Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Freedom and the Goddess Speech

“What can be done about the rise of hate speech and its affect on marginalized populations? It is my feeling that simply being a member of a group that models "better behavior" is wholly insufficient. So what can be done while still protecting the freedom of speech, which is granted more freely for some than others?”

There is no human right more precious, more powerful or important than speech. With speech we proffer ideas and opinions, values and arguments, and, most importantly, we learn to listen and dissent. Yogins assign our distinctive human capacity to use complex language to one of the most ancient goddesses of the Rg Veda. Her name is Vāc, Speech. She stands for the relationship between power and authority, the inherent potencies of speech and all its uses.

How might we embody and dignify Vāc and turn this process into deeper engagement, especially when we know we are at a disadvantage or that some are and others are not?

Speech did not promise us equity or accessibility. She does not insure our safety but rather puts us in greater risk. Why is that? It is because everything worthwhile puts us in peril. Speech is yet another form of love and nothing puts us at greater risk than love. Love always implies an opposition and even its contrary. Love is not free from risk because it is the freedom to risk. The power of Speech is to pursue yet another the meaning to love, which is nothing less than to confront ourselves and find a way into the heart.

We must bring all of ourselves along on this pilgrimage to the place where Speech makes Her home, from which She emerged, and into which She resolves. We will need yoga to make these connections because “yoga” is power to connect, to cooperate, and to seek concord with our individual conscience, relationships, and culture. It may not be possible to arrive at harmony without conflict, coalition without compromise, or application with any guarantees of success. But these too are the risks we take when we understand that Speech is freedom and freedom can be experienced only at our greatest peril.

Goddess Vāc is dynamic, an interminable process of our experiences. What we mean when we petition Her is an appeal to resilient empowerment, to live our lives with greater steadfastness and malleability. We ask for more stability and more aplomb, more resolve and more receptivity. We are proposing a yoga of embracing paradox as much as problem-solving, one that is responsive but neither docile nor unyielding. We’re going to need as much passion and fury as reason and restraint. We are going to again put ourselves at risk, including the risks of failure and success. Speech does not exist alone since like freedom and love, She keeps company and works within larger structures. These structures include history and society, individual conscience and intelligence, and the complex assessments that involve human feeling and action. So what then of Free Speech in a world always at risk?

Structural Inequality is real, but often unrecognized or rejected.
Americans idealize equality and opportunity as keystones of our social experiment. We proclaim in propositions, sometimes advanced in law and asserted in public that assert that we stand for freedom and with freedom. Like religion, which is to be neither established nor restricted, speech is to be protected individually and publicly in the press. Acknowledging the incongruity between these ideals and instantiations in law and the facts of oppression, marginalization, and injustice are required features of citizenship. The structure of American life sits upon this imbalance. Free speech puts us at risk because we claim to love freedom.

In our current divisive political situation we can’t seem to agree that such structural flaws are original to our history and that they must continue to be addressed through measures that protect and affirm more inclusive rights. There are aggrieved people who see any redress or expansion of rights as a threat to privileges, prerogatives, or other rights. “Identity politics” is the current catchword that the Right uses to mean being intruded upon, divested of rights, and then required to extend to others what is denied them. For those who by race, gender, class, or some other measure have been historically denied, silenced, bullied, rejected, and unseen, such human rights cannot be refused or declined. The “culture wars” have never been more real because there was progress during the Obama Presidency and there is clearly an overt and shamelessly vindictive effort underway to regress and regain every form of privileged power. How shall we respond?

Let’s return to the questions raised at the outset and think in practical terms that speak to values and ideas. Yoga is best found in its applications.

1. Nevertheless Persist.
We must not allow the authoritarian bullies and their minions to control the discourse. We must speak up, speak out, and become even more vigilant and persistent. If you feel scared or fatigued, find safe harbor and give yourself time to recover, let others take up the fight so that you can enter the fray when you’re ready.

2. Appeal to representation, become active.
To protect speak we must speak and act together. Individuals under the current circumstances are far more vulnerable than assemblies. Remember that free assembly is mentioned with free speech for good reasons. You’re not alone, don’t act like you are alone, and keep good company. Appeal to representation at all levels, make yourself heard and seen, and hold them accountable for your right to free speech.

3. The Mob’s Real Danger.
Hate speech can be addressed effectively when it’s limited in scope. In this media age, individuals (think: talk radio, TV, etc.) can reach millions, and institutions are well organized to foment hate. Hate garners attention not only because it warrants our care but also because it revels in itself. What we must do to counter the rise of hate speech is speak. It is an unhappy truth that censorship is the greater crime. For hate to be effective there must be an audience. We must not become another mob that rejects free speech, even if this means we must “tolerate” hate speech. Tolerance is not acceptance, tolerance is not endorsement, tolerance is often painful and downright odious to endure. But tolerance is the opposite of censorship and tolerance requires the courage not to acquiesce or comply with censorship. The mob wins when we are silenced or when all we do is shout like them.

4. Those With Power Must Use It: Stick together, Stand up to bullies.
Those with power must do more than model better behavior. Rather they must use their power, their pulpits, their money, their real resources to come to the aid of those less powerful. The powerful must stand for the powerless when they must and stand with the powerless to listen, learn, and participate in change. We must demand more from the powerful, from individuals and corporations, appeal to their decency to come forward and demand that they put something more at risk. If money or boycotts or activism moves them, then we must exercise speech to protect speech.

5. Appeal to the public sentiment and use the media.
Whatever we accomplish as individuals is always because of the company we keep and the support of relationships. Oppressors may have little conscience and we must not underestimate the appetite for vengeance or venality. But America may yet have enough conscience in the majority to create the necessary counter force. Gandhi, King, and others have appealed to the better angels of our human nature and we must continue to do as much. We must do our best to make hate something far less appealing and the consequences of hate more palpable, more real for the haters too. Free speech comes with costs and that must be made to our benefit. Hate speech may not be vulnerable to love but it is vulnerable from those for whom love is at the heart of freedom and speech.

6. Find allies among the opponents and listen.
Not everyone in the mob, not every hater wants to hate. Nearly all view themselves as justly aggrieved. Reason may not suffice to engage them, nor evidence or arguments. But sympathy for our shared human condition, appeals to empathy, acknowledgments of a common hope and standards of decency. We must treat our oppressors with humanity, sometimes more humanity and tolerance than they will to offer to us. We must go high to lift them even when they go low to oppress further.

7. The law stands between civilization and its collapse.
The hero Achilles withstands the disfavor of the gods, society, and all else to assert his will, to “speak” his mind. Alas, the resource he does not have between himself and the world he opposes is the law and a culture of law. Here the Indian hero Yudhisthira stands in contrast. India put Law, Dharma, in every seam of relationship and used the law to pivot to freedom, responsibility, collective rights, and our emotional needs. The law is an intervention that challenges authority and provides a cultural resource of power. And without it any effort to contain or control authority is reduced to force. We must take recourse to the law and do everything possible to demand that it not become another instrument of the powerful to assert their will over those more vulnerable.

8. Focus criticism on the powerful, restrain your criticism of those less powerful than you, and retain sympathy towards everyone.
If we are to tolerate free speech and refrain from censorship we must appeal to strategies that protect decency and instantiate virtue. In short, we have to be good and do good by understanding the hierarchies of power and directing our speech towards those who warrant our attentions and sympathies.

9. Tell the truth. Stand up to falsity with facts.
There is no greater ally to free speech than truth. Speak truth and you may not be rewarded. Speak truth and you may suffer. But unless you speak truth you become the opponent of freedom and in collusion with oppression.

10. No false consolations.
We all need support and often a gentle hand up. We need hope and faith in each other and perhaps even more in our appeals to a greater humanity. We even need to hope that we can reach into the hearts and minds of those intellectually impenetrable, hateful, or emotionally inept. We need to use speech to influence their speech. But we must not tell ourselves stories just to feel better. We must not confuse what we want or hope for or dream about with what is happening and likely to happen. When we indulge in false consolations, our speech becomes just like the oppressor’s tool, it becomes another manipulation and form of propaganda. As hard as it is to keep it real, keep it so real that you will not succumb to the temptation to tell yourself a soothing canard merely because it feels good. Freedom never promised you comfort, gratification, or the redolence of solace.

11. Hope is the art of the possible.
And not the make-believe, the supernatural, or the fanciful. We must hope and we must dream, for life without them is only tasks and jobs, assignments and feats. Without hope we reduce greatness to success without asking what is worth the possibility of failure. Without hope we occupy a self that imagines no more and cares less. Without hope we die that living death that no longer breathes in the fragrance of gratitude or welcomes the refreshment of another breath. Hope is far more than the medicine of the miserable, as the Bard once put it, because it is also a sustenance we share when there is nothing more to give. Hope beats the heart of freedom because freedom can live only in the company of courage and in the urgency of our most cherished aspirations.

There is only more peril ahead for those who treasure Speech in Her truest form: in love with freedom and always worth the risk.