Skillful Speech and Skillful Action in Uncivil Times

“When they go low, we go high.”  – Michelle Obama, former First Lady, 2016

“When they go low, we kick them.”  –  Eric Holder, former Attorney General, 2018

During the raucous months leading up to Election Day in 2016, Democrats across the country – establishment and progressives alike – were inspired by Michelle Obama’s iconic statement, “When they go low, we go high.”  For many of us, hearing that often-repeated phrase throughout the otherwise disturbing news cycle that marked (and marred) the final days of the campaign was one of only two things that constantly lifted our spirits – the other being those daily polling reports that consistently gave Hillary Clinton upwards of an 85 percent likelihood of winning the election.

Well, we lost the consolation of those polling predictions when we lost the election.  But throughout the raucous two years that have followed Donald Trump’s inauguration, we could still take heart from going high no matter how low his administration went.

Until recently, that is.  Eric Holder’s unfortunate revision of Michelle’s phrase into “When they go low, we kick them” has struck a chord with some prominent Democratic leaders.  Not all of them, though.  Many continue to plead for civility, and caution that such uncivil behavior will only further inflame an already polarized public, and may have the unintended consequence of firing up wavering supporters of the Trump administration and coaxing them back to the polls for the midterm elections.  But many others, outraged by the increasingly inhumane words and actions of this administration, argue that incivility needs to be met with incivility, that expressions of outrage are necessary to protest outrageous policies, and that only intense methods of protest can rally an increasingly demoralized Democratic party.

For a liberal Buddhist, these conflicting arguments from pundits and politicians on the left can be perplexing. After all, among the many different – and most difficult – ways of practicing the Buddhist virtue of “not clinging” is by avoiding attachment to being correct.  And so, a Buddhist strives to listen with an open mind – a mind willing  to have its own views modified by a better view, rather than a mind determined at all costs to defend those views even when they are demonstrably not better. 

When I read, or listen to, an appeal from either side of this debate among liberals with this kind of openness to being influenced, I find myself being pulled in the direction of whichever position is being espoused.  Both sides have appealing arguments on behalf of their point of view.  On the one hand, I don’t want to permit myself to be dragged down to the levels of incivility that Mr. Trump and his cohorts have ushered into the national discourse.  “When they go low, we go high” has always seemed innately correct to me, and in the current climate, indeed more indispensable than ever.  But on the other hand, their words and especially their actions are stirring up an anger in me that cries out for expression.  A few rough words, or some occasional rowdy behavior (including some kicking??), could be most cathartic.

Fortunately, Buddhism offers some very straightforward guidance to perplexed liberals such as myself.  I’m speaking, of course, of those two closely related virtues prescribed in the eightfold path – skillful speech and skillful action. 

“Skillful” in this context means that the speech or action in question has the effect of lessening suffering  (the inherent stress and/or dissatisfaction) implicit in whatever situation the speech or action is addressing.  So, the question to be considered is whether or not uncivil speech and uncivil actions as a response to inhumane government policies can ever be deemed “skillful” in this Buddhist sense.

I would argue that they cannot.  

First of all, uncivil speech and uncivil actions inevitably increase stress for all involved – the speaker/actor as well as the recipient of the speech/action – in the immediate situations in which they occur.  And secondly, in our day and age, such speech and actions are all but certain to fan the flames of intolerance and hatred across the social media landscape and the cable news networks.  On both counts, then, uncivil speech and uncivil actions fail the Buddhist test of skillfulness, because they invariably increase, rather than decrease, suffering.

Which is not to argue that liberals must politely accept the torrent of hateful speech and the flood of inhumane actions continuously being emitted by the Trump administration.  Rather, in the spirit of “When they go low, we go high”, let’s undertake a serious, sustained look at appropriate forms of civil, nonviolent speech and action – skillful behaviors, in the truest sense of what Buddhism teaches.

We have Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela to serve as our models.  And we have the Buddha himself to serve as our guiding teacher.  What a remarkable group of wise leaders.  Long before Michelle’s felicitous phrase, they each knew exactly what it means to “go high”. 

So can we.


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