Let’s create a more civil discourse

Most people recognise that talking is a better way to resolve disagreements than war. Yet, the war of words in society’s public and political conversations is often anything but civil

In a thriving, robust democracy the right to free speech is a true necessity. So how can speech become the vehicle for achieving understanding and common ground, rather than a means to subdue all those who think differently?

Firstly, we need to remember that speech is a means of clothing ideas, of giving form to thoughts so that they may be shared with others. Listening to oneself speak is an interesting experiment. Taking the stance of an observer, it requires an effort to identify the real underlying motivation behind what is being said. And to simply let truth, as you understand it, be the conditioning factor of your words is easier said than done.

Hate speech – the demonisation of those who hold different beliefs or world views – is increasingly common. We see it in the media; particularly on the internet, which provides the shelter of anonymity, allowing people a lack responsibility for their words. And we even see hate speech in the face-to-face encounters of public or community gatherings or meetings, where different viewpoints must be considered and decisions reached.

Perhaps a starting point in changing this is an understanding that speech must be guided by a sense of timing. There is a time to speak and a time to be silent; wisdom comes in knowing the difference. Pythagoras’s school of spiritual development required all new students to maintain silence for two years before they were given the privilege of speaking. Why? Not as a rite of passage into a secret society, but to teach them the enormous reservoir of power which is contained within speech.

Today, silence is becoming more and more difficult to cultivate. Technology, the media and the general busyness of modern life all seem to be conspiring against creating a space for silence in our lives. But it can be done, particularly if we remember that silence is not dependent so much on outer conditions as on an inner, psychological state.

This state is not an introverted attitude but rather the practice of becoming aware of how to wield energy rightly. For speech is essentially energy, as is silence, and both can be used for purposes of healing discord and creating breakthroughs of understanding.

Just as wrong speech separates, the right words at the right time can be a powerful aid in establishing common ground, honouring the essential principles within all sincerely held points of view.

In time, perhaps right human relationships will not just be an idle hope but a universally acknowledged goal where the urge to find common ground will be the shared intention and the purpose of speech will be dedicated to this achievement.

Column sponsored by  worldgoodwill.org