I think most of us know when to keep our mouths closed. When your opinionated in-law, who always puts you down when you disagree with their political stance, starts talking about the news. When your spouse is trying to bait you into a fight, you’re not up for it, and you know if you respond, it will be a replay of the same old conflict that goes nowhere. There are so many times we encounter situations where we could speak what we think, and the outcome, if we did, would be anger, sadness, and distance between us and those we care about.
I use a simple rule which I try to apply consistently; if speaking something will not be heard or useful, if it will not take the conversation to a more meaningful, funnier, or better place, and if it’s not truly helpful, it’s best if I don’t say it. I aim to contribute positively to a group experience, whether it’s with one other person, five people, or fifty, through speech. It’s amazing how things can shift when we think of higher ground, come up with a way to support it, and offer comments that go against the grain of the negative. Now, speaking positively is not to be confused with sweeping things under the rug, “whitewashing” the truth, or simply saying whatever someone else wants to hear. It’s choosing not to be on board with a negative storyline that doesn’t reflect the whole picture.
Sometimes it’s important to claim our right to speak our truth, even when we know it is not welcomed. We cannot live happily with the mute button pushed permanently on our mouths out of fear of pissing someone off or bothering them. Sometimes people are so entrenched in the negative that your positive comments are not appreciated. I encounter this with people who take pleasure in soliciting sympathy from others by recounting their woes. I don’t tend to respond the way they want, as I don’t actually feel sorry for people who have challenges. I think taking that stance diminishes people, so I stay with positive comments validating their strengths while acknowledging that they are stressed. Or I don’t respond at all because there is nothing to say. If you want me to agree with you that you are a victim and deserving of pity because you are making choices you aren’t happy with, I won’t do that because that isn’t helpful or truthful. There are exceptions; when someone simply wants some time to whine just to get it off their chest, I’m ok with that.
As a counselor and a health educator, I am in the business of saying things people don’t really want to hear. I even need to do it when teaching fitness and yoga classes. I have to tell people to stop talking loudly and distracting other participants during a class. I have to tell people they can’t stay and exercise in their flip-flops. I have to tell people to stop wearing perfume to class because it bothers others. Most of these things are said in favor of safety, and some are said to implement the best overall experience for the entire group.
When I am at my office with a client, I have even more opportunities to say things people don’t want to hear. Few people who enjoy blaming their spouses or their parents for all of their problems want to receive an invitation to look at their own part in the relationship dynamic. Few people really want to hear that their defenses, while habitual and easily raised, do not really do the job they most need to be done. Few people want to own their responsibility for their experience and to move out of the comfort of familiar behavior into productive action. Who wants to hear that their favorite food, which they overeat to self-soothe, needs to be eliminated from their diet? No one! We love our comfort zones, even if they keep us stuck. We also really love thinking we’re right and everyone else is wrong. We really should have the floor more often so we can inform everyone of what’s the right way to look at a thing. But, no, we don’t want to hear the opposing view.
Right to Speak
Hence all the outrageous behavior on the internet, in social media, and in the entire world of politics and the mainstream media. All the pontificating and finger-pointing that people are doing seems to me to be an expression of one of these things: immaturity, intolerance, fear, self-righteousness, and selfishness. Did I leave anything out?
So the questions that come to mind are these:
Why on earth should one person’s opinion merit more importance than someone else’s?
Why is it necessary to put someone else down to raise yourself up?
What gives some people the right to suppress someone else’s point of view?
I grew up thinking that in a democracy, freedom of speech is guaranteed and valued. Yet, today the amount of censorship that is going on is skyrocketing, and we are losing easy access to the information we need to learn and to make informed choices. Perhaps what someone with an opposing view has to say could be right.
When I put democracy into action in my life, I make certain to listen to all points of view. Much to the chagrin of some of my friends who are allied with one party only, I watch Tucker Carlson videos and Fox News. I read the Epoch News and The Children’s Health Defense articles. I read editorials from Off-Guardian and all sorts of other varied and dissimilar sources of information and viewpoints. What I find interesting when I do this is that I can’t ally myself with any one position. I don’t agree with everything the Democrats are doing, nor do I agree with everything the Republicans are doing. No one person or platform could possibly speak to any one of us on every single issue. I value ethical behavior, honesty, and support for the good of everyone, and I value intelligent action based on truth. Not spin. Not advertising. Needless to say, this eliminates much of what is being said on both sides of the political divide.
So, how do we achieve the ability to listen to and consider varying points of view without defensiveness, aggression, and disdain? Well, humility helps. Has life not taught all of us that we are sometimes wrong? It helps to value truth over opinion and be willing to do our own homework to educate ourselves. “Fact-checking” is a misleading concept that is abused today by the media. I have fact-checked the fact-checkers many times and found them to distort the news in favor of their position. Some “fact-checking” services were created by organizations with a specific point of view they want to disseminate. In our efforts to understand what is really going on, we can’t give our power or our responsibility away to someone else just because they claim to speak the truth. They are simply speaking what they think is true or what they want you to believe is true. If there is one thing we can frequently see in action today, it is how some people’s views are “re-branded” into conspiracy theories and “disinformation.” When did we become so threatened by someone disagreeing with us and offering a different point of view? When did it become acceptable that the platforms on which millions of people express their views come under the control of only certain groups or ideologies? This is dangerous!
Who Gets to Speak?
I am not interested in listening to hate speech. I am not interested in listening to racist, sexist, bigoted, negative, ageist, angry speech. I don’t like seeing the consequences that follow people verbalizing lies that stir up anger and violence. I don’t like hearing about people being harmed because someone else in their life got all riled up listening to violent speech. Nonetheless, I am unwilling to support taking away other people’s right to speak. What I can do is offer a different point of view or simply tune into a different channel that is more to my liking.
When we designate one group as not having the right to speak, we are oppressing them and instituting a situation where one group gets to take away the rights of another. None of us have that right, and our government shouldn’t have that right. Should violent offenders go to jail or some kind of rehab? Should people who harm others be addressed and, if needed, contained, so they do no harm? I think we can all agree that this should happen. That’s why we have laws and institutions that are in place for the purpose of protecting public safety.
Can speech be as harmful as physical violence? Oh, yes. Can lies damage lives? Oh, yes. Still, we all have the right to speak, and we have the right, or should have, the right, to form our own opinions without coercion. What I suspect is needed in this wide world of conflict and distorted presentations is a common thread that has to do with what’s really good for everyone. Addressing our degrading environment. Revitalizing our democracy. Addressing social inequality. Making sure people in need of treatment get it. There is a lot at stake here and a lot to lose. We cannot simply eradicate people we don’t like or disagree with, for that is not democracy, nor is it fair. We also cannot afford to be silent when we see other people’s right to free speech taken away through censorship or outright oppression.
In favor of free speech and social harmony, I think it would be beneficial for all of us to become better listeners and better speakers. It would help a lot if we chose to be more open-minded than the mainstream is encouraging us to be right now. Can we become so highly motivated for positive change that we are willing:
To hear from the other side and try to find common ground?
To think before we speak?
To be willing to understand why someone is saying what they are saying?
To be interested in hearing opposing views as a vehicle for learning?
To be more hearable in how we speak?
Can we find ways to express what is most important to us without speaking in a way that puts down others? I believe we can and we must. Developing these skills takes some doing. Staying centered in the presence of opposing views takes work, and it is uncomfortable.
I find both yoga and meditation to be highly valuable in this regard because, over and over, these things center me in a balanced, peaceful place. A good yoga or meditation practice takes a lot less time than a two-week vacation and is much less harmful to our health than the things many of us do to “relax,” such as drinking alcohol or smoking pot. So, I invite you all, if you are not already positioned, to engage in these things on a regular basis and to take action today. Get a yoga class scheduled, sign up for a meditation class, or do something else that helps you to center in truth. From there, it is so much easier to open to a different point of view.