We’ve all experienced anger, frustration, and outrage, the emotions that make us verbally lash out at someone else. Has that ever happened to you? Later, did you wish you could take your words back?
Most of us have felt that way more than once. We get mad, use harsh, foul, or ill-considered language, and those words hurt others. In hindsight, we regret the hurt we’ve caused, but can only apologize, which can’t ever remove the initial sting of those hurtful words. Once you’ve uttered them, they can’t really be taken back.
On the other hand, tact, wisdom, and empathy can act as counterweights in tense and conflicting interactions. Those learned character traits – the result of spiritual practice and training – come about when we make a conscious effort to refine our souls. The Baha’i teachings point out that only the refinement of our inner spiritual character and the consequent development of a pure heart can ultimately help us moderate our speech:
Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation. As to its influence, this is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure. As to its moderation, this hath to be combined with tact and wisdom … – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah
In contemporary society, we still have a long way to go before we learn and fully understand that wisdom. We not only have freedom of speech, Baha’u’llah seemed to say, we also have the freedom not to speak, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Today, disagreements often happen over politics and religion – two very contentious issues of our time. Pierre Trudeau, the late prime minister of Canada, had a great piece of advice for his son. He said, “Justin, never attack the individual. We can be in total disagreement with someone without denigrating them as a consequence.”
“Silence is golden” is a cliché, but it has great value. Saying nothing, sometimes, is a sign of self-discipline and wisdom. Restraint must be exercised out of strength, not weakness. Disclosure is not always timely nor suitable for the listener. When it comes to restraining ourselves and the words we use, Baha’u’llah wrote:
Not everything that a man knoweth can be disclosed, nor can everything that he can disclose be regarded as timely, nor can every timely utterance be considered as suited to the capacity of those who hear it. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah
But in this age of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, freedom of speech can morph into a weapon of mass destruction. At our disposal, we have an instantaneous, universal venue for expression which did not exist just decades ago. One Facebook post or a single tweet can easily reach hundreds of millions of viewers within seconds. We can use these tools for any purpose, including harassment, cyber-bullying, destroying a reputation, pushing someone to suicide, and withering humiliation. With every disparaging post, civility drops one notch.
So should we shut vulgarity down? Should we censor potentially hurtful speech? No – not if we want to preserve the sacred right of freedom of speech. One way to combat this trend is for concerned citizens not to participate in the insult-oriented atmosphere of the internet or the harsh attacks so common to partisan politics, and thereby help civility to return.
In our modern age, although education and technology have created fertile grounds for expression, they have also created tribalized cultures of certain beliefs. Tribal wars are waged among believers and deniers of climate change, affiliates of alt-right and alt-left on the political spectrum, globalists and populists, and so on. A healthy clash of opinions is good, from which a spark of truth will emerge. The danger point arrives when these beliefs reach a fanatical fervor. Respect is the key.
One of my friends believes that the Earth is flat, another one is convinced that life on Earth will disappear by the end of this century, and yet another one is betting on reincarnation. I don’t agree with any of them. Yet, in our conversation, we never burn the wall of civility. Love and respect are always the overriding factors.
Here’s another example: a man came to our house to do plumbing during the renovation of a bathroom. In his conversation, he dropped the f-bomb with every second word. Soon he realized that my wife and I were not responding to him in a vulgar manner. His choice of words changed, and after a couple of hours interacting with him, he completely upgraded his quality of speech. Otherwise, he was friendly and did a good job. Without prejudice, I recommended him to my daughter to fix a leaky bathtub.
What does freedom of speech have to do with the oneness of humanity? When we can freely express our aspirations, problems, injustices, fears, accomplishments, and ideas in a frank and friendly manner, regardless of political affiliations, gender, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs, it is a sure recipe to bind all humankind together. In contrast, at this very moment, the claws of divisiveness are ripping humankind apart.
Before this ideal can be realized, we must acknowledge that freedom of speech is our basic human right and every human being must be given equal opportunity. To be heard is one of the most beautiful human experiences.
Sometimes freedom comes with limits, though, and that is a good thing. For example, a driver has the freedom to go through the streets of London when everyone on the road obeys the traffic laws. Without this common understanding, traveling through any city would be impossible. In the same way, some spiritual rules – such as discipline, tact, respect, and balance – can elevate the quality of our interactions with others. In doing so, we help create an advanced global society in which we can collectively enjoy peace, find harmony, and recognize our strength in working together for a common destiny.
Modernity transforms as our consciousness expands. Yes, gloom and doom fills the headlines. But if we examine the deeper reality beneath these headlines, the Baha’i teachings tell us, we will see that some profound changes are happening:
Eyes are now open to the beauty of the oneness of humanity, of love and of brotherhood. The darkness of suppression will disappear and the light of unity will shine. We cannot bring love and unity to pass merely by talking of it. Knowledge is not enough. Wealth, science, education are good, we know: but we must also work and study to bring to maturity the fruit of knowledge. – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London