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On Civil Discourse

Most sensible people recognise that speech is a better way to resolve disagreements than war is. Yet, the war of words that passes for “civil discourse” these days is too often anything but civil. In a thriving, robust democracy the right to free speech is inviolable and a true necessity if there is to be a broad presentation of ideas and a free sharing of opinions. In such a society, how can speech become the vehicle for achieving understanding and the establishing of common ground, rather than a means to subdue one’s “opponents”—meaning, all those who think differently?

First of all, we need to understand that speech is a means of clothing ideas, of giving form to thoughts so that they may be shared with others. Speech reveals, and hypocrisy is put on display when our actions do not match our words; most intelligent people understand this. But more subtle than that is the need to identify the conditioning thought which lies behind the words one speaks. There is a spiritual exercise that can be an interesting experiment: trying to listen to oneself as one speaks. This requires a degree of detachment in the moment when speech occurs, an ability to sufficiently disengage the attention from the act of speaking so that one can assume the stance of the observer. It requires an effort to identify the real underlying motivation behind what one is saying, to strip one’s words of all innuendo and let, simply, truth as one understands it be the conditioning factor. And, ultimately, it demands an effort to imagine what the experience of listening to oneself must be for the one spoken to—not an easy achievement but one that can be cultivated with practice and sensitivity. Until one learns to get in touch with the forces conditioning one’s consciousness, there will be a disconnect between the level of one’s speech and the mobilising forces impelling it. It is this gap in consciousness that led Emerson to remark, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say”.

Hate speech--the demonization of those who hold different beliefs, different world views—is increasingly common today. We see it in the media, particularly on the Internet, which provides the shelter of anonymity, allowing people who are so inclined to express their opinions and evaluations free of the restraint that personal responsibility for their words would entail. And we see hate speech even, sadly, in the face-to-face encounters which all democratic institutions require: town hall meetings, public gatherings concerning issues in dispute, community gatherings where different viewpoints must be considered and decisions reached. People of goodwill are appalled at such rancorous displays but no one seems to know what to do about them. Perhaps an understanding that speech must be guided by a sense of timing would help. As in all things, there is a time to speak and a time to be silent; wisdom comes in knowing the difference. Pythagoras’s school of spiritual development at Crotona required all incoming students to maintain silence for two years before they were given the privilege of speaking. Why? Not as a sort of rite of passage into a secret society, but rather to teach them the enormous reservoir of power which is contained within speech—power for good or for ill.

Today, however, silence is becoming more and more difficult to cultivate even if one sees the value of it. Technology, the media, and the general “thrust and parry” of modern life all seem to be conspiring against creating a space for silence in one’s life. But it can be done, particularly if one remembers that silence is not dependent so much on outer conditions as on an inner, psychological state. This is not the introverted attitude of the anti-social or self-centred individual, but rather, the practice of one who is becoming aware of how to wield energy rightly. For speech is essentially energy, as is silence, and both can be used for purposes of healing discord and even for creating the breakthroughs of understanding that are deemed miraculous by onlookers. Just as wrong speech separates, the right words at the right time can be a powerful aid in establishing common ground. This is the meeting point in consciousness which honours the essential principles within all sincerely held points of view, while submitting the less significant particulars, where disagreements are often based, to the fine art of spiritual compromise.

Increasingly, the coming age will be an age in which right human relationships are not just an idle hope but a universally acknowledged goal. The urge to find common ground will be the shared intention, and the purpose of speech will be dedicated to this achievement.

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GOODWILL ISthe precondition for enlightened communication