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Is 'We Saw Your Boobs' Right Speech?

Right speech, sometimes called Wise or Skillful Speech, is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eightfold path to liberation from suffering.  ... The importance of speech in ethical conduct is clear, Bikkhu Bodhi says in his guide to the path: words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, start war or create peace.

The historical Buddha and his followers, who repeated his teachings verbally until they were written down some hundreds of years later, were equally clear about what constitutes Right Speech:

-- 1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully.

--  2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others.

-- 3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others.

-- 4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth.

Of course, these rules were promulgated 2,600 years ago, before the Internet, before the culture made a virtue out of irony, when words meant what they meant, and not the opposite.

Buddhism, of course, has evolved and changed; it's fluid and meant to adapt, not to reify into a sold set of rules.

But

is it time to rewrite the rules on Right Speech? Or are the guidelines timeless, as valid today as ever?

And where does singing "We saw your boobs" on an internationally televised show fall on the spectrum of Wise/Unskillful Speech?

Although it's been almost a week since Seth MacFarlane did that at the Oscars, my Facebook feed is still popping up new commentaries and analyses. It's become a cultural touchstone.

There are two extremes of thought on MacFarlane's performance: It was the height of misogyny, promoting rape culture; it was hilarious. It showed the face of popular culture's hatred toward women to the world; it was a parody of those attitudes. Seth MacFarlane is a mean, angry,racist, sexist bro; Seth MacFarlane is a genius -- or a victim.

And ... it's a stupid awards show; who cares what happened? versus It tore the covers off America's thinly veiled misogyny. It was free speech/ it was hate speech that traumatized rape survivors.

Is there a middle ground? Is there a way to even talk about it without people getting disgusted and walking away? (That's what happened in a number of online conversations I was part of.) Can we even have the conversation?

What are your standards for Wise Speech? Are they different in private than in public? Do entertainers get an exception? Does "it's a joke" provide an adequate excuse for speech that, on its face, is wrong?

In Buddhism, intention counts toward whether something is "right" -- which means appropriate or in tune with the situation rather than correct. Did MacFarlane and the Oscar producers intend to offend women by reducing their work to their body parts? Did they do it to make the point that doing that is wrong?

I have really strong feelings about MacFarlane's performance, but as a friend of a friend said on Facebook, everyone's tired of beating that dead horse. There's nothing that hasn't been said by now, and I'm not sure that any of the (heated) exchanges changed anyone's position.

For myself, the longer I practice, the more I feel that sarcasm and irony are harmful and cause suffering, Not everyone knows that you mean the opposite of what your words say, especially if they don't know you. It's so much better to be clear about it. You can still be funny. You can still make jokes.

I've said this before: Say what you mean, but don't say it mean. For the benefit of ALL beings, not just those who are in on the joke.

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