Free Speech, Right Speech: Teetering on a Razor’s Edge

I support the principle of free speech and stand in solidarity with the French in the aftermath of yesterday’s terror attack. I am sure most all of you do as well. But today I am not inclined to give myself over to expressions of outrage and defiance, which seem to me right now as little more than mere emotionalism and sloganeering. I have seen too many news reports of terror attacks in my years to be outraged. I am too weary to be very defiant. Instead, I have questions.

UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri articulated the questions in my mind rather well at the opening of the 83rd session of The U. N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last year in Geneva:

Where does the right of expression, which we all want to respect, stop and the need to sanction and prevent hate speech begin? What is the point in time when one right has to recognize that it cannot be exercised if it implies the violation of another one?”

Does free speech go too far if it is harmful to others? It’s a rather old question, actually. It was debated by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly a hundred years ago in Schenck v. United States, (1919), a case that revolved around free speech during World War I. The court concluded that the defendant (Schenck) had no First Amendment right to express freedom of speech against the draft during the war. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote the unanimous opinion that included this line, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic . . .”

Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)
Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935)

Thus, it was Holmes who gave us the famous metaphor of “Shouting fire in a crowded theater.” I don’t get how he reasoned that to express one’s opinion on the morality of a wartime draft presented a “clear and present danger,” but that is another discussion.

In a free society, everyone should have a right to hold and express any opinion. Justice Holmes qualified his decision with the word “falsely.” So, one of the first questions we should ask ourselves is, does opinion need to have a factual basis? Usually, no. But that does not mean it is wise to offer opinions that are based solely on supposition, assuming facts not verified.

The second question might be does the right to free speech include a right to offend? In this most recent case, the alleged offense is against religious sensibilities and beliefs. What we see in the West as relatively harmless satire is to many Muslims, even moderate ones, hate speech.

Yesterday’s attack was against Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper. The cover of a 2011 issue depicted a cartoon of the Islamic prophet Muhammed and teachings based upon the Quran forbid the creation of visual images of Muhammad. This religious dictum does not justify the savage murder of 12 people. But it does provoke questions about whether journalists, even those engaged in the business of satire, should be more sensitive to religious beliefs. In the global public sphere, does the sacred dictum of the West that “nothing is sacred” trump Islam’s sacred dictum regarding images of the Prophet? Just because we have the right to free speech, is it always wise and/or proper to exercise it?

Religion was often the target of Charlie Hebdo’s satire.  Religion isn’t as popular these days as it once was. Even those of us who are “spiritual” may have little use for “religion.”  In being dismissive, need we be disrespectful?

As a Buddhist, I can’t help but wonder how we might strike a balance between free speech and “right speech,” an ideal found in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path: “And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.”

The Dasabhumaka Sutra says,

“Whatever speech is unpleasant, whatever hurts one’s own nature or others, that is speech the bodhisattva avoids . . .”

What hurts one’s own nature or others can take many forms, and can be born from misunderstanding and thoughtlessness as well as hate and prejudice. When I was younger, I would have been tempted to simply dismiss Muslims as thin-skinned, denounce their violence, and leave it at that.  Nowadays, disgusted as I am, having been a witness to these unrelenting cycles of violence for so long, I am more interested in how concepts such as right speech and deep listening might be pathways to solutions. I am more interested in trying to understand the other side than I am in placing blame and demanding accountability.

Writing now, something else occurs to me, about to what extent religious sensibilities are used as political weapons. Muslims seem to be a devout people; yet many of them have no problem using their religion a propaganda tool. Arab Nations like to cast themselves as spiritual warriors righteously fighting a religious war against “infidels”, and they use this same ideology to agitate believers against the West. We do much the same thing, only we are the champions of democracy and free speech.

Where do we go from here? Do we encourage journalists to censor themselves? And if so, is it an act of tolerance, or is it just doing what the terrorists want us to do? Or, perhaps, the outrage, the defiance, the condemnation is exactly they want to see. Are we only displaying our wounds for their pleasure?

Why do we never get an answer when we’re knocking at the door
With a thousand million questions about hate and death and war?

– The Moody Blues

I don’t have the answers. Just suggestions, what ifs.

Je suis Charlie. I, you, we are all Charlie but if the world is ever going to change at some point we must also be Abdul and Fareed and Rabiya. I wrote above that I wanted to avoid sloganeering. But here I go. Not afraid. Without a doubt, we should not be afraid in the face of terrorism, never forsake our liberty of expression. Fear, though, can be a double-edge sword. Not afraid should also mean not fearing to use our liberty to express right speech, kind speech, and to open our hearts to the concerns of others. Why is it that when responsible leaders suggest offering an olive branch of understanding to Islam and the Middle East they are vilified for it and labeled as weak? It seems to me that kindness and understanding and empathy are strategies that have not yet been employed in this long, long war between our two cultures. Not afraid? I wonder  . . .

Protestors in Place De La Republique in the centre of Paris (Photo: Heathcliff O'Malley/The Telegraph)
Protestors in Place De La Republique in the centre of Paris (Photo: Heathcliff O’Malley/The Telegraph)
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One Nation and Right Speech

Yesterday’s theme, Silence in action, is just one approach to changing the world. I am a person who believes that individual suffering and the sufferings of the entire world are inextricably linked together, and further I believe that Buddhism has as its aim the salvation of both.

There are times when silence is the wisest course of action, and then times when people need to raise their collective voices, and in the case of today’s One Nation March, recommit their voices, and hearts and minds, to change. With the election of Barack Obama this country was handed an opportunity, no that’s wrong, we grabbed an opportunity to affect meaningful change. We took it, and we embraced that moment and absorbed all of it, squeezed every bit of hope and joy we could – but only for a moment, then we handed it back. Since then, the moment, the opportunity for change, has belonged to the ugly voices of those who preach hate and fear and division.

One Nation Working Together. Who could have a problem with that?

Well, the answer is not surprising. Glenn Beck, of course. He has denounced the march as a “Socialist Communist Plot.”

We must do something about our level of discourse. It is really getting out of hand. There’s a congressman from Georgia, a Dr. Paul Broun, Jr. who claims that we are “headed for socialism” because the Center for Disease Control wants Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables. Seriously. He says “They want to get all the power of the federal government to force you to eat more fruits and vegetables. This is what the federal, CDC – they’re going to be calling people to find out how many fruits and vegetables you eat today. This is socialism of the highest order.” His office claims he was joking. I don’t know. You can see the video here on YouTube.

Even if he is kidding, there are some who will take him seriously and believe it. It is completely irresponsible speech.

The spirit behind the Buddhist principle of Right Speech is not merely to speak the truth or to refrain from idle chatter, but to speak responsibly, to speak carefully, with reason, from wisdom; to use words that heal, that contribute to the solution not add to the problem. This is the spirit that all leaders should have, whether they are in business, politics, or religion.

It’s obvious that many of our nation’s leaders, across the board, are not in touch with this spirit of Right Speech. That’s one reason why I don’t have a problem with socially engaged Buddhism. It’s why I see a real need for Buddhist to have, perhaps not a louder voice, but a wider one.

If the voices those who have the floor today cannot do anything to improve the quality of our national discourse then new voices should step up and be heard. Hopefully, the One Nation March today will be a good step in that direction. To paraphrase the Who, the new voice is the same as the old voice, the one of 2008. We need to recover that voice, and I believe that Buddhist principles can inform that voice in a positive way, but if the Buddhist voice is never heard, no one will know.

As I pointed out in a recent post, the idea of Buddhism informing and guiding the political world goes back to the Buddha himself.  I am not suggesting that Buddhists should form a political party or even thinking in terms of organized social change as much as I have in mind individuals taking a stand right where they are in daily life. I’m talking about practicing responsible speech, and I think too, pointing out irresponsible speech when we hear it. I feel that too often we let inappropriate things be said and left unchallenged by some false notion of civility. But the truth is that when we don’t object to incivility, we are enabling it.

Wrong speech is a form of injustice.

Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest of to impress people. Do not utter words that cause diversion and hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things you are not sure of. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

That safety might be our comfort zone. It might be a misguided sense of politeness. It might be in the way we let wrong speech pass by unchallenged because we believe the intention behind it is right minded. However, that is just aiding and abetting. We need to threaten our own safety first. We should be the ones who challenge ourselves out of comfort zones.

Bob Dylan once sang, “There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’.” The battle is the battle to win over ourselves. Individually and collectively. Learning to practice Right Speech should be among the first salvos fired in that fight.

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