Right Speech vs. Freedom of Speech


It seems to me that no matter what news channel or social media I go to lately, they all have something to say about the Duck Dynasty controversy. I won’t go in to the details about the news story because I’m sure you already know about it and may have formed your own opinion. However, I would like to explore this from a Buddhist perspective. By no means do I claim to be an expert on Buddhist philosophy; I am only a beginning student who tries to practice its teachings; I have given this topic much thought.

I want to discuss this idea from two perspectives — I am sure there are many more ways to see it, but I want to stay within the Buddhist perspective or at least as I interpret it, which is right speech vs. freedom of speech.

We Americans live in a diverse mix of dynamic, cultural ideologies. We all have different beliefs when it comes to our world views, yet at the same time we are tribal — meaning we tend to gravitate to like-minded people and cultures and life styles. I believe it’s always been that way from what I read in history books, but I think social media could be challenging that, or at least what is allowed to be said in the public discourse.

Basic Buddhist doctrine believes in following The Eight Fold Path in order to attain enlightenment (also called nirvana) and Right Speech is the third of the eight path factors. For me, I’m not so interested in becoming enlightened in the conventional sense, as much as I want to learn these concepts to help me become a better version of myself. I want to be more compassionate, patient and understanding. Those three things do not come to me naturally. I have to work on them.

For those of you who don’t know what the Eight Fold Path is, I posted a visual list:


Buddhism is no different from other religious or philosophical beliefs; it has different sub-sects, each with its own set of dogmas. There are those who view Buddhism as a religion and those who practice as a secularist/atheist. One does not have to believe in a deity to call himself a Buddhist. I think other religions pretty much require believing in a God or higher power but I could be wrong.

Like I mentioned, Right Speech is on the list of what a practicing Buddhist should be at least trying to do or meditating about. As recorded in the Pali Canon, the historical Buddha taught that Right Speech had four parts:

1. Abstain from false speech; do not tell lies or deceive.

2. Do not slander others or speak in a way that causes disharmony or enmity.

3. Abstain from rude, impolite or abusive language.

4. Do not indulge in idle talk or gossip.

To me, this sounds pretty close to what Christian faith teaches as well.  I think it’s safe to look at it another way, “Think before you speak.”  Before I open my mouth, is what I am about to say meant to hurt or uplift? To me, thinking before speaking is especially important when I’m pissed off. I can easily say something I may regret later.

Words are powerful. They can be used to express love or inflict pain. Wars have been fought over them.

In America we pride ourselves in having the freedom to say what we want — It’s first on the list in the U.S. Constitution but does that mean its a good idea to always say what we think? Just because we have that right, shouldn’t we also be mindful of our words? I think it also depends on the context from which we speak.

Back to the Duck Dynasty controversy, the offending speech was part of an interview for a well-known magazine. The reporter asked Phil Robertson, the star of the show (I think all so-called reality shows are scripted) about his religious views and his answer started a fire storm. It set off a whole other war-of-words. Was the journalist aware of what his line of questions could do? Was Robertson aware that his answer could be construed as “hateful?” or at the very least hurtful?

I never watched his reality show, in fact I don’t watch any of them because I think they all are centered around hurtful speech. That’s seems to be why Americans watch them. The “characters” on these shows say things that would be frowned upon to say publicly in a civilized society. Or are these shows making it acceptable to say mean things? I know the bar for civil discourse on social media can get pretty low.

Martin Bashir is another example of what can happen when one does not think before speaking. I think his controversial words are different from Robertson’s. He wasn’t reading from a teleprompter, Bashir was. Was he aware that his words were pretty vile? Was that his intention? Was it for ratings? Was it meant for shock value? I’m sure he didn’t know he would put himself out of work because of it. And what about the person who gave the “ok” to allow him to say such things on air? Did anyone stop to think of the consequences?

I am a proponent for free speech. I am glad to live in a country where I can publicly voice my opinion without fear of being imprisoned. At the same time this freedom requires me to be responsible for what I say. It requires me to go deeper in my Buddhist practice and make sure that my speech is within the context of Right Speech.

Are my words meant to harm or uplift? Are my words meant to unite or divide? Words are not bullets but they can leave deep scars just as well.

I don’t like the idea of severely punishing someone because we don’t like what they say, especially when they are giving their opinion about something they believe to be true for them. I think things can spin out of control quickly when no one comes from a place of compassion and the only desire is to either silence those we disagree with or inflict pain on the perpetrator. Trying to ban undesirable speech does nothing to win hearts and minds.

On the other hand, talking out of one’s butt just to hear oneself speak could mean all bets are off and that person must accept the consequences, which could mean ending up in the unemployment line.

I cannot control what others do and especially what they say, but its my hope that these recent examples encourage us all to examine our behavior and at least to consider practicing Right Speech.

Sat Nam,