Buddhistdoor View: Words Matter—How Harmful Speech is Poisoning Society
Idiocracy (2006) is a movie rife with stupidity, but it is precisely its comedic inanity that made it a cult hit and an incisive commentary about how the United States, in 500 years, becomes a dystopia devoid of critical thinking, justice, personal responsibility, and compassion and instead dominated by greed, selfishness, and anti-intellectualism. The director, Mike Judge, now laments that his bluntly satirical science fiction film has become a documentary, framing his complaint in the context of the US presidential race.
He is right: by any rational measure, the present race is the most surreal spectacle of political peddlers ever endured by the American public. Many Americans themselves have a creeping sense that elements of Idiocracy, especially the culture of stupidity, incivility, and casual violence, have been eerily prophetic. Yet there is a context to why the US is decaying politically. Like all problems in society, Buddhism has a moral diagnosis for this situation, which is that wherever one turns, one can see “harmful speech” playing center stage in the ongoing drama.
The political discourse has been thoroughly debased throughout this campaign, and The Washington Post lists some of the worst examples: “This guy is a petulant child,” complained Chris Christie of Obama, saying of Marco Rubio: “Let’s get the boy in his bubble out of his bubble.” But no one comes close to Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who has told rival Ted Cruz, “You are the single biggest liar,” blasted Marco Rubio as “a lightweight choker,” and dismissed establishment favorite Jeb Bush as a “low-energy stiff.” Worse still, this behavior, which is better suited to schoolyard bullying, has only served to increase Trump’s standing among the electorate.
His inflammatory, xenophobic talk, such as his long-touted plan to wall off the United States from Mexico, borders on fascism and is music to the ears of racists. The American political and media class are scratching their heads at how this demagogue is thrashing the other Republican candidates in the polls. Nothing they throw at him seems to stick. Yet, they are unable (or refuse) to see that they helped to ensure his popularity by incubating a public culture of anti-intellectualism and pride in ignorance and callousness.
It is impossible to lay the blame at the feet of any single group for these developments, or even to attribute proportional blame to the political left or right. It is more about a certain zeitgeist that has become dominant in American culture: the toleration or use of harmful speech for political gain, along with a celebration of the ignorance and narrow-mindedness that intelligent people need to swallow in order to accept divisive speech that they otherwise would not. Plenty of examples from modern history attest to this sorry phenomenon, particularly in Hitler’s Germany.
Harmful speech in Buddhism is often defined as angry, violent, or cruel words; it also encompasses irresponsible and deceptive communication. Harmful speech agitates for resentment, social disharmony, and even violence (while often professing the opposite). Harmful speech can also be deliberately crafted to whip up hatred, resentment, and fear, whether or not those who use it genuinely believe or have conviction in a toxic worldview—attachment to poisonous ideologies is not a prerequisite for expressing them. The American mainstream media (national newspapers, influential magazines, journals, websites, and TV channels) have not held such tactics to account thoroughly enough, and some platforms actively indulge in the negative framing of specific demographics or interest groups.
Trump is merely the latest manifestation of a long history of American politicians and media outlets appealing to latent prejudices to achieve political ends, be they winning elections or gaining greater exposure and publicity. It was never only about dog-whistle politics, or Nixon’s Southern Strategy of stirring white resentment against blacks, or negative Hollywood portrayals of Muslims or other ethnic groups. The sad state of politics in America is the culmination of cultural, historical, and political trends that could have been prevented or at least ameliorated, but were not due to a combination of vested interests and bigotry. Together, these forces of ideological attachment (people who hold certain toxic beliefs) and self-serving politics (institutions that abet and indulge these beliefs for votes) have created a political culture of harmful speech and the Frankenstein’s monster of Donald Trump, who offers the logical extreme of everything they have been hawking.
The results of uttering and listening to harmful speech are the stuff of nightmares. It is clearly evident from history that the use of harmful speech to mislead, stir destructive passions, or cloak motivation leads to a very dark place. That place is the abyss of national collapse, world war, and genocide, which led to a humbled Europe resolving to maintain a gentler political culture, whatever governments people choose (although the politics of immigration and pan-European economic crises such as unemployment have given rise to a resurgence of extremist parties and hateful speech reminiscent of American politics).
Ironically, part of Trump’s popularity can be attributed to a very legitimate public anger about the way money works in the American voting system. One of his biggest selling points is that he pays for his own campaign and is not beholden to donors. In this, both he and Democratic contender Bernie Sanders highlight one of the basic problems with American political culture. Tragically, Trump himself is a manifestation of the basic problem of harmful speech deliberately incubated by decades of political expediency and ferocious ideological attachment. If he means what he says, Trump will be a force of destruction and populist hatred and his poison will further paralyze America’s body politic, leading to a truly compassionless “idiocracy.”