Like most Americans, I am deeply dismayed by the shooting of Congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others in Arizona this weekend. Six people died in the attack, including a nine year-old child. This is a terrible tragedy.
Whether or not the man who committed the crime subscribed to the divisive political ideology that is rampant in our culture, his act has sparked an acknowledgment that the conversation around us is, in fact, dangerous.
As kids we were taught to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” According to spiritual teachers of both Jewish and Buddhist traditions, this is wrong. In fact, hurtful speech carries more power and can do more harm than a single act of physical brutality. In the Mussar text, Everyday Holiness, it says, “Speech is judged more powerful than the sword because a physical weapon can injure only those in proximity, while speech can kill at a distance.”
The first time I read this, I wasn’t sure what it meant. I think I understand it better now. Language that calls for bringing down the government or suggesting that certain districts be “targeted” may be said aloud once, heard by many, and lead to numerous acts of violence. “The primary Mussar guideline for speech is not whether something is true or not but rather what impact our words will have,” the book says. “If our speech may cause people financial, physical, psychological, or other harm (or even anxiety or fear), then we are enjoined to hold our tongues.”
The kind of speech in the news today is that of people like Sarah Palin and others in the Tea Party movement who have used violent imagery to get out the vote. They will likely deny that they are responsible for what happened. We should not expect them to do otherwise.
This is discouraging, in part because it feels like there’s nothing we can do. We can express our outrage. We can say it has to stop. But in the end, there is a feeling of powerlessness.
Except that we can do something. It’s true, we can’t change what other people say and write, but we can look at the implications of what we ourselves are saying. I want to tell Sarah Palin that she should guard her tongue, but maybe instead I should think about guarding my own.
In Buddhism, this is called Right Speech. It is part of the Noble Eightfold Path. In this lecture by Abbess Taitaku Patricia Phelan, she explains the concept.
The Buddha was precise in his description of Right Speech. He defined it as “abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, and abstinence from idle chatter.” In the vernacular this means not lying, not using speech in ways that create discord among people, not using swear words or a cynical, hostile or raised tone of voice, and not engaging in gossip. Re-framed in the positive, these guidelines urge us to say only what is true, to speak in ways that promote harmony among people, to use a tone of voice that is pleasing, kind, and gentle, and to speak mindfully in order that our speech is useful and purposeful.
Buddhists have an interesting explanation of why thoughtless speech can be so harmful. Again, Phelan: “I think one of the characteristics of speech is that by talking to others about someone else, we have a tendency to reduce the fullness of that person to a category,” she says. “So, the person becomes ‘that’ kind of person. You know, ‘what would you expect from someone like that?’”
The harm comes from turning the other person into a fixed idea. “It is sort of like taking one frame from a movie and using the picture of that instant to be the whole person, freezing both our opinion of them as well as the way we respond to them,” she says. “I think the more we talk about someone with a third party, the more our opinion becomes solidified, and we mistake this solidity for reality. So, speech can be a conditioning agent whereby we lose our freedom of both perception and response. We, ourselves, become fixed and unable to grow out of a particular opinion of and response to another person.”
If I want to think about what happened this weekend, instead of laying blame on whose actions caused this tragedy, I am going to try to focus on the unimaginable grief and worry of the people injured and their families. I’m going to try to think about the incredible power that words can have to teach, to heal, to comfort, and connect, but also to do real and lasting harm. I am going to try to learn something about guarding my tongue.