Freedom of Speech and Mindfulness

The pen is mightier than the sword, so the saying goes. But hit someone with a sword, and belittle someone with words, and the criminal justice system historically will view the former as criminal and the latter as nothing to do with them.

Another old phrase is “Sticks and stones make break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Try telling that to the families of people who killed themselves after receiving vindictive or unpleasant abuse over social media or face to face.

We currently have what I consider a much-needed and major debate about the principle of freedom of speech and limitations on this freedom. Freedom of speech is an iconic and much-loved human right. Yet here in Scotland and in the rest of the UK we have what are commonly referred to as hate crimes, which are essentially thoughts put into words. So we have thought crimes (as soon as the thoughts are translated into words).

This spills into politics and history. Sixteen European countries and Israel have introduced legislation criminalising denial of the Holocaust. The UK and USA have not. Earlier this year Poland made it a crime to state that the Polish Nation or government participated in or supported the Holocaust in German-occupied Poland. This caused an outcry across the world.

People who are put on trial, even when found not guilty suffer the automatic reaction of much of public opinion, including large sections of the media, which, contrary to the maxim, innocent until proven guilty, conclude that someone is guilty if arrested. These individuals suffer enormous stress, humiliation and depression even after the verdict of not guilty is pronounced.

The same abuse, pain and bewilderment often faces those who claimed to be victims of a crime, if the result of the case is a not guilty verdict. People, usually through social media, heap verbal abuse on these individuals, automatically assuming they made up the story, rather than the alternative possibility, namely that the jury simply didn’t have enough evidence to convict. This causes most anguish and difficulty when it happens in rape trials.

We are clearly in a world where how and what we communicate has become a much more free-wheeling and challenging thing to understand and respond to in a sane, wise way. Yet sound advice exists. Around 500 BC two great thinkers looked at this problem before any form of communication other than speech was in common usage.

Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha, devoted one of his eight “paths” to freedom to this subject. He called it Right Speech, with the word Right meaning speech that aims to achieve constructive or helpful outcomes. Look at any political or news comments and see how few meet that noble purpose.

He explained his definition of Right Speech, as explained by Walpola Sri Rahula in the classic “What the Buddha Taught” which I recommend wholeheartedly. Right speech is “friendly and benevolent, pleasant and gentle, meaningful and useful”. He goes on to say that “if one cannot say something useful, one should keep a noble silence”. How many times have we wished that other people did just that? How many times would it have been better if we had just refrained from reacting with harsh and unwarranted words?

The other great teacher of that time was the author or authors of the book in verse, the Tao te Ching, commonly attributed to Lao Tzu. In the last of its eighty-one verses the poet says “Good people do not quarrel. Quarrelsome people are not good.”

In an earlier passage it says “those who would be above must speak as if they are below. Those who would lead must speak as if they are behind.” In other words be humble and considerate in your speech, not arrogant and reactive as if your every word should be heeded.

Despite developing our skill in constructive communication we still may differ from one another about the pros and cons of legislation on communication. Being mindful does not mean everyone reaches agreement on all matters. But I think we must should educate not just the school age generation, but all generations, about skilful and constructive communicating, and the consequences of destructive and hurtful words. Something does not have to be illegal to make it wrong, and something does not have to be physical to cause great harm, even loss of life. As the great Dylan Thomas put it in one of his rare political poems “The hand that signed a paper felled a city.” Through regular practice of mindfulness methods we develop skill in constructive and productive communication, so that we never have to think “these fingers that typed a comment harmed a life” or damaged a mind.

The opposite effect is possible. The words we use can lift someone out of their own embedded hateful thought. Your words can nurture a person’s understanding of how to live life more fully and enjoyably. Your words can put a smile on someone’s face, or at the very least, bring a little ray of light or hope, to someone who is desolate. These results of your own fully developed right speech are achievable, not just occasionally but every single day, and in this way you play your part in detoxifying the world of communications, and replacing it with thoughtful, kind tones.