The old childhood ditty about “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” (which, by the way, is a mischaracterization of the original poem in which the power of words to hurt was the whole point!) has run through my mind a lot in the past couple of weeks. First we endured the violence that erupted in a number of Muslim countries over the release of the anti-Muslim video denigrating the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and now we are subjected to print ads appearing on buses and trains in our nation’s major cities proclaiming “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” That shocking print ad has caused no end of uproar, not only from Muslims who feel yet again attacked, demonized, degraded, and demeaned by the implications that Muslims are “savages”, but also by many supporters of Israel who find the ad disgusting and fear it does more to harm Israel’s standing in the world than to garner support for it. Not to mention the horrible historical associations that the word “savages” has for African Americans and Native Americans who suffered terribly at the hands of colonial oppressors who characterized them as savages as they dragged them into slavery or slaughtered them while conquering their land. Not to mention the sexist implications of the word “man.”
In all the controversy erupting over both these incidents, the issue of how we exercise our freedom of speech becomes a central question. In our American democracy we revere our first amendment right to free speech. We believe wholeheartedly that everyone has the right to say what they think, however atrocious, obnoxious, rude, mean or hateful it is with only the caveat that it must not incite listeners to engage in destructive or violent behavior. With the advent of the internet and social media, it has become even easier for everyone with access to the internet to voice their opinions and thoughts and disseminate that speech around the world if they so choose. Sometimes I think we are suffering from “too much of a good thing.” In our commitment to protect free speech, have we created a society in which civility, good manners, and respect for the feelings of others are values of a quaint and distant past? Is it true that “mere words” are sufficiently benign that they need only minimal regulation?
While I am no advocate of censorship, nor do I wish to see us become a country where people can be charged with “treason” or “blasphemy” based on their written or oral rants, I cannot help but wonder if we might not need to revisit the wisdom of our religious traditions on matters of the tongue and pen (and now text, tweet, e-mail, blogpost, YouTube videos, etc!) It is undoubtedly the case that we need to continue to uphold freedom of speech as a civil and legal right, but we might also want to engage in some intentional, spiritual reflection on what kind of civic community we want to create. All the major religious traditions of the world have something to say on issues of “free speech.”
In the Christian tradition, the weekly Sunday lectionary has been taking believers through the pastoral Epistle of James for the past several Sundays. This short pastoral letter is a great source of wisdom on issues of the tongue, and it has some pretty strong things to say about the dangers of unfettered and unfiltered speech. For example, “This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!” (James 3:7-10, Message Version, a contemporary translation) The author of the “savages” billboard and the producers of the anti-Muslim video certainly chose to use their tongues as “wanton killers.”
Warnings about the dangers of hateful speech have long been the subject of religious teachings. One of the practices of the Buddhist eight-fold path is “right speech” meaning that a practitioner endeavors always to be mindful of what she says so as not to harm others. One of the Ten Commandments exhorts God’s people, “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Judaism, Christianity and Islam all try to keep that commandment. In the Hindu tradition, the doctrine of karma suggests that you will reap what you sew in everything you do and say in this life, so that hateful, demeaning speech against others will boomerang back at the speaker at some point in the long cycle of human and world history. In the Bahai tradition, gossip is a particularly grievous sin and something that Bahais are taught to avoid at all costs. Most religious traditions understand and teach that while you may have a right to think whatever you choose, and, in free democracies, the right to say it or write it, it is not always the case that you should exercise that right. The mere fact that you can do it does not suggest that you should do it. All religious traditions revere the practice of silence. Sages from the dawn of time have learned that curbing the human tongue is often good for everyone.
Religion is often blamed for fomenting hatred and violence in our world. The fact is that our religious traditions are equally significant sources of wisdom about how to live in loving community with one another. Monastic traditions through the ages have taught their initiates the importance of “custody of the tongue.” While we may not all agree on much when it comes to religious doctrines or practices, the practice of mindful speech and refraining from “false witness” is widely accepted. It is possible to engage in reasoned discourse in a free society without insulting and demeaning those with whom we disagree. When we fail to do that we hurt ourselves as much as those we purport to demean. Candidate Romney learned that hard lesson in the past few weeks, as ill considered words he uttered came back to haunt him and severely damage his campaign.
In a world awash in words, words, words on TV, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, newspapers, magazines, radio, it might be time to revisit the wisdom of the religious sages of ages past. Take a mini-vow of silence and speak only when words will enhance the quality of communal life and deepen compassion for friend and stranger.