Divisive or harmonious speech?

A second category of Right Speech (after truthfulness) is harmonious speech, or refraining from saying things with the intention of dividing people or groups from each other. It is a challenging moment in history, in many places, to hold to this principle. Our public discourse seems to have descended to a level where hardly anything can be said without someone objecting.

Behind this trend is an increasing strain of “us vs. them” thinking, writing, and talking. It is human nature to prefer “our own” people to those who seem different, whether by dint of language, class, education, nationality, color, ethnicity, age, gender, political position, etc. The boundaries between groups are variable (not fixed), and in any given moment we can create or destroy categories in our own mind. In some situations a particular “us-them” divide arises and in other situations it dissipates. When others express strong opinions, sometimes we may be infected with a divisive mind-set. Likewise, we may feel inspired when we witness harmonious speech.

Extra-terrestrial invasion was a theme of 20th century science fiction, in some cases specifically in order to create an “us” out of world-wide humanity. It seems as if we only pull together if there is an outside threat of some sort, whether from a natural disaster or other causes. But we don’t need an enemy, real or imagined, to consider ourselves “us” with every living being. We have the option of remembering that we are all in the same situation with respect to old age, sickness, and death. We are all subject to the vagaries of weather, bad luck, and the random nature of our world. We are all trapped together in saṃsāra.

Saṃsāra: The word literally means “wandering through, flowing on”, in the sense of “aimless and directionless wandering”. The concept of saṃsāra is closely associated with the belief that the person continues to be born and reborn in various realms and forms [Wikipedia]. This is our condition, wandering aimlessly in search of comfort and fleeing discomfort, never reaching any resting place except temporarily. 

It’s our actions and words that make our world, not how we feel about a particular person or group of people. In the end, only kind intentions and the words and actions that come from them are beneficial.

So when we are tempted to righteous indignation, to denigrating or dismissing others, we would do well to pause and consider: How would words spoken in anger, even (or especially) righteous anger, be received? Would they bring about healing or hurting? Would they persuade others to our position or harden their opposition? Are we able to bring enough awareness to our speech to avoid divisiveness?

About lynnjkelly

Australian/American. Practicing Buddhist.
This entry was posted in Causes and results, Friendships, Precepts, Speech, The 8-fold path. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Divisive or harmonious speech?

  1. Dev Avtar Kaur says:

    Thank you for your posts Lynn. I appreciate your ability to present deep truths in a practical way. I agree with your response to Eileen’s post but here’s my question. When does neutrality become complacency? Perhaps youve already covered this topic on an earlier post and if so, feel free to direct me there. Thank you. D

    • lynnjkelly says:

      Hello Dev,
      You pose a reasonable question, and it makes me think I haven’t been clear. I’m not advocating either neutrality or complacency. These are both negative terms in my mind. If we want a deeper understanding and greater peace of mind, we have to see things from a broader, less personal point of view. Every time we think, “She’s right and she’s wrong”, we are satisfying our ego need to sit in judgment, without looking closely. What we perceive as reasonable and unreasonable we take as absolutes, but people are more complicated than that. Can we have compassion for people who hold views that we consider harmful? Or are they outside the scope of our compassion?
      Equanimity is keeping our balance while maintaining contact with everything that’s going on in a particular moment. Indifference is simply turning away and is a form of aversion. My main appeal is that we not lose our balance through getting entangled in unwinnable battles. We look for opportunities to influence processes and then take them. Hollaring into the void of social media only serves to tip us off kilter.

      Hoping this helps,

  2. lynnjkelly says:

    Hello Eilene,
    Good for you, working on your responses to “hateful comments”, and, you and I both know that wishing they would just stop is a dead-end for our growth. Getting upset doesn’t affect the trolls, but it can make us sick. They’ll stop when they stop, regardless of our wishes. What can we do? For one thing, we can stop giving them our precious time. We can reclaim our headspace by ignoring them (not reading them, absenting ourselves from whatever media is unhelpful) and replacing those inputs with wholesome ones. We create our world, one action at a time; it’s up to us to re-design our days as needed to remove harmful influences and stay in contact with wholesome environments and people, as much as possible. Keep on keepin’ on!

  3. Eilene Lyon says:

    I am continually working toward being understanding of everyone and less judgmental. But, I really wish the hateful and ignorant comments I see on social media would just go away.

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