A few weeks ago, the world was shocked by the death of twelve people in France at the hands of religious fanatics claiming to be Muslims. Many journalists immediately launched into a defense of the freedom of speech, claiming that such gunfire is an attack on this freedom, inciting Islamophobia. Yet, there are many others who are more moderate and wise, recognising that the freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences of speech. So far, their voices have not been heard enough. Some remain prejudiced about the incident, although the call for harmony and rational judgement is growing strong.
Just recently, I read what the Pope has to say about this incident and feel that he is right. Insulting religion is going too far, as is killing in the name of religion. Buddhists, unlike Catholics, do not have a spiritual leader. As such, I would like to offer my perspectives as a practising Buddhist.
I believe that the Buddha has already addressed this issue of the freedom of speech versus censorship way back in his time. Of course, come to think of it, everyone has the freedom to speak on whatever they like. It is just how the law of the country and society would react to that speech that matters. In America, free speech is most usually allowed, giving the illusion that one can be free from the responsibility of what one says. In countries that has internal security acts – such as Malaysia – certain types of speech will lead to grave consequences, including being jailed without trial. This creates an atmosphere of oppression and discomfort.
What did the Buddha say about speech? Once a prince was instructed by a rival religious leader to question the Buddha: would he speak words others find disagreeable? If he were to say yes, then he was no different from any other person. If he were to say no, then the prince would point out an occurrence when the Buddha did say something disagreeable. Thus, this was a question that the Buddha could not swallow or spit out.
Here we can relate to the arguments for free speech. Sometimes, hurtful things has to be said for the good of that person, so that they may improve. Yet, the arguments for censorship is such that, sometimes, some speech is just too harmful that it is better to ban saying it altogether.
When the prince did approach the Buddha with the question, the reply was: “Prince, there is no categorical yes-or-no answer to that.” Then the prince had said that the rival religious leader had lost there and then. After inquiring about why the prince asked that question, the Buddha countered with a question. “What do you think, prince, if this young boy sitting on your lap, through your own negligence or that of the nurse, were to take a stick or a piece of gravel into its mouth, what would you do?”
“I would take it out, lord. If I couldn’t get it out right away, then holding its head in my left hand and crooking a finger of my right, I would take it out, even if it meant drawing blood. Why is that? Because I have sympathy for the young boy.”
You can refer to the picture below as to how the Buddha continued. In the same way, he would speak what he knew to be true, not false. And it has to be beneficial, not unbeneficial. And if it is disagreeable to others, he would have the tact to say it at an appropriate time. Why is that so? Because he has a sense of compassion for living beings.
Personally, I feel that some journalist do not take that into account the sensitivity of certain issues when reporting. To them, it does not matter if their writing would generate more fear, hatred, intolerance in the world. In fact, they may be writing to stir emotions. This is not to say that there are many other journalists who try to maintain objective views when commenting on current affairs.
So, the Buddha seems okay with free speech, be it agreeable or disagreeable to others. The focus is on having the right time to say it. This might be the most challenging thing of all, because having the right time means judging the recipient’s level of acceptance of what is to be said and this is tough.
Right speech, I believe, is the middle path that is the solution between extremes of freedom of speech and censorship. Right speech acknowledges that we are free to speak, but not free from responsibility of the speech. Therefore, self censorship is practised, to say what is true, beneficial, harmonious, in a kind and timely manner.
Yes, it does not address the problem of what the state should practice, but if you’re reading this, then you can start to practice right speech. In the age of social media, where a lot of news get coverage from sharing, you can exercise the choice to share a particular article or not. Hopefully, we will all practice right speech and share wisely.
To recap: share what you know to be true, to be beneficial, and have the sense of time to share what may or may not be endearing and agreeable.
The more people practicing this, the less extreme the world would be and maybe, just maybe, we can come together in harmony and unity and start focusing and acting on serious issues for the future of our species.