This week I was faced with a question/dilemma/problem, it was all born out of a harmless comment in someone’s eyes I am sure, but these words maybe me look within and turn to the dharma for guidance. The dharma has never steered me wrong, it has always cleared everything up for me, but this case was not immediately cleared and I am asking all of you. What is right speech? And what does it mean to practice right speech? Let me put everyone to speed, I find that most will see how it is not as easy as one might think.
I was at work, a good day, I was wearing a new Fred Perry polo (I must admit that I am a total fan of this clothing line, bordering on obsession!) and one of my bosses was also wearing a new Fred Perry sweater. I always feel a certain feeling of joy when I wear a new item by this designer and I can see that I am not the only one that feels that way when we find that awesome shirt and get to share it with those around us. My boss was wearing a colour that some might say was more “effeminate” than the green that I was wearing. A colleague of mine asked me if I had seen his new sweater and I said yes in a tone that clearly stated my approval of his new digs, he then proceeded to say “I asked him if he switched teams and this is his way of telling us”, and this is where my debate and reflection starts. Is it right speech for me to call him on his homophobic statement and get to question why he thinks that first of all being gay is derogatory, that the colour that we were explains our sexual orientation, and lastly, seeing as how he is newly a father, what kind of role model is he being for his son and how he will view the world in the future.
Right speech is usually understood as one of the ethical conducts in the eightfold path as:
Right speech is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eightfold path. Ethical conduct is viewed as a guideline to moral discipline, which supports the other principles of the path. This aspect is not self-sufficient, however, essential, because mental purification can only be achieved through the cultivation of ethical conduct. The importance of speech in the context of Buddhist ethics is obvious: words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, start war or create peace. Buddha explained right speech as follows: 1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully, 2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, 3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and 4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth. Positively phrased, this means to tell the truth, to speak friendly, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary.
As one quickly understands, this is aimed at the individual and the actions that the individual does in the world. I am really questioning, if we are to practice engaged buddhism, if this act of calling people out on their racist or homophobic comments not a part of right speech. It is slanderous speech, the words that are used are malicious and create a world where it is Ok to use homophobia as an insult towards someone. I have always had a hard time when people use terms like faggot to joke around when someone is not being manly enough or good at a certain task, to the point that I am seen as a hyper sensitive person that has no sense of humour because I object to the fact that this term is being used. I should know that it is not what they mean and should not take it so seriously, I find the phenomenon of the normalisation of hate to be a plague in our society and assures that prejudice will continue for many generations to come.
What I wish I said to my co-worker, instead of simply ignoring the homophobic statement and saying that I was glad that at least one person had taste in clothing in the office, I wish I would have asked him first of all why he finds homosexuality to be derogatory, that he should take some time to reflect on what kind of role model is he being for his newborn son, and how would he react if one day he learns that his son was gay (would his vocabulary change)? I find that it is important to study the normalization of hate in our society, language is an extremely subtle tool for hate, the more we hear something the easier it is for us to use it in the same context. I am trying to be as mindful and aware with my dharma practice, so why would I not stand up to hate and respond with love, teaching others how they can be less hateful on a daily basis? I find that it is my duty to stand up and call people out on their ignorant comments, that is what right speech is, speaking out to help others suffer less. I owe it to my colleague to let him know what happened to me when he uttered what he believed to be “harmless” words, I owe it to him, and I especially owe it to his son!