Sunday, October 11, 2009

Grandma's First Rule of Civil Discourse

US President Barack Obama passes by a battered United Nations flag that flew over the bombed Canal Hotel in Iraq at the United Nations Headquarters in New York in this September 23, 2009 file photo. (Photo: Reuters) [Photo and blurb from the Irrawaddy, which covers Burma and Southeast Asia.]

Even governments have rules about speech, or apparently no parliament would ever get anything done. We humans can talk, oh boy, and it is easy to do it without restraint. Even sober.

In regard to the instantaneous furor of public reaction to the news that President Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, my own rule restrains me from commenting on the kind of commentators who lined up in front of the cameras. I will just go to the rule: Don't say mean, critical things about people, including people you don't like. My own mother put it like this: If you can't say something nice about someone, don't say anything at all.

An easy way to work on restrained speech is to adopt just for a week or a month a practice I believe the Vipassana Teacher Joseph Goldstein invented - He decided would not speak about anyone who was not then in the room. He said it did away with at least 90% of his conversation. So that's a good in itself, for you can't listen while you're talking, and everyone likes a good listener.

It saddens me that there seemed to be a feeling abroad that anyone could and should publicly declare that they thought Obama didn't deserve the prize. It is, of course, a singularly ugly feature of American life that there is ever someone with a microphone in hand and a camera to capture these moments and broadcast them inbetween a lot of commercials. I can understand straightforward, well-earned jealousy. When, for instance, we writers find that someone undistinguished has snatched a prize we ourselves worked so hard to win, we are surely entitled to wax sarcastic over coffee, keeping our voices down. But I don't know anyone who would do it on camera. This is a small town of a million people; you can't afford to make enemies.

Manners are devised exactly because they are needed. Base human nature (I don't mean the Buddha part) is self-centered, grabby, and jealous and likely to come out with hurtful remarks. Manners dictate doing the opposite. We congratulate the winner, the way they do in sports, or used to. What could be the harm in that?

Sometimes karma consoles me. I think, for instance, that Obama will know who some of those people are, those people who were so quick to flame him at that tender moment. He'll read their comments, he'll see a clip on TV. And he won't forget. We don't forget what is said about us, neither insults nor compliments. I wouldn't expect him to pay back deliberately, I think he tries to be fair-minded. But the simple law of cause-and-effect means that those people have left a stain on any relationship they or their kids might ever have with him or his friends. Maybe an old saying applies to this:
The mills of the gods grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine.
Sometimes I hope so, anyway.


  1. Ooh Yeah. Ditto for me.
    Respect for other's views and civility in listening and responding are magnified against the backdrop of ugly, rhetoric. Sometimes, it appears President Obama is the only mature adult out there, called to somehow "parent" the childish screamers of the country, by showing the way of respect and civility. It's a much more efficient way to solve problems than tantrum throwing. I love the way he responded to the peace prize honor— ever humble, he shares it with everyone as a call to action.


  3. Thank you thank you. It is somehow comforting to be reminded that there is a part of my nature that makes me think or say mean-hearted things; rather than I am just a bad person. What a small success it is each time our Buddha self catches that thought before it comes out our mouth or develops into a string of ugly thoughts. I am practicing my heart out these days to think about every thing about to come out of my mouth and why I want to say it and what do I think will happen when I do. I have not regretted holding my tongue yet.