening or off-putting to the white people in the room, it could be easy for the white people to say to the person of color, “Those are just your feelings.”

    Think, for instance, of how women in the U.S. have had to struggle against the accusation from some men that “You’re too emotional” if women begin to cry or rage as the women talk about misogyny and rape.

    Unless we can hear people’s truths — and not everyone in the same identity group has the same experience or the same truth — and expand our ability to listen deeply, and to receive multiple truths without cognitive dissonance, I think it’s difficult to expand our understanding of Right Speech in social activism.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    I brought up the over-expresser/under-expresser point, in part, because I have witnessed it in operation in exactly the kinds of situations you’re speaking of Mushim. I’ve seen members of groups targeted for oppression struggle to share at all, and then when they do share, there’s lots of effort put into to not upset, including much holding back of emotions like anger and rage. Which is totally understandable. The desire not to be re-injured by shoddy responses, for example. But because of the presentation, folks in more privileged positions miss the core of the content. Don’t get it that the persona speaking is actually really pissed and rightly upset something particular, but also about patterns that extend far beyond them personally.

    To me, this points to the need to develop ever more refined listening skills. Paying attention to body language. Tapping into energetic dynamics. Learning to move beyond the emotional tone, while also not rejecting it.

    The more highly expressive may get dismissed as “emotional,” while those who under express only get partially heard, or missed all together.

  • Susmita

    Thank You Mushim and Nathan for this dialogue. I appreciate and relate to most of what you are saying when you are giving me scenarios to explain your point. None of us are immune to social conditionings, expectations and patterns when it comes to view, intention and speech.

    I have seen expressing valid anger and frustration is often not tolerated from women and people of color by dominant groups and gender. Anger and acting out in mean ways is far more acceptable from boys and men than girls and women in many cultures, groups and families, including Buddhist ones.

    Anger is often equated with aggression and violence and this may not necessarily be so. This perception inhibits healthy expression of feelings and empowerment of those who are oppressed and marginalized. The word ‘feeling’ itself is seen as ‘feminine’ and weak in age of speed, reason and science. Yet ‘violence’ in speech and action erupts precisely due to long-term denial and repression of feelings both in private interaction and public dialogue to the point whole segments of society can be out of touch with their own feelings.

    Few of us were taught how to tune with our heart when we listen and speak. Under patriarchy, we are taught to withhold our tears and keep our ‘calm, no emotion’ mask in social situations.

    I agree that right speech requires refining our listening and communication skills along with emotional intelligence and mastery

    “And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter: This is called right speech.”

    — SN 45.8

    Five keys to right speech

    “Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?

    “It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”

    — AN 5.198

  • bezi

    this is a nice color scheme in your opening metaphor, a welcome change. Black almost never gets associated with right anything.

    “Being the “one who knows” is so seductive. Those who appear to know tend to get to lead. They get looked up to. They get praised. Even those who languish in a minority opinion get attention by appearing to know something.”

    Not that you said this is always true, but it may be useful to point out when it’s not. Those who appear to know tend to get to lead… except when they don’t and are instead shut down, or their words go unacknowledged. Some teach and preach either alone or as part of an organization and, although others recognize the validity / veracity of the utterances, they’re not at all prepared to do anything about them. So there’s no leading to be done. There are the proverbial “voices in the wilderness”… let me tell you. There are also instances where, in group settings, someone who is not the facilitator makes an observation, maybe a series of observations, or suggestions. In some cases, the facilitator (perhaps feeling egoically encroached upon) dismisses entirely what’s said, talkin’ bout “thank you for sharing. Anyone else?” Or, there might be acknowledgment but no further discussion allowed on the point or points: “well, the Sutras in fact say exactly that, but umm – we’re almost out of time so… Anyone else?”

    This last anecdote actually happened to me at a ‘people of color’ sitting I attended right here in downtown Oakland.

    I ain’t mad. It goes on and on, till the world is gone. Been this way for years. But you wanna know the curious part? When my thinking was less developed and rougher around the edges, I found myself in more interesting, even heated discussions! The more coherent my thoughts became, the more silence they provoked in response.

    So… hm. Just something to think about. I mean don’t get it twisted: silence is da’ bizness! Absolutely vital. A lot of clarity comes out of it. But I suspect that the fidelity of that clarity, in the best of situations, is tested within the context of sounding off, as in people challenging each other’s otherwise rather insular conclusions in discussion or debate. If that doesn’t happen, for whatever reason, folks with something to offer in the way of leadership may never find themselves in a position to lead – or even to fully speak their mind – at all.

  • nathan

    “Not that you said this is always true, but it may be useful to point out when it’s not. Those who appear to know tend to get to lead… except when they don’t and are instead shut down, or their words go unacknowledged. Some teach and preach either alone or as part of an organization and, although others recognize the validity / veracity of the utterances, they’re not at all prepared to do anything about them. So there’s no leading to be done. There are the proverbial “voices in the wilderness”… let me tell you.”

    This is an excellent point. On reflection, it seems to me that the original statement I wrote most applies when the person who knows or thinks they knows fits into the status quo power structure. That whatever they appear to be offering in terms of “wisdom” or “leadership” doesn’t highly discomfort folks. Or discomforts in the same old power over ways.

    “The more coherent my thoughts became, the more silence they provoked in response.” Yep, I’ve noticed this too. Although sometimes it’s not actual silence, but more of a fumbling around response. They don’t have the usual hooks and polarities to dig into, and find themselves at a loss as to how to proceed.

  • Mushim

    I’m appreciating Bezi’s voice and brilliant thoughts in this discussion and Nathan’s response, because I’m fascinated (and sometimes angry and disgusted) by who is seen, heard, and responded to, many times, in groups where there are many unacknowledged and unexamined power and privilege differences. And that may be most groups.

    As an Asian American, one of the most common ways I experience racism in the U.S. is by not being seen — literally being invisible — to some people in the dominant racial group. The phenomenon of the “invisible Asian American” or the “silent, inscrutable Asian American” is part of my life experience in the U.S., but much less so in Oakland than in the Midwest U.S. where I grew up and lived for the first part of my adult life. It’s difficult to be a leader if when you are present you aren’t seen and when you speak you are not heard.

    I know one dark-skinned U.S. person of color, a leading Ph.D. in his field, who often had the experience of contributing something to a discussion, being met with no response, then having a white man say the exact same thing, and being met with immediate positive response from the group. My friend would sometimes say loudly, “Did I not just say that?!” However, what’s interesting is that it can be the case that the person of color isn’t being actively ignored by a predominantly white group — in other words, there is no conscious act of dismissal and no intention of disrespect– but instead the person is literally *not heard* by the dominant group.

    Therefore, in social activism, developing the mindfulness to not unconsciously “switch off” seeing and hearing the Other is both crucial and challenging, in my opinion.

  • bezi

    **sigh** so… ehrm… yea, this is a gargantuan problem. I used to get agitated when fellow activists would refer to speaking “truth to power” and “making their voices heard”. Seemed kinda wussy, shrunken. My attitude was “turn your frickin MIC up… screw just ‘getting heard’ – put fools on BLAST.” But that posed another problem… It dawned on me that this made me “that” dude… the angry one. As a political rapper that’s expected and dope. As a non-leading actvist trying to change things with other people it wasn’t advantageous in the least.

    What reccurs to me from Mushim’s observations (btw the anecdote I gave happened at EBMC) is that there are several potential reasons for not being taken seriously, or even acknowledged, in these types of presumably progressive settings.

    In one scenario, a potential leader or facilitator is unmindfully associated with subservience, with chronic obsequiousness. That’s “their culture”. *rolling eyes* I was telling a Jewish ally yesterday that the very few conversations I’ve been lucky to have with Asian female activists were notably spirited and lively… leading me to wonder if that apparently irrepressible attitude (obviously a driving force behind their activism) constituted a kind of deliberate rebellion against the “servile Asian woman” frame. Admittedly it was sorta juicy and satisfying to think this was true! Considering my own activist trajectory tho’, I also wondered what kinds of repercussions they’d encountered for being that way… maybe even from their own.

    In another scenario there is of course, the Angry Negro. lol. *eye roll* Enuff said…

    These are obviously stereotypes, and only two variants – that is if you fold the Angry Negro into a single category. There are definitely gendered differences which express and play themselves out in society in fascinating if incredibly muddled and infuriating ways. So for example you have Melissa Harris-Perry (undoubtedly for some the prototypical Angry Black Woman) who in a very clever mechanism of managed dissent has a program on MSNBC where a kind of African American leadership challenges (in a nicely packaged and safe way) the dominant, white male-driven Sunday news cycle:

    on the other hand you have a news story like this… where there is no other explicit possible intention aside from exciting white fear and hatred, where black basketball players pose with automatic weapons “as if they were getting ready to defend against the zombie apocalypse…”

    uh, what? Good Lawd…

    whether or not the implied comparison is at all apt, these kinds of media realities (and MANY more) make me wonder often just exactly how Martin, Malcolm, Marcus or others would respond to this hyperreal yet hyper-illusory historical moment… what would THEY do (besides pull out what’s left of their hair)?

    Well meaning people of all kinds really have to, I suspect, aggressively identify and challenge any and all stiffly articulated preconceived notions about both others and self. Dayum. This is what Buddhism lends itself to so powerfully! It’s like COME ON PEOPLE. There’s metric tons of work to be done. And we’re running out of time ova hea. We’ve waited until the last minute, with the whole village burning down, to get this ish worked out, like… “uhh… maybe we all oughta get together and make a water line.” Pssh. We’d better step it tha’ goddamn hell up.

    *Make me Wanna Holla* ~ whether or not this has been right speech… it’s REAL speech

  • Inge

    Have you noticed that violent speech seems to be on the rise, especially via social media where we humans can hide behind a fake name? Practicing Buddhism helps me stay out of name calling, even if someone hurls insults at me, because I do not share their same political viewpoint. Calling it abusive sounds right. In the past I would have jumped into the fight, but my practice helps me see what is happening. I think to myself, why is this person saying such mean things to me? We never even met. But it really doesn’t matter. What matters to me is to speak up when I feel the need but not get caught up in the drama. There are times though when I think it and fight to not say it. There is a sign at work that says “Before you get angry, remember the consequences of your actions.” I think that’s a pretty good rule of thumb as well.

  • Mushim

    Violent, abusive speech, “trolling,” and “flame wars” are now standard practice on the Internet in many places. (See some of the comments on YouTube videos.)

    I personally don’t see it as being “on the rise,” however. In my point of view, these expressions are thoughts that used to go through many people’s minds anyway, often born out of fear, boredom, frustration and anger, or the desire to provoke a response and make other people frightened, frustrated, and enraged. It’s kind of like living in a comic strip world now, where we can see what’s written inside people’s thought bubbles.
    So, that’s kind of a bummer on one hand. On the other hand, it puts the cards on the table and helps us see where there’s work to do in education of young persons and constructing containers for civil discourse.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    “Violent, abusive speech, “trolling,” and “flame wars” are now standard practice on the Internet in many places.”

    This is true, and for some activists, trolling culture is part of their toolbox of tactics. I have had discussions with a few folks who troll not to get a rise, but to “disrupt” the standard narratives of liberals and conservatives. They see the strategic use of offensive, even violent language as a way to unearth more of that comic strip thought world. I’m not convinced this a great strategy; in fact, a lot of the time, it seems like those doing it thrive off making others look foolish. But this is a subsection of the larger internet culture, and also of our current activist culture.

    Regardless of intent, nasty speech online obviously moves beyond the internet, and into the rest of our lives. I think one of the reasons it seems so much more prevalent is that we’re surrounded by the echos. Echos that bounce back and forth worldwide in an instant. The abusive headline of a partisan newspaper 100 years ago took time to hit, and only had limited range of impact.

    Not getting hooked and/or not taking it all personally is definitely am important practice.

  • Mushim

    Trolling as part of the activist toolkit — I understand the intention, and the need for some sharper cutting tools in one’s toolbox — and the more dangerous the tool, the more carefully and skillfully it needs to be used, obviously.

    Once again, maybe I’m just a tiny minority opinion, but although I don’t want to be bombarded with nasty language, I am of the opinion that these thoughts are out there and in me anyway, and so although the “echo” effect you describe, Nathan, is very real, to me it’s just making manifest what formerly was more underground. I’ve heard some African American people say they prefer blatant racism in the U.S. South over U.S. Northern-racism that’s sugar-coated in liberal aphorisms or unconsciousness, because the latter is more harmful — I guess more like a drone weapon rather than something that’s in your face. And, of course, all racism is harmful, no matter what “style” it is.

    My geek adult son, who is a QA engineer, says that on certain occasions it can be skillful to “backtroll.” Not sure he invented that phrase, but we got a good laugh out of it.

  • eve onst

    I’ve been an activist and found that a problem with right speech training is the inherent lack of sincerity that can result. I personally would rather be told someone is upset with me as sincere as possible, even if they use angry words. Intentions do matter. You can spot someone who is fake and practicing “right speech” within five minutes of talking to them. Personally I avoid people like this because I feel they are insincere and manipulative.

    In group dynamics, the adult thing to do is to make room for someone who has a bad day, and accept that people express anger sometimes. If a group of people shame the angry person, who may be rightfully offended by something — they are not being helpful or sincere. It will be obvious to the other person.

    I have been alienated from groups due to persons engaging in what they thought was “right speech” which was really intrusive, well-intentioned, self-righteous manipulation. When one catches wind of such gossip, it can destroy the trust you have in a group — or at least seriously impact one’s motivation to do work for that group.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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