Free Speech goes hand-in-hand with Right Speech: Mindful journalism needs both
Posted on June 27th, 2015

By Shelton A. Gunaratne

As the lead author of the book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach” (Routledge, 2015), I am hopeful that citizen-or professional journalists in Buddhist countries would become the pioneers of adopting mindful journalism as the preferred method of influencing social change.

In the book, the authors—Mark Pearson, Sugath Senarath and I—have described in detail how mindful journalism is different from mainstream journalism that the majority of the mass media are currently using without understanding its disruptive impact on social harmony.

The news culture that developed in the West about two centuries after the invention of the rapid printing press in the mid-15th century and evolved through the subsequent European Enlightenment suited the social and political developments in Europe and America. The result of this process was Westernization, which should not be confused with globalization, an evolutionary process that began with the big bang.

The putative globalization” of Western values such as individualism, press as the Fourth Estate, objectivity, conflict and competition as desirable ends for human progress at the expense of Eastern philosophical values such as social harmony, interdependence, mindfulness and co-operation has, in my opinion, adversely affected the socio-political values they inherited from the past based upon centuries of practice.

For example, Buddhism de-emphasizes individualism by highlighting anatta (no self/ asoulity) and anicca (inconstancy/ impermanence) as two of the three marks of existence. All beings are mere composites of the ever-changing Five Aggregates. Thus, true Buddhists cannot concede individualism because concepts like I,” me,” and you” are only illusions of such composites, which wrongly encourage us to believe that people are independent, static entities. We use these terms only as a matter of convenience inasmuch as no language has the capacity to describe a constantly changing being.”

In the light of this explanation, mindful journalism cannot promote individualism and individual rights as universal concepts because they encourage the Five Aggregates to transgress the middle path to enter the extreme portals of greed (lobha), hatred (dosa) and delusion (moha). Sooth to say that mindful journalism is more concerned with collective rights and social amity inasmuch as Buddhism is more concerned with social responsibility than with individual” rights. In other words, mindful journalism promotes democratic socialism rather than libertarian capitalism that feeds the three lords of materialism—form, speech, and thought—associated with ignorance (avijja).

The attitude of mindful journalism toward freedom of speech and of the press is different from that of mainstream journalism, which is theoretically committed to materialistic libertarianism.

Buddhism does not lend credence to the notion of the Fourth Estate because it is an oxymoron. If everything in a system is interdependent, how can journalism or the investigative” press alone be exempt? Interdependence, interconnection and interaction are profoundly illustrated in the theory of dependent co-arising (paticcasamuppada), which illustrates the operational dynamics of the 12 foundational links (nidanas) engendering dukkha.

What Buddhism permits is responsible freedom without coercive restraints. Guided by a set of norms (specified in the magga/ Noble Eightfold Path), the mind consciousness of each Five-Aggregate composite can strive toward freedom from dukkha. Freedom of expression is possible within the framework of the magga, particularly its sila (ethics and morality) dimension relating to three aspects—right speech, right action, and right living—as applicable to the laity, including all journalists.

The right speech aspect is paramount for the practice of mindful journalism because it is buttressed by all major religions.. Mainstream journalism, in contrast, follows the guideline of putative objectivity” –which, according to quantum physics, is non-existent—to reveal the facts,” whether substantiated or not, irrespective of their consequence to society or people.

From the Buddhist perspective, news is a social good, not a commodity to enrich media barons. Mindful journalism would desist from highlighting women (sex), wampum (wealth) and wrongdoing (crime) to sell their product.

In the Digital Age, in addition to the professionals, every citizen has become a journalist with access to free speech through the social or mass media. However, although there is an ongoing clamor for upholding freedom of speech (and of the press), there appears to be no concomitant clamor for right speech. Thus, there is an increasing tendency to shoot from the hip thereby causing much damage to social harmony. Buddha’s right speech guidelines will provide a common set of norms for every journalist in the world to follow voluntarily.

Right Speech (samma vaca) –

Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American monk, says that the Buddha divided right speech into four components: abstaining from false speech, abstaining from slanderous speech, abstaining from harsh speech, and abstaining from idle chatter. Bodhi points out that because the effects of speech are not as immediately evident as those of bodily action, its importance and potential is easily overlooked. He adds:

But a little reflection will show that speech and its offshoot, the written word, can have enormous consequences for good or for harm. In fact, whereas for beings such as animals who live at the preverbal level physical action is of dominant concern, for humans immersed in verbal communication speech gains the ascendency. Speech can break lives, create enemies, and start wars, or it can give wisdom, heal divisions, and create peace. This has always been so, yet in the modern age the positive and negative potentials of speech have been vastly multiplied by the tremendous increase in the means, speed, and range of communications. The capacity for verbal expression, oral and written, has often been regarded as the distinguishing mark of the human species. From this we can appreciate the need to make this capacity the means to human excellence rather than, as too often has been the case, the sign of human degradation.”

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, another American monk, elaborates that right speech, explained in negative terms, means avoiding four types of harmful speech: lies (words spoken with the intent of misrepresenting the truth); divisive speech (spoken with the intent of creating rifts between people); harsh speech (spoken with the intent of hurting another person’s feelings); and idle chatter (spoken with no purposeful intent at all).

Thanissaro wants everyone, including the journalists, to notice the focus on intent. He says: This is where the practice of right speech intersects with the training of the mind. Before you speak, you focus on why you want to speak. This helps get you in touch with all the machinations taking place in the committee of voices running your mind. If you see any unskillful motives lurking behind the committee’s decisions, you veto them. As a result, you become more aware of yourself, more honest with yourself, more firm with yourself. You also save yourself from saying things that you’ll later regret. In this way you strengthen qualities of mind that will be helpful in meditation, at the same time avoiding any potentially painful memories that would get in the way of being attentive to the present moment when the time comes to meditate.

In positive terms, right speech means speaking in ways that are trustworthy, harmonious, comforting, and worth taking to heart. When you make a practice of these positive forms of right speech, your words become a gift to others. In response, other people will start listening more to what you say, and will be more likely to respond in kind. This gives you a sense of the power of your actions: the way you act in the present moment does shape the world of your experience. You don’t need to be a victim of past events.

For many of us, the most difficult part of practicing right speech lies in how we express our sense of humor. Especially here in America, we’re used to getting laughs with exaggeration, sarcasm, group stereotypes, and pure silliness — all classic examples of wrong speech. If people get used to these sorts of careless humor, they stop listening carefully to what we say. In this way, we cheapen our own discourse. Actually, there’s enough irony in the state of the world that we don’t need to exaggerate or be sarcastic. The greatest humorists are the ones who simply make us look directly at the way things are.

Expressing our humor in ways that are truthful, useful, and wise may require thought and effort, but when we master this sort of wit we find that the effort is well spent. We’ve sharpened our own minds and have improved our verbal environment. In this way, even our jokes become part of our practice: an opportunity to develop positive qualities of mind and to offer something of intelligent value to the people around us.

So pay close attention to what you say — and to why you say it. When you do, you’ll discover that an open mouth doesn’t have to be a mistake.”


Gunaratne is a professor of communication emeritus at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

[Courtesy: The Island, 15 June 2015]

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