ON CIVILITY AND COMITY
On January 8, 2011, the specter of political assassination visited the citizens of the United States once again. It has been an infrequent but regular visitor to this land throughout its history, and as usually happens, its appearance evoked broad-based feelings of sorrow for those killed and wounded and soul-searching as each of us sought meaning in such a tragic event, feelings that transcended political views and religious beliefs. While the effect, if any, of the volatile and violent diatribes that have become commonplace in our political process of late on the mind of the alleged shooter may never be known, it is clear that the toxic atmosphere created by these verbal attacks has helped create the increasing polarization and violence we see in society today. Provocative attack journalism has become the rule amongst radio and television talk personalities, many of whom, but not all, are associated with the right wing of the political spectrum. In fact, the opponent of Congresswoman Giffords, the target of last week’s assassination attempt, sold himself as a “true conservative” in the last election by posing in a military camouflage uniform and carrying an automatic rifle.
The point is that what we say does matter, as the Buddha taught. Right speech is included in the Noble Eightfold Path for just this reason. The Buddha taught that harmful speech, especially gossip, had the ability to cause grievous harm, both to the object of the gossip and to unintended victims as well. Harmful speech establishes a certain state of mind in which it becomes very easy to allow oneself to resort to hatred and violence against others. Certainly the political climate in the United States has devolved into such a scenario. People like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have gotten rich by feeding their hatred-laced invective to those who flock to them like Romans to the gladiator arena.
For those who follow a spiritual path, following the teaching of Right Speech is crucial. One only has to look at history to see where harmful speech and judgment of others leads when carried out by those who claim to have spiritual authority. The Spanish Inquisition created horrendous suffering for many thousands of innocent people who had done nothing other than hold beliefs contrary to what those with spiritual authority believed to be the only correct way to believe. The inquisitors inflicted hellish torture and violent death on countless fellow sentient beings in the name of Jesus Christ, whose teachings on loving kindness were completely betrayed by their actions. And how did the Inquisition come about? It was created from the atmosphere created by hateful speech against those different than oneself and by judgment of others who chose to be different.
When one examines the behavior of those who claim to be Buddhist yet who engage in the most hateful and provocative speech and gossip against other Buddhists and Buddhist teachers on Twitter and in other places, one can only speculate on the effect this will have on the future of Buddhism in the West. Is this the future of Buddhism, or can we all learn to live by the teachings of the Buddha on practicing Right Speech? What is to be gained by attacking other Buddhists? More importantly, what is to be lost?
In Tucson, President Obama called on the nation to return to civility and comity in our dealings with our fellow citizens. We all pray that his message was heard and that it will inspire everyone to examine the effects of the words that they choose to use.