This is a modified version of an article I wrote for MouthLondon, a London youth, media and journalism magazine. The cosmopolitanism of London is one of the many reasons why I’m an Anglophile, but we often lack a sense of interconnectedness, as if our hearts are somehow severed from others’ (how many people have regurgitated the false stereotype of Londoners as cold and distant?). This is where Buddhist education would really serve to benefit us Brits, because we often don’t understand that even supposedly “non-actions” – that is, speech – has no harmful effect. Obviously, this is not the case.
You might be aware, over the past month or so, of the #mencallmethings furor, which started as an online effort by women to expose the misogynist hate speech they endure regularly. Yet more attempts are being made to threaten, harass and intimidate them for having an opinion, or a presence of any sort, in journalism, culture, academia and the media. The perpetuators’ objective is nothing less than to dictate the rules of conversation and silence. I suggest that the stakes of the hashtag are higher than hurt feelings or offensive humor, or even the issues of women’s visibility and representation. It is about reclaiming the dignity of communication, written words, and the spiritual reverence that should be accorded to the sacred being of a human.
Some think supporters of #mencallmethingsare alarmist, that they’re spoiling a bit of laddish fun and some just can’t take a darned joke. If this is in any way true, then I also hope the sidesplitting rape joke comedians aren’t religious. They offer the feeble argument that troll speech is simply a conglomerate of written words on a computer screen, and that anyone who is offended or intimidated by them is a spoilt softie. From a religious perspective that is absolutely ludicrous, since violence against the human person is not merely physical, but verbal, mental and emotional. Any commonsense person would vehemently condemn verbal threats. The force of a statement is just as relevant to a person even if it’s expressed non-verbally: perhaps, for example, over email, Twitter, Facebook or any other online medium. The force of a statement, be it one of love and affection or hate and anger, burns and lingers in the written word. Letters (and heart-to-heart emails) are treasured because they convey a person’s inner being and freeze it in time. What we say and type inevitably shape our character.
In the fourth of the Five Precepts in Buddhist life is a warning about the destructive power of harmful speech. In this conception, harmful speech has four aspects. They are lying, malicious, sarcastic or hateful words, gossip, and mindless chatter. The one-off, tasteless rape joke at the bar is barely tolerable as far as I’m concerned, but I couldn’t think of more harmful speech than to log on to my computer and wince at a barrage of harassment constituting of degrading insults to my body parts, with the bonus of upsetting threats against my physical and emotional dignity via intimidation and beatings. It’s impossible to respect someone as a person of spiritual dignity when you’re threatening, so carelessly, to beat him or her into silence. People can’t speak of a body as sacred while they threaten to brutalize that same body.
The silver lining in this farce is that these issues now see more mainstream exposure. I’m not educated enough in feminist philosophy in London to call myself one. But as far as I know, feminism in its most basic simply asserts that women should be seen as human beings. Nothing more. In that sense it argues for equal personhood as vocally as any spirituality we practice. Of course, the more reactionary aren’t interested in religious opinions about harmful speech. But what is clear is that the condoning of anonymous bullying in certain online circles is a moral and spiritual embarrassment. Be we male, female, feminist, religious or non-religious, all people deserve to speak and write without the threat of unholy things committed on their sacred bodies.