Beyond free speech

Mind and Soul

February 22, 2023 | Opinion | Volume 27 Issue 4
Randolph Haluza-DeLay | Columnist
(Photo by Claudio Schwarz/Unsplash)

The fellows at the next table were running on and on about refugees. So many false statements! I gritted my teeth as I sipped my coffee that morning. “No!” I wanted to holler, millions of refugees were not going to overrun Canada. Then the fellows changed topics. It got worse. The new topic was climate change.

In particular, they were talking about billboards popping up in cities across Alberta. These ads, in my assessment, presented an erroneous theory as if it were scientifically accurate. The theory on the billboards had been thoroughly tested scientifically and failed. Yet, even as the funders of the billboard knew it was utterly faulty, they put up the billboards anyway. In my view, passing on falsehoods perverts effective discussion of an issue.

Staying for the rest of my coffee would give me problems with that small part of the body that the Book of James warns can set the world afire and corrupt the whole person. On the other hand, my professional work included published research on climate change, so I felt some need to stand up for the truth.

I put on my jacket to leave.

I cannot fathom why the loudest fellow at the next table decided to comment on my departure. “Leaving, eh? You probably believe in climate change,” he said. I tried to explain that the theory on that billboard is just wrong; scientists have studied it and it just doesn’t hold up. In return, he actually blocked my way, vehemently declaring: “It’s free speech. Everyone’s got that right to say whatever they want.”

Now the devil had my tongue. Why didn’t I walk out instead of continuing? But instead, I said, “No one has a right to lie. That billboard is false advertising. That should never be protected by free speech.”

Yes, I confess here to you: “Telling the truth” did not bring blessings that day.

What is “free speech,” especially in the present societal context of dis- and mis-information? According to what I have been told, Buddhists have a set of principles for “right speech” that might help us think ethically about what and how we communicate.

The principles start with “Is it true?” If not, never say it. Not anywhere. Of course, there are debates about what is true and how we can know truth, but if something is patently wrong, or you aren’t sure, the principle should get us to question what we say.

The second principle asks, “Is this helpful?” What we say should bring some greater good into the world or the lives of others.

“Is it necessary?” is a third principle. Does the thing need to be said? Again, some things may be frivolous but helpful, such as telling silly jokes. But I am also reminded of this principle in times of incessant scrolling of my smartphone.

Closely related is another principle: “Is this timely?” Can those with whom I am talking actually hear what I am trying to communicate? On the other hand, waiting indefinitely, or being told to wait for “the right time,” runs the risk of never saying what might be necessary to say and can even perpetuate injustices.

There are other useful principles too. But these can help our speech be nonviolent and peacemaking. It might have been “free speech” that morning, but all of us failed to practise “right speech.” Thank you for hearing my confession. I’ll try to do better.

Randolph Haluza-DeLay lives in Toronto, were he tries, but often fails, to think before he speaks.

Read more Mind and Soul columns:
Say no to moralistic therapeutic deism
Christmas delight?
Writing for the foyer
What is your theory of social change?
Climate imagination

(Photo by Claudio Schwarz/Unsplash)

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