The first requirement of wise speech is truthfulness. The second of the four requirements is refraining from malicious or divisive speech. This type of speech is recognized by the intention to put someone up or down, to set one person or group against another. “Isn’t he awful?” “I heard that she had an affair.” “This person said some very unkind things about you.” “Once a drunk, always a drunk.” “People of that faith (or nationality, or social class, or profession) are all stupid (or without scruples, or arrogant, or corrupt).”
Setting yourself apart from (or above) someone else is rarely beneficial. Setting others against each other can be a way of making yourself feel powerful, but it carries a lot of negative energy. Stirring up resentments can generate excitement – but only of a harmful type. Do you sometimes join in with general carping or criticism to feel part of a group?
A striking recent example of this is US General McChrystal’s malicious speech about his peers and superiors in the government, in interviews with a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, no less. It seems clear that what started as ordinary griping about people who had perspectives different from his and his staff’s started to feel so normal that the people involved lost track of the damage divisive speech could do. They reinforced their own views by putting down others’, and did it so often that the line between private complaints and righteous indignation got lost. After the fact, it seems an incredible act of arrogance, but surely while these conversation were happening, there was no thought of the consequences. In this case Gen. McChrystal lost his job, and I’m guessing a lot of his staff did, too. It also made it look as if the US government was divided into competing quasi-sports teams, which might have some truth to it, but can’t be the whole truth.
Instead, we have the option of guiding our speech towards knitting people together rather than dividing them or pitting them against each other. Try listening for inclusive speech as well as “us and them” speech, from yourself and others. Once we are alert to the idea of divisive speech, we will notice it more easily, and notice the damage that it can do. Amazingly, it is completely unnecessary. Saying nothing is preferable to setting people against each other. Finding common ground, and showing appreciation or sympathy are alternatives available to us.
When you hear yourself using (even moderately) malicious speech, see if you can stop, breathe, and reflect. If you can pause long enough to feel the impulse to use divisive speech before saying anything, just hold your tongue for the duration of three breaths. If you restrain the impulse often enough, the desire to speak maliciously will come up less and less frequently. Use what wisdom you have to interrupt this common but careless activity.