Right Speech: Paving the Path to Peace and Understanding

I have wallowed in a puddle of disappointment these last several days.  The world I so much want to exist just doesn’t, and that has seriously bummed me out. I am not one to wander into deep existential despair, bemoaning the lack of a purpose to life.  (I believe we’re here to love one another and reduce suffering, but that’s another post).  Instead I tend to stand in the pit of disappointment in humanity.  Perhaps those aren’t too far apart. After all, my disappointment in humanity largely stems from our failure to truly love one another and our continuous acts that increase human suffering.

On my bleakest days, I wonder what I’m missing.  Just how stupid am I, thinking we should just all get along despite our differences of race, religion, politics, gender, education, and all? It’s tempting to wall myself off from all that irks me and give up that idea that we’ll ever become a more compassionate world.

This bout mental gloom began with a question.  A Facebook friend, whom I do know in real life, asked a question regarding a politically charged issue.  Now, I’ve been called naive before, although I prefer to think of it as hopeful.  I assumed (first error) that her question was genuine: a gentle probe to understand the other side of an issue she holds dear to her heart.  So I answered (second error), with a gentle, honest, brief answer.

For a few minutes after I replied, I thought I’d entered a real conversation.  Dialogue, I thought.  We’ve started a dialogue!  Not the kind that radically changes anyone’s mind.  Not the sort designed to move one from Camp A to Camp B.  Just the kind that increases understanding across the aisle, even if just by a hair.

Then the bottom dropped out.  Vitriol, assumptions, and judgement from others of her mindset began to fill the page.  Stunned and feeling rather ambushed, I sat, heart pounding and stomach rising. Her question was no genuine question, no reaching out to understand. It was rhetorical, aimed at those who espoused her opinion.  Rather than an invitation to dialogue, it was a request for affirmation from those of similar mindset.

I could have walked out then.  Perhaps I should have.  But still clinging to the idea that social media can offer us a unique opportunity to see and better understand the views of others, I hung in.  I briefly and politely replied a few times to the loudest responder, then feeling discouraged, wrote and posted a blog post on reversing the polarity of social media.  I didn’t advocate for a side (indeed, I’d not taken one).  I didn’t verbally spar. But I did give up, removing my replies (thus evoking  cheers), and chastised myself for my naiveté.

And then I despaired. If in this forum, we can’t make an attempt at civil and respectful speech, what hope to we have in the larger community?  Here, where we’ve selected to whom each missive goes, should we not be ready to be grown-ups, indeed models for the children of ours who are certainly watching, and agree to disagree as we teach them to do? Not to compromise their values, but rather to practice right speech (speak the truth with kindness and compassion).

In short, if we can’t practice tolerance and right speech among “friends”, where can we?  If we can only practice those traits with those who share our opinions, faith, and long-held beliefs, we are only walling ourselves off, missing opportunities to understand others and for others to understand us.  We’re missing our chance to practice our beliefs regarding love and respect. On a simply practical level, rancor and ridicule never moves someone to your point of view.  If anything, it moves them further away.  Back to that catching more flies with honey than vinegar adage…

So I get it.  Facebook and other social media are really places for us to justify ourselves and our stances.  After all, most of our “friends” think just like we do, right? And if they don’t, who cares?  We’re just being ourselves, true to our beliefs.  And that, of course, justifies any behavior or word these days.

But, I want better than that, online and in real life. I want a world where voicing a differing viewpoint isn’t an invitation to inhibition and insult.  I want to be able to disagree with respect, receiving respect in turn.  As humans, we owe that to each other, at least in my naive way of thinking.

This is far from the first time I’ve despaired about humanity, losing hope that we could ever truly learn to love each other with all our differing beliefs and opinions.  As I age, I ride the roller coaster of delight to despair more often, perhaps simply because I’m thinking more about it.  As my children grow, I strive to teach them to live lives of compassion, love, and respect.  I fall short with my own words many times, and then I despair in me. Perhaps the stakes just seem higher than ever, with increasing polarity in our nation and decreasing tolerance for what is not our own way of being.

So what to do?  Undoubtedly, start again, albeit a bit wiser.  Remember that above all, we’re all just painfully human, tightly identified with our minds and easily threatened by what we do not understand. Remember that it’s not defending an opinion or belief that is the problem, it is forgetting that those who don’t agree are as fully human as we are.  Thus, we open ourselves to greater understanding of others, which can only help form the path to peace.


Common Ground: Reversing the Polarity Social Media Encourages

I’ve heard it said many times that the internet has increased our polarity.  Rather than increasing our understanding of the vast variety of viewpoints in our world, we tend to herd (yes, like sheep) with those who think and feel just like we do.  We go to forums and join email lists filled with people who validate our worldview, or at least a little slice of our worldview.  We pat each other on the back, celebrating how right we are in our way of thinking.  At our best, we patronizingly ask what those poor fools on the other side of the issue are smoking, shaking our heads with a bemused, knowing smile.  At our worst, we ridicule them amongst ourselves or to their social media selves, calling them names and judging their character.

We’re human.  We seek out other humans who are like us.  We look for a neighborhood that we think fits our family. We look for a church that matches our belief system.  We seek an education for our children that fits what we think education should be.  It’s human nature and completely understandable.

It’s also dangerous.

When the only voices we hear are the ones that validate our existing point of view, we miss the balance that comes from hearing what doesn’t match ours.  I’m not talking about the “hearing” that is followed by rolled eyes and online rants.  I’m talking about real listening to another side of the issue and to what the other person has to say.  Whether it be about politics, religion, a current community issue, or a standing social concern, the key here is really listening without judgement.

This is hard.  As  Unitarian Universalist, a member of a liberal religious tradition, I stand by the right for every human to search for what he or she finds true and meaningful, within the bounds of respecting the worth and dignity of every human being.  That can really be tough, requiring far more breathing and pausing than I sometimes care to practice.

To be sure, listening to opposing viewpoints does not mean agreeing with them.  It doesn’t mean never presenting a respectful rebuttal or providing additional (neutral) information.  It does require an open mind and heart and some creative thinking.  It takes creativity and openness to look at the world through another’s eyes, if even for a moment.  It takes knowing where your own buttons are, remaining alert what might threaten to set them off.  It takes love — the kind of unconditional love Jesus taught– and compassion — the sort the Buddha demonstrated — to quiet the mind and just truly listen.

Why bother?  Because, at best, ranting and raving at the other side accomplish nothing.  Because digging in, calling names, and making broad assumptions is the job of two-year olds and teens (the latter of whom we rightfully expect better).  Because, like it or not, much of life is a mystery, as is all of the future.  None of us have the market cornered on the best way of living in this remarkably complicated world.  Really. And no amount of vitriol and rhetoric actually changes anyone’s mind.  Does the adage, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” ring a bell?

Just try it.  Try it on your public media of choice.  The next time someone posts a favorable link about the politician you hate, the church you can’t stand, or the cure-all that you’re sure is garbage, don’t just move on.  Click through. (Judiciously — I’m not advocating damaging your computer or being irresponsible.)  Read the link.  It may be a one-sided rant full of — wait for it — vitriol and rhetoric.  Or, more often in my experience, it may be a more thoughtful look at the other side of a subject. Before cursing it on or off-line, look for what’s behind it.  Google the politician, church, or cure-all and read more.  Listen while you read, to the people behind those messages that drive you out of your mind.  Listen to their fear, their hopes, their concerns.  Listen to your own heart and mind, noting judgement and your own fear, hopes, and concerns.

Repeat this exercise until you kind of get it.  Not believe it (although that could happen), but just understand that there could be another valid way of looking at the world.  That other way may be in stark contradiction to yours, and you may be more opposed to it than when you first began your search.  That’s fine.  The point is to know what the other point of view is about. After all, it came from human beings (and, if it’s via social media, it came from human  beings you call your friends).  It’s worth understanding where they come from.

Don’t be surprised if your heart softens a bit, even if you hold your stance as tightly as before.  Don’t be surprised if you find it harder to lambaste folks you don’t know online and off, now that you have a better feel for them as human beings.  Don’t even be surprised if you now find it easier to respectfully voice your own opinion.

The secret is this.  The more you know about another way of looking at the world, the more you understand just a bit of the people behind those crazy ways that are not yours, the more you see how you are similar to them.  The woman who opposes all vaccinations? She has fears for her children, just like you have for yours.  That’s common ground.  The man who rages against higher taxes for national health care?  Perhaps he worries about not having enough resources down the line, like so many of us do.

We have more common ground than we think.  Our internet communities can make it seem like we have none, breeding hate, anger, and fear.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Until we see what we share and at least try to recognize the thoughts and feelings behind another’s point of view, we’re living neither the message of Jesus or the Buddha.  We’re simply practicing polarity.