Freedom of expression is not enough; we must demand responsible speech!


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Free speech only works when it is responsible, and people in public eye, television stations and news organizations need to recognize their power and take responsibility. I know this is a sticky wicket since it sounds like controlling free speech. I will stay away from that very complex legal argument that has tremendous merit. For now, I would like to discuss this responsibility that we all have in life when we speak to our family, our neighbor, the grocery store clerk. When we relate to one another and exchange ideas, we teach each other. It could be as simple as learning about pears from your farmer. Communication is a form of learning on every level.

In our current culture, especially in the media, there is a simplification of ideas and concepts. The news is full of morbid hyperbolas, silly meaningless chatter, mannerless conversations and just well how shall I put this, ignorant irrelevant crap that is spoon fed to our society. Unfortunately, the human mind likes to have a quick reward system, the quicker we can understand something the better we feel. You know this from experience, we all picked up books and articles that we pushed away because of its complexity. The brain’s reward system acts the same way with sugar, ideas, and opium. As far as the brain circuitry is concerned, it is all the same, the brain likes to understand and feel good as soon as possible. People who profit from television, news, and popularity know this very well.

Yes, I have been irritated, disenchanted and worried about our society. Neil Postman in 1985 published a book; “Amusing Ourselves to Death, Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” where he warned us that television has conditioned us to tolerate visually appealing material to the detriment of rational public discourse and reasoned public affairs. I bet even poor Neil Postman did not imagine that our public affairs become a source of entertainment. As a culture we are suffering from a lack of wisdom, we have lost our ability to distinguish between relevant news and disturbing trash magazine filler. So I cringe, I cringe, and I crave wisdom. Thus I read.

I have been pouring over religious studies, comparative religion books, philosophy, and history books for the past five years. This is not because I am very religious, I don’t subscribe to any one specific religion, but I have been craving wisdom. From the Confession of St. Augustine, to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, to Plato’s Republic, all the way to Analects of Confucius, to the Upanishads and Vedas…East, West, North, South I am on a mission to read wisdom. During Roman times oration was a unique skill, a degree on its own right. Cicero was one of the greatest orators of his time, reading his speeches gives one goose pimples even from a distance of 2200 years. Oh, how far we have traveled from looking at public speaking as an art form!

There is something wonderful about all these writings, the eloquence, the thoughtfulness the time that was invested in the formulation of each sentence. The topics were not simplified, as a matter of fact often I find myself having to re-read sentences and pages because of the complexity of the ideas don’t always land in my understanding at first glance. But that is exactly why I love reading. My mind is challenged, and my perspective shifts from these remarkable books. The more I read these ancient writers, the more I feel we need a revival, as the Renaissance, was a resurgence of ancient Hellenism, I crave a wave of intellectual re-enlightenment for our generation.

I try to infect my students with some of my excitement. Recently, in Spira’s teacher training course, I gave my students the homework to read the Yoga Sutras in multiple translations and write a comparison study on one sutra. If you are a teacher, you know what this means to you, you have to do the homework as well to prepare for the class. So I went to my library and pulled down a few different translations of the Yoga Sutras, I pushed my imaginary geek glasses further up my nose as I sat down on the floor surrounded by books. The Yoga Sutras are a collection of short aphorism, cliff notes version of the very wordy Upanishads and the even older Vedas.These Sutras were meant as memorization tools of concepts. My eye got stuck on the second book of Sutras.

sutra

Sutra 2.3: avidya asmita raga dvesha abhinivesha pancha klesha

  • avidya = ignorance – miscomprehension
  • asmita = Ego, Ego-ness
  • raga = desire, addiction, habits
  • dvesha = aversion or hatred
  • abhinivesha =  fear (aversion) of death/demise, desire for continuity, clinging
  • pancha klesha = the five afflictions/causes (are)
  • pancha = five
  • klesha = colored, painful, afflicted, impure; the root klish means to cause trouble; (klesha is the noun form of the adjective klishta)

B.K.S. Iyengar translates as “The five afflictions which disturb the equilibrium of consciousness are: ignorance or lack of wisdom, ego, pride of the ego or the sense of ‘I’, attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain, fear of death and clinging to life.” He further elaborates on the meaning stating “…a lack of knowledge combined with pride or arrogance inflates the ego, causing conceit and the loss of one’s sense of balance. “

…a lack of knowledge combined with pride or arrogance inflates the ego, causing conceit and the loss of one’s sense of balance…and the goal of yoga is to bring awareness to these false conceptions and provide a new perspective where the student can see the ego, the fear, the hatred, and the desire. From awareness the ‘yogi’ is able to let go and find a peaceful more constructive way of existence.

The “I” the “ego” the “opinion” always wants to get stronger. When it feels threatened, it attacks. You can experience this yourself, just think of the last time someone challenged your point of view. Even in simple discussion, for example, last night I was looking for thyme in my kitchen and my husband said that if I organized my spices, I would not go through this dance every time I cook. I fiercely defended my organized clutter as my way of life. Now, it is evident to me that organizing spices would be very advantageous both to my cooking and to my time, so why do I insist that my way is better? This maybe a silly example, but I wanted to give you a silly example to point out how much our brain is wired to defend the self.

But what is the self? Getting into that would take me about 100 pages, Hindus and Buddhists have written over 100,000 pages on this topic, I will spare you from my long-winded argument, and simply say; there is no self, or put differently there is no fixed self. When we cling to who we think we are, when we refuse to see deeper, or from another point of view, we end up suffering. This is exactly what sutra 2.3 is warning us about; if you cling too much to your ideas if you fear to change, “abhinivesha” you will be living a life of miscomprehension, “avydia” and miscomprehension leads to “dukkha” heaviness of the heart.

It is not a coincidence that ancient wisdom writers both East and West have been occupied with ideas around the self and the ego. Humanity has known for a long time the traps of our mind. To avoid “avidya” , miscomprehension leading to hate, is why we have to practice responsible speech, just like sugar causes a burst of happiness in our brain, so do our “self-affirming” opinions. It is much easier to agree with someone, then to understand a topic significantly. I get why evolution developed these circuits, our brain is busy. A lot has to happen in our neurobiology just to satisfy basic functioning, add to that work, kids, basic human productivity and all of a sudden our processor is strapped, since we can’t just click more ‘RAM’ into our brain, we have to simplify. But this simplification is just like sugar, really useful when we need a little energy, but disease-causing if used all the time.

Knowing that sugar and simplified opinions are addictive substances, we must take action to use them responsibly. This responsibility increases in a logarithmic fashion for television stations, public service providers, government officials, and teachers. Unfortunately when money measures our power in the universe, the powerful will use more and more “sugar” till society is in a diabetic coma. So you and I and everyone must demand responsible speech, we must insist on intelligent, challenging arguments because it is our responsibility to not allow freedom of expression to become empty chatter “an opiate for the masses.”

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