America has become an adversarial culture where competition and winning at any cost are rampant in all departments of life. The hatred and paranoia of talk-radio hosts fills the airwaves with toxins that adversely affect anyone who hears these rants. Now this phenomenon has spread to large media operations like Fox News where ratings and corporate sponsorships seem to be dependent upon just how much the on-air personalities denigrate the opposition; tune in and you'll soon be treated to a smorgasbord of right-wing rhetoric about big government and other pet peeves of angry political analysts. Meanwhile, on the road, candidates smear each other in TV ads and casually call it all part of the game of getting elected.
What we have here is a scary dumbing down of democracy, now regarded as an unsavory blend of entertainment and blood sport. Gone are the days of civil discourse or a mature debate about the issues facing the nation. A survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service in November 2010 — before the shootings of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson, Arizona — found that eight-in-ten Americans say the lack of civil or respectful discourse in the political system is a serious problem; nearly six-in-ten Americans believe that people are more divided over politics than they used to be.
Sadly, this combative brand of political discussion has filtered down to ordinary citizens who shout at each other and show no interest whatsoever in listening to the ideas or opinions of others. Discussions of issues such as abortion or gun control turn into shouting matches and personal attacks. This development has spread to the Internet where the crankiest readers unrelentingly trash bloggers, columnists, and movie reviewers. "Comment" fields, intended to give the writer feedback on his/her ideas, are filled with vile and vicious attacks.
In his speech at the memorial service in Tucson on January 12, 2011, President Barack Obama pointed to a different way. He said: "At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized, at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds."
The world's religions point us to those healing words. They offer practices that can help us get beyond adversarial fighting, fear, hatred, paranoia, and dirty tricks. They show us how we can be spiritually literate and civil in this "war" time.
In her book Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters — and How to Talk About It, Krista Tippett said: "We have had few models in our public life for religious speech that does not proselytize, exclude, or offend." She is right but there are spiritual teachings from Buddhist and Christian monks about practices to restrain the tongue, renounce hurtful speech, and eschew judgmental thinking. They also emphasize ways of speaking from the heart and lifting the spirits of others through sacred speech which is characterized by love, kindness, openness, humility, and reverence. What all people on a spiritual path acknowledge is that words do matter and we must be very careful what we say.
We have gathered some spiritual resources on right speech: a sampling of quotes, readings, and practices.
- "Thich Nhat Hanh advises us to be mindful about every word that we speak to another person. If we use language that does not hurt people but that affirms people, we will lead people to greater peace, happiness, hope, and consolation. If we use the language of violence and fear, we will speed up the culture's downward spiral."
— John Dear in Mary of Nazareth, Prophet of Peace
- "The mystic doesn't seek to avoid a disagreement so much as to infuse it with grace. A disagreement is a cut on the skin. You need to treat it gently and not cut further. So it should be, when we see things differently, that the gentleness of spirit guides our speech. Emotional havoc usually comes not from the issues that divide us so much as from the things we say and do because of the issues that divide us. Indeed, it's often fairly simple things that we disagree about. Learning how to disagree with love is an important skill on the mystical path."
— Marianne Williamson in Everyday Grace
- "A singular characteristic of sacred speech is its openness. It is humble. It is less interested in being right than in being linked, less interested in self-protection than in self-expression, less interested in cages and doors than in decks and windows. Sacred speech wants clarity and it wants justice. Sacred speech loves a good, honest boundary. But is also wants to maximize love and minimize fear. Sacred speech understands and acknowledges that, in the world that God has made, we need not fear. We may require many fewer locks, keys, borders, and boundaries than we think we do."
— Donna Schaper in Sacred Speech
- "Do not gossip or listen to gossip (lashon hara). This is one of the biggest mitzvot. You are not to gossip, insult, lie, deceive, or slander. When you listen to gossip, your fellow man is brought down. This can be so serious that when you insult someone in public and he blushes, you are considered to have killed a part of that person's soul."
— Brenda Shoshanna in Jewish Dharma
- "One of the elders used to say: In the beginning when we got together we used to talk about something that was good for our souls, and we went up and up, and ascended even to heaven. But now we get together and spend out time in criticizing everything, and we drag one another down into the abyss."
— A Desert Father in The Wisdom of the Desert translated by Thomas Merton
- Sylvia Boorstein on How Words Hurt
Speech is potent, Boorstein writes in It's Easier Than You Think. Discussing the Buddha's category of Right Speech, she recalls her students' responses when she asked them if they felt pain over something someone said to them, proving the adage that "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can always harm me."
- Joseph Goldstein on Speech's Effect on the Mind
What happens when you decide to refrain from wrong speech? When this Buddhist teacher decided not to speak about any third person, he was surprised by the results.
- Rabbi Joseph Telushkin on Good Speech
Just as important as not engaging in negative and critical speech is engaging in positive speech and praise. In A Code of Jewish Ethics: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself, we find very concrete examples of how to do this.
- Keeping Custody of Your Tongue
Here is a simple but not always easy practice from the Benedictine monastic tradition. In this article, we suggest that it is particularly useful when winter drags on and irritability levels rise, but it should be an all-year-round practice.
- Count Your Words
In Hasidic Tales Rami Shapiro writes that the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, said that a person is born with a fixed number of words to speak in his/her lifetime. When that count is reached, the person dies. So here is the practice: The next time you about to criticize someone, to engage in gossip, or to utter any negative and hurtful words, ask yourself: Are these words worth dying for?
- Responding to an Irate Person
Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche in Change of Heart notes that lashing out at a person who insults us is a very common reaction. But this habit can be overcome by meditating on impermanence and the possibility that this angry person may have been a friend or family member in a previous life.
- A Vow to Practice Right Speech
Barbara Ann Kipfer in 201 Little Buddhist Reminders describes a simple everyday practice as a reminder to practice wise speech. While brushing her teeth, she vows to speak purely and lovingly during the day.
- A Gatha for Using the Telephone
In The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a short verse, called a gatha, to reinforce the intention to cultivate right speech. Try repeating this as you pick up your telephone:
"Words can travel thousands of miles.
May my words create mutual understanding and love.
May they be as beautiful as gems,
as lovely as flowers."