Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What’s all the Rush about?

You don’t have to be an enlightened being to know that Rush Limbaugh is very skilled at Wrong Speech. His most recent epithet regarding a Georgetown University law student really should come as no surprise even when measured by Limbaugh’s standards. Neither should his non-apology apology. And of course, none of us would ever do or say anything like what Rush Limbaugh said or did, right?

OK sweeties, let’s take a step back for a moment and seriously contemplate this thing called speech, because as many commentators have said and written, most of our “bad karma” is created by speech, by what we say and not by what we do (although our actions create plenty of bad karma as well). And it may come as a surprise to some of you that the rationalizations Limbaugh went through in his non-apology apology are often the same rationalizations we employ when confronted with foot-in-mouth syndrome.

“What? Me as boorish as Rush Limbaugh? That’s simply not possible!” I know, some of you are shocked. But rather than look at the specifics of what Limbaugh said and how he “apologized,” let’s look at their elements and characteristics.

As mentioned in the Abhayarajakumara Sutta (MN 58) and explained in this post, there are three elements to Right Speech: (1) Whether the speech is true; (2) Whether the speech is beneficial; and (3) Whether the speech is pleasing to others.

It’s easy to see how Rush Limbaugh utterly failed on all three of these, but how easy is it for us to look at our own speech to see how it may fail as well? Granted, determining whether what we say is true is probably simple enough – or is it?

This brings to mind a mother of one of the students killed in a recent school shooting in an Ohio suburb. This mother forgives the alleged shooter despite the fact she lost her son. But she admits that she doesn’t know everything about the situation, particularly what drove a young man to take such desperate action and shoot inside a cafeteria filled with other students.

Like her, we often only know part of the truth, and that part is often what’s inside our head, colored and distorted by our mind. It’s also why the Buddha warned us that just because something is true doesn’t mean we ought to say it. There remain two other factors, whether the speech is beneficial and pleasing.

Limbaugh gave a rather pathetic excuse in his non-apology apology that he was attempting to be funny. We’ll just ignore that. Yet, his comment is very telling. How often do we find ourselves saying something that we know might be offensive, but quickly follow up with the comment, “just kidding”? And when our quip comes off lame, how often do we blame the listener for not “getting it,” and chide them for being unable to “take a joke”? I’ll be the first to admit that at times I can be thin-skinned, which is ironic given my career in editing. I have plenty of experience listening to irate people on the phone lambasting me and the publication I was working for over something that was printed. But when someone reacts to something I say in a manner that reveals that they were offended despite my intention to be playful, clever or whatever, who failed “to get it”? I suggest that it’s me, the speaker, that didn’t get it, not the listener. Which, despite this being about point 3 (is the speech pleasing to others), brings us back to point 2, whether the speech beneficial.

Determining benefit may not only be a bit onerous, but it may also be a bit unrealistic. Can’t we have a little fun? Must everything bring benefit? Well, yes, it should and it can because if we look at who benefits, as opposed to whether there is any benefit, things become more clear. Because most, if not all, of the bad karma we create is the result of actions or speech that were motivated by selfish ends.

If all I’m concerned about is how funny or sharp I appear to others, then I’m not thinking about the person I am teasing or making my comment about. I’m thinking about me. So it's perfectly acceptable to come with some quips that get people laughing or smiling at the least, provided that is my intent. But as soon as my intent is about how I will appear clever and be admired for what I say, my words will fail. I’ll be like the pretty boats in the photo with this post: nice to look at but the tide will have disappeared leaving me stranded.


  1. "The meaning of the communication is the response you get" is a dictum that is used in Neurolinguistic Programming which deals with how people communicate.

    This "just kidding" obfuscation is like disowning one's own communications. Done often enough it means no one will take anything that is said as sincere or serious. Quite a self-damaging strategy for a few laughs.

    Your point about benefit is *very* important.

  2. Thanks NellaLou. It's interesting in Title I disputes, it clearly states (or used to) that when reviewing an insult or epithet said to a child, the impact of the insult must be viewed through the child's perspective and not the adult's. So what we as adults see as silly teasing can be extraordinarily hurtful to a child. The same is true when communicating adult to adult. If I say something to you meant as a joke, but you hear it as an insult, then it's not a joke, and saying it's a joke doesn't make it so.

  3. Couldn't have been better timing! I just read some instructions on right speech: Is what you're about to say true? Is it timely? Is it useful? And, cringe, does it improve on this silence?

    Thank you so much. I've been a silent follower for sometime now, but I did have something to say today!

  4. Thank you Pigasus! Personal reflection is very important to living a harmless life. It is certainly a trait I do not cultivate as stridently as I should. The Buddha's teachings to Rahula are spot on when it comes to this topic.