Today I want to talk about compassionate speech. It was inspired by one of our members posting this quote of Domo Geshe Rinpoche:
”There are many who are interested in gender-neutral language, as well as practicing open-ended statements in communication. These methods allow others to respond without trying to control them by selecting words with an agenda attached. Teachers of young students probably experience special challenges in their own use of speech because school children being taught how to use language skillfully will sometimes mimic a reprimanding style of communication from their teachers. What is compassionate speech? It is using non-inflammatory language. I attended a local township meeting here in Wisconsin. I did not intend to speak, but suddenly words became confrontational as tempers started to rise. Suddenly, I stood up, “I am one of your new neighbors, sorry to interrupt.. but please be careful, many of you are using inflammatory language and this is not going to help the situation. Thank you very much,” and sat down. Suddenly, the atmosphere calmed down, and people became aware of their word choices. By using words such as never, always, etc., others might feel attacked, blamed, or even wounded. If we think reasonably, there’s really nothing that never happens, or always happens… such as blaming and shaming statements such as, “You never do this! You always do that!” It will be hard to remember our vow to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings while smacking others verbally. Instead, let’s be alive in bodhicitta motivation to the best of our abilities!”
Let me tell you a couple of stories.
I’m Canadian. I live in Canada. Once in a while someone will be talking with me or a small group of people and they’ll say something like, “Those stupid Americans! Especially those in the south!” I’ll immediately speak up and say, “My wife’s American. And she’s from the deep south, southern Alabama.” I’ll say it with a smile and a sparkle in my eye, like a “Gotcha!” kind of thing. Most of the time they’ll say something like, “Oh! I don’t mean Lisa!”
Several weeks ago I was having a conversation with a few guys. One guy started talking about Heaven, saying that Heaven’s like this and Heaven’s like that. He was talking as if we all agreed because he assumed, I’m guessing, that I’m an orthodox believing Christian. His speech implied that if you didn’t believe what he was saying that you weren’t going there. I didn’t say anything because, even though it was massively presumptuous, it wasn’t insulting and he didn’t ask me what I thought.
For me, both of these are examples of speech that is not compassionate.
To practice compassionate speech, I must remember a few things:
1. Not everyone is like me, nor should they be. As an example, when I’m speaking online, I must remember that not everyone is Canadian, liberal, progressive, carnivorous, etcetera. I am different than most of my family. A lot of my family in the states would be Republican, people who hunt, very conservative Christians, etcetera. A lot of my family in Canada would sympathize with them. Politically, we differ. Plus, I might not agree with them or appreciate their lifestyle, but it doesn’t mean that I am better than they are. So when I speak, I remember this.
2. Generalities are usually wrong. We learn this in our personal relationships. “You never!” You always!” kind of language is usually not true. Not all Americans are bad. Not all Southerners are narrow-minded rednecks. You know what I mean. So when I speak I try to avoid inflammatory language. Even though some of my cartoons are criticized for painting with too broad a brush, I try to indicate that I don’t mean “all” or “every”. I try to communicate that this certainly applies to “some”. When someone says, “Believers are…” or “Atheists are…” or “Muslims are…” I know they may be smart but not wise or compassionate.
3. Compassionate speech is a universal expression. A universal door. I think this is a Buddhist expression. I want to be a universal door. Don’t you? This requires compassionate speech that is open to the universe and everything in it. Of course, compassionate speech can only emerge out of a compassionate heart. If my heart is not compassionate, then neither will my speech be. I want to be all-inclusive because this is an honest expression of reality. I truly believe we are united, one, joined, at an essential and fundamental level. Our various and diverse expressions are simply ripples on the surface of this deeper current of unity.
Of course, while we are diverse in expression, we can be united in justice. That is, we can be unequivocally opposed to racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, hate, violence, sexism, Islamophobia, and so on.
I would like to share something more personal with you. Many years ago, when I was the pastor of my last church, we did a personality test on those who attended a seminar. I discovered, to my dismay, that many of the people were similar in personality types to me. A professional therapist who was there with us spoke to me about this because I was disturbed by it. She said something to this effect: “David, you don’t want a church full of people with the same personality type as you, do you? A community full of INFP’s just like their pastor isn’t an indication of the diversity you desire.” She was right. It was a shocking slap to my spiritual face. I think this ramped up my personal efforts to be more universally accepting of others, which of course meant being more universally accepting of myself.
The communities I find myself a part of now are incredibly diverse. Just look at TLS! We have believers, non-believers, agnostics, atheists, pastors, ex-pastors, Muslims, Buddhists, Nones, Dones, Pagans, Wiccans, etcetera, etcetera. Just the other day I got a personal note from Irshad Manji, who wrote, The Problem with Islam Today. She encouraged me by saying that we are both involved in the same project… what she calls, “Your work is very important. Keep up the “ijtihad” (independent thinking – not to be confused with “jihad”).” It encouraged me to think that we are essentially united, not only at an essential level, but also on a practical one. This wouldn’t be possible if I used non-compassionate speech that was not inclusive of Muslims. This feels like TLS to me. And I think this is healthy because it is an accurate and honest reflection of reality… what is!
So when we speak, let’s remember to speak compassionately… from compassionate hearts. One very practical, simple, and quick way to do this is, just before you post something, just ask yourself: “Is this going to needlessly hurt or offend someone here?” Simple as that! This is what I do because I want to be a universal door, not a narrow or closed one. This is how a diverse community works well.
Thanks guys! I hope this helps.