Can we talk less please?

[As a rule, i do not pass opinions or write on politics and religion. Therefore, i must state that what follows is not about politics -- nor is it an expression of a personal political preference.] 

A couple of days ago, an elected representative from a bastion of democracy spoke of ”consensual rape” during a talk in the floor of the State House. i am not sure what that phrase means. The lawmaker, of course, later tried to wiggle out by stating that he missed adding an ”or”* between consensual and rape. I still do not get it — owing, probably, to a lack of skill in obfuscation. 

In Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning: Holism, Truth, Interpretation, J E Malpas' book on the ideas of the philosopher and linguist, we have a view of "the principle of charity" from Donald. "To see too much unreason on the part of others is simply to undermine our ability to understand what it is they are so unreasonable about."*_ Donald suggests that, In dialogue, we suppress our tendency to assume that the other is stupid and senseless -- and seek to find the other's meaning. If we do not do this, we are likely to fail in understanding the other. This is a profound idea -- one that is essential to working our way past problems that divide us.

i have applied this Principle of Charity when i watched the politician backing the near total ban on abortion in Missouri. i have not succeeded so far in my attempts to understand him. However, one thing keeps running through my mind -- it would have been so much better if he had kept mum.

In this and so many other instances, i find that the tongue is increasingly getting thoughtless, and violent. The idea that freedom of expression is sacred has led us to a point where speech often runs miles ahead of the thinking that should shape it. We appear to have become a society of talkers. It is talk, talk everywhere -- with shockingly little thought. This is so because, as Madelyn Burley-Allen points out ( In Listening: The Forgotten Skill),  "we have equated speaking with mastery and power." 

i see three major consequences of this. 

The first is that, despite tremendous advances in knowledge, we are also creating a world (i borrow words from the course Calling Bullshit conducted by University of Washington academics Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West) ”with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence."

The second consequence is a world where listening becomes something that people attend trainings on but, find painful to practise. After all, what does one listen to when it is mostly bullshit and vitriolic noise going around. Some of us even find it necessary to attend silent retreats. We pay for places that will keep the prattle away. Ultimately, fatigued by incessant chatter, we become less vigilant. 

A third consequence is a diminishing of empathy. Full of our words, we care less and less about others. In everyday life, decency becomes a causality.

The Greek poet Hesiod wrote (Works and Days) that "the best treasure among people is that of a thrifty tongue."*_  Centuries later, Swami Ranganathananda touches on this in his commentary on Verse 12.19 of the Bhagavad Gita (Universal Message of the Bhagavad Gita). The wisest people, he says, are ”maunis” -- "A mauni is a 'thinking person'; naturally, he or she speaks less."

In his address (21st January 2019), on receiving the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Prize, David Attenborough told the world that ”The Garden of Eden is no more.” Cautioning us against slipping into paralytic gloom, he also said that we have ”a vast potential” to make healthy differences that will last thousands of years. 

As society, we face challenges, the kinds of which no civilisation before us has faced. If we are to solve these and make the planet better for our children, we can only do so in communion with other individuals. This requires that we shed our intoxication with speaking, and spend more time listening, thinking, learning and acting — in empathy with all life.  

Gifts that "defy reciprocation"

Scott Adams, the famous creator of the Dilbert comic strip and wise critic of management, had a dream of being a cartoonist. In a blog post, he writes about rejections from publishers he wrote to (clearly, the world seemed oblivious to his talents) and writing to the host of a TV show (Jack Cassady) asking for advice. Jack, surprisingly, wrote back to the aspiring, struggling cartoonist - - not once but twice!

Scott writes — “I feel certain that I wouldn’t have tried cartooning again if Jack hadn’t sent the….letter. With a kind word and a postage stamp, he started a chain of events that reaches all the way to you right now. As Dilbert became more successful I came to appreciate the enormity of Jack’s simple act of kindness. I did eventually thank him, but could never shake the feeling that I had been given a gift which defied reciprocation. Somehow, “thanks” didn’t seem to be enough. ….there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.”

A few days ago, a voice from the past messaged me, and told me that though she does not communicate much with me, i had done something in class years ago that had changed her life — a change that led her to the rich life she leads today. i remember her fondly but i had no idea that my words & action had influenced her so much. 

Two things struck me —  

a) When i was teaching in her class years ago, i had no idea i was making an impact on people. i was not trying to — i was just teaching a subject. Our words and actions have far-reaching ripples . In the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta where we study the Buddha’s guidance to Rahula (his son), we find instructions on right action, right speech, and right thought”Whenever you want to do a bodily action, you should reflect on it....Whenever you want to perform a verbal act, you should reflect on it....Whenever you want to do a mental action, you should reflect on it.”

We influence people by what we say and do. And the effect of the influence is often not immediately visible  The Buddha’s statements here are not a set of steps to a metaphysical supernatural world — rather, it is a parent advising a child that we would do well to take great care in our thinking, speaking, and doing 

(b) The second thing that struck me is this — Scott Adams writes that he ”had been given a gift which defied reciprocation.” As i ended the conversation with the young lady, i began to wonder at how the world runs owing to people who offer such gifts to others — gifts that defy reciprocation.  i have received many many such gifts — far more than i deserve. This young lady gave me such a gift years ago by showing up to my class, and later, asking for some tutorials — with faith that i could teach her.  Faith (often unexpressed in words) is one of the greatest gifts we can offer to another — a gift that defies reciprocation