This is cross-posted at the Interdependence Project Blog: The Buddha had no idea how increasingly important Right Speech was going to be some 2,500 years after he first prescribed the Noble Eightfold Path.
There are lots of great things to be said about Facebook, Twitter, and the relatively new ability we have to share our words with the entire world just seconds after they come to mind. Thanks to social networking sites, revolutions can be ignited and carried through successfully, friendships can be made, injustices can be highlighted and hopefully alleviated, and an 88 year old actress can be drafted by her fans to host SNL.
However, sometimes what masquerades as socially concerned speech is merely the online equivalent of a binge and purge session, or worse yet, a means of emptying one’s emotional bowels (aka cyberrhea).
Just because we can put our thoughts and ideas out there immediately doesn’t mean that they aren’t contributing to conditions that eventually help bring about a certain result.
Let’s say that I throw a banana peel onto the sidewalk just a few feet in front of someone as they’re walking towards it. They slip and fall and break their leg. Is it their fault for not being more alert to what’s going on around them or do I share some responsibility for putting something dangerous in their path and creating the conditions that made an accident more likely?
As I see it, deciding on what’s an example of Right Speech can be gauged by considering questions like: does what I’m communicating help cultivate happiness or fear? Is it ultimately helpful or harmful? Are my words truthful or misleading? Am I using imagery or symbolism that inspires Right Action or does the symbology I’m using plant a seed that could lead to something harmful, even indirectly? Am I spouting my political beliefs because I really care about the issue at hand or am I using it as an opportunity to throw the hot-potato-that-is-my-unresolved-rage at others because misery loves company?
Sarah Palin’s use of a crosshairs map is a prime example. Very few people seem willing to go on record as saying that she bears some responsibility for the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords last month. And Palin herself actually used the ensuing brouhaha as an excuse to claim herself the victim and to take absolutely no responsibility whatsoever for her choices.
A less extreme but equally important example is the person who gets heaps of pleasure out of posting the most outrageous, heinous, and morbid news items and/or photos they can find, as often as possible. It’s as if they just want to throw mud at everyone around them rather than having to acknowledge and deal with their muddy insides. If you want some insight into the state of someone’s mind, just read their Facebook status updates over a period of time.
What we say matters. What we expose others to with our status updates and tweets matters. The art we create, the words we write, the symbols we appropriate all matter.
I’m not proposing that we obsess over every little thing that we communicate verbally or otherwise. But I do think it’s important to understand that nothing exists in a vacuum, and we can’t just pay lip service to Right Speech without considering all of its implications in our day to day lives.