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?