‘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 real 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 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.

That leaves us with two options:

  1. Never say anything for fear of offending.
  2. Say what you really think and deal with the consequences.

But what are the consequences?

Well, the number one biggest fear human beings have — next to being murdered or raped — is being socially ostracized.

Say the wrong thing these days, and it’s quite possible that society will reject you. And by society, I mean one’s friends and family as well.

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.

  • 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, should come before the desire for social approval.
  • 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?
  • 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 platform, 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.
  • 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 fascistic 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 them more confusing.
  • Words can save a relationship, or doom it to failure.

So I do think this Right Speech thing is pretty important to consider.

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 permissible? 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. a

Right now, I’m deeply interested in unlearning some of my habits — digital and otherwise — to see what I’m capable of learning when I return to a “blank slate.”

As I do so, I want to make more space in my life to consider how to implement “Right Speech” on my digital platforms — or if it’s even possible 100% of the time.

“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” — Joseph Campbell

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