Thursday, May 9, 2013

On Right Speech

In the Buddhist tradition, Right Speech is one of eight practices which lead to the end of suffering. It is defined as “abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, and abstinence from idle chatter (source).”  “Idle chatter” may be taken to mean unproductive speech, counter-productive speech, or vainglorious speech. 

The notion of Right Speech came to mind recently as I reflected on my own reaction to something Noam Chomsky wrote about the Boston Marathon tragedy. Specifically, he said, “On April 23, Yemeni activist and journalist Farea Al-Muslimi, who had studied at an American high school, testified before a US Senate committee that right after the marathon bombing, a drone strike in his home village in Yemen killed its target … There was no direct way to prevent the Boston murders [but] there are some easy ways to prevent likely future ones: by not inciting them (source).” Thus, Mr. Chomsky was implying that the bombing was “just desserts.” Americans will reap what they sow.  

My reaction consisted of intense, visceral feelings of disgust toward Mr. Chomsky. The question is why. I understand that the leadership of the United States government has, for many years now, engaged in despicable actions in the Middle East and elsewhere. In light of these actions, anti-American sentiment is easy to comprehend. I very nearly agree with Mr. Chomsky that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between American imperialism and Middle Eastern terrorism. 

Yet, the tone and the timing of Mr. Chomsky’s remarks are lamentable. When terrorism brings down suffering and death on Americans, it is fitting that Americans grieve the loss. In an era in which many people appear to be callous and without empathy for the suffering of others, it is profoundly reassuring to discover that we as a people are still able to mourn the deaths of complete strangers. Without the capacity for empathy, there is little hope that Americans will ever feel the loss of Yemeni lives. Mocking or trivializing or provincializing expressions of empathy will not encourage an increase in empathy. It will only harden peoples’ hearts. It will encourage people in the belief that politics matters more than human life.

It should go without saying that Mr. Chomsky is a hypocrite. He is an American like the rest of us. He pays taxes. He accepts a generous salary from MIT – also known as the “Pentagon on the Charles.” He is a beneficiary of the American right to free speech. He would not have been so quick to spin academic arguments equating terrorism and U.S. foreign policy if it had been his son or daughter who had been slaughtered on the streets of Boston.  

Nonetheless, Mr. Chomsky is, in all likelihood, sincerely motivated by anger and frustration at U.S. foreign policy. These feelings of anger and frustration evidently exceed the intensity of feeling he has toward the victims of the Boston marathon bombing. He has chosen to convey his emotions by producing inflammatory, malicious, and unproductive words. In this, he is like many Americans. He is similar to those who delight in hanging up effigies of President Obama for target practice. Expressions of anger and frustration have become a substitute for the hard work of attempting to persuade others of what is right or to learn from what others have to say. Venting emotions does not require the hard work of looking inward and assessing whether one’s own views exhibit integrity.

It is important to reflect on the meaning of Right Speech as Americans. Today, our country is heading down a perilous path toward tyranny. The only hope of altering the course of this country rests in the ability of Americans to transcend their partisan differences and agree on a plan of action. I fear that partisanship and divisiveness are the instruments of tyranny.  

Right speech, in this instance, means deploring American tyrants and Talibani tyrants with equal conviction. It means avoiding a hatred which divides, and cultivating a love of freedom which unites. 

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