Phrased in the positive, the goal recommended by the Buddha is to make our speech trustworthy, harmonious, comforting, and worth taking to heart.
Let’s look at what the Buddha meant by harmonious words:
Abandoning divisive speech he abstains from divisive speech. What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he does not tell here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord. (from AN 10.176, tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
As with all speech, intention is the forerunner. First we have to acknowledge that even if we don’t make a conscious decision each time we speak, we are responsible for our words and consequently for monitoring our intentions.
Do we intend to knit people together or to drive a wedge between them?
It’s a useful exercise to reflect on whether we are sensitive to how our words might divide others. Without thinking, we can create an “in-group” with ourselves at the center and automatically create an “out-group”. At the subtle end of the reflection, every time we say out loud, “I like this, I don’t like that”, we may be implying that we prefer people who agree with us. At the coarse end of things, grouping others by race or nationality or gender or anything really, usually confirms our impulse to set ourselves apart from, usually above, others. Nothing useful can be said using blanket generalizations.
I’m thinking now about cultures in which rumor and conspiracy theories are part of the normal public discourse, say for instance, in Pakistan. Nothing divides people more quickly than competing rumors. Best to shun information that is not factual, or at least not repeat it.
In the Buddha’s dispensation, it is a maximum offense to divide the ordained sangha. If an ordained person causes disharmony among monks and nuns, that person loses his or her status as an monk or nun, in other words, is ejected from the sangha. This is the worst penalty the Buddha recommends for any action. So we can conclude that the Buddha considered creating disharmony among people a really bad thing to do.
What we can do is look for and comment on things that unite us, things that bring about a better understanding of others, or actions that might heal old wounds. We can set the intention to be peacemakers with our words.