Sunday, 3 March 2013

Authentic Speech (in memory of Rosa Parks)

We are what we think,
Arising out of our thoughts,

Our thoughts make the world.

Speak with impure mind

And trouble will follow you

As the wheel the ox.

We are what we think,

Arising out of our thoughts,

Our thoughts make the world.

Acting with pure mind,

Happiness will follow you,

Your faithful shadow.

These four verses that begin the Dhammapada correspond neatly to the four meanings of dhamma according to Buddhadasa: nature itself, the law of nature, the duty that must be performed according to that law of nature, the fruits or benefits that arise from the performance of that duty.  

I have been reflecting about "right speech" — what makes speech an authentic act?, especially when concerning issues of the world when speech becomes essentially political, and all the pitfalls this involves . Against these pitfalls, let us keep in mind two ideals of authentic political speech acts: Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat for a white man on a segregated bus, an act of power that assumed her equal rights and denounced a racist law & Martin Luther King's famous speech "I have a dream", an excerpt of which is at the end. 

In memory of Rosa Parks (1913-2005), born a hundred years ago.

Rosa Parks: “When I made that decision, I knew 
that I had the strength of my ancestors with me.”

In my experience, I am very uncomfortable with any kind of speech whose intention is to change opinions, except as a means of self-reflection to question my own ideas, or among friends to show perspective and balance to a point of view even if that point of view is one I agree with, or among anonymous others but only if I am in a genuine position of being better-informed or if there is some terrible apathy and I feel something positive and concrete could come about if only enough could awaken from slumber. In short, I am wary of any kind of political speech, unless I am genuinely in a position of knowledge or power to make change into a reasonable possibility, and I rarely feel this.

There is a saying which stuck in my head and inspired this blog. "Every little thing we can do makes a difference." This makes me feel a little guilty about my reticence, and I wonder what causes it? The first reason is discouragement of what difference I could make outweighing the courage to speak. But courage is born of authenticity, and I am hopeful that if I were ever in a position of authentic opportunity, then any fear would melt in the face of this conviction. However, there are two other reasons which go to the heart of what it would mean for such a speech act to be authentic: power and knowledge.

I am not comfortable with online petitions. Even if they are obvious, and I totally support them, wouldn't it be an act of self-importance to think that my name would make a difference? My opinions for example in favour of peace, tolerance and kindness in this world should be taken for granted. Worse still, it is an act of helplessness, expecting an external fix. All I have to offer such a petition is my opinion, my name reduced to a 'yes' or a 'no'. Is this really an act of engagement? It is at least a sign of engagement, the first murmurs of breath in the body that there is still care in the world. But it's both too easy and too much. It is too easy, and too easy too ignore. It is both an act of courage, and also an act of potential regret. It is a politicisation of the self that was formerly represented and accounted for indirectly, without the benefit of any corresponding political power to act on behalf of itself. It is mere hope in the face of hopelessness of changing the minds of those in power. In capitalist democracy today, it is said that if you want to make governments and corporations pay heed to the demands of the many, you must hit them where it hurts: the polling station and the pocket. In fact, they care a lot for reputation also, so the media can be powerful too. And raising one's voice, whether personally or impersonally, can feed into the media storm of scrutiny, and can really bring about authentic change. Words can be powerful, as long as they are heard!

But then how does a political speech act differ from a political campaign? The latter has come to take on a narrower meaning, politics reduced to political parties, but in the broader sense of the political, a successful drive to change the opinions of others is a campaign which is heard. I am equally uncomfortable with the idea of campaigning, the active partner of petitioning, and for a different reason: of knowledge. I would never wish to participate in the rhetorical power-jostling that constitutes traditional political speech. I listen to it enough to know its childish repetitiveness and scare-mongering, its privileging of perceived opinion over fact, how cleverly it is designed to influence the media storm of approval of oneself and disapproval of the other side, how precisely it paints the world in black and white, how well it masks the lone voices, the real authentic ones who have something genuine to say. If in striving for authentic speech, we drown out the authentic speech of others in the overall noise we create, then what benefit is that? When all is silent, even the dropping of a pin can be heard in an empty hall. It is not volume that counts so much as being heard, and the more voices are raised, the greater the threshold of deafness and indifference (in the media, or for those in power) before they can no longer be ignored. If a petition is signed by a hundred people, or a hundred thousand march in peaceful protest, its meaning comes to very little because it is expected. What is necessary is harmony, an insistence impossible not to hear, unusual, undeniable, challenging fixed assumptions that change is unlikely or undesirable, and beyond all duality of us and them.

For a political speech act to be authentic it must hope for a positive effect in more than just words. Words are indeed a foundation for action. It must support those whom we would wish to be supported if we were in their position. It must be selflessness, not born of ego, not bringing attention to oneself or done in order to assuage our guilt, but directed towards a common cause, to ideals we want represented and giving voice to the voices that would otherwise go unheard. Grandstanding separates, inspiration unites. It must be born of knowledge, but it must also be a way unto self-knowledge. Among friends, it is based on communication and friendship. Among those whom we do not know, it is based on courage and a genuine engagement. It is based on an assumed power, and not the complaint of the powerless. It is not the expression of an emotion, but the expression of the questions that gave rise to that emotion.

Finally, and this is what gives me comfort in my discomfort about political speech, not everyone has to be the flame: some are the ignition, some the fuel, some the inspiration to encourage and motivate others. Perhaps we each have our different places in the whole. We don't all have to be everything, so long as we follow our heart!

Acknowledgments: to friends and contributors here and here who helped provide some of the substance for this post.

Martin Luther King
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.


  1. really enjoyed reading your blog and wanted to thank you for providing us with substantial food for thought, here and over at the yahoo answers forum. thank you. from fractal

  2. Thank *you*! Also, for inspiring the conclusion which helped resolve things for me.

    There was supposed to be a quote in the blog which has disappeared. Here it is again:

    "When I made that decision," she said later, “I knew that I had the strength of my ancestors with me.” (Rosa Parks)