When controversy is met by criticism what happens to free speech? As novelist Hilary Mantel speaks out at her treatment in the media, what do Buddhist teachings have to say about the ethics of communication? Thought for the Day 7/3.2014 

A year ago Hilary Mantel, the double-Booker Prize-winning author, made a comment on the Duchess of Cambridge’s public image. The uproar that followed largely drowned the novelist’s protestations that she’d been describing the media’s view of the Duchess, not her own. Looking back this week she said that a trivializing and sensationalist media culture is compromising public life.

At the time, people made their minds up about whether the media or the novelist was at fault, but the ethical issues she’s raising now go much wider. I’m struck by the suggestion that freedom of speech isn’t just about our capacity to speak out. More subtly, it also depends on how our words are received.

We all edit, metaphorically speaking. We listen selectively to what others say and focus on the bits that grab our interest. It’s so enjoyable to turn an experience into an anecdote and social media magnify the effect. We’re all literal editors now, incessantly publishing versions of the world that tell the stories we like.

When communication becomes problematic many of us feel inclined to withdraw. A teacher recently told me that some of her teenage students are relieved to return to school on Monday after the weekend’s messages and texts, with their spirals of gossip and abuse.

For such reasons, communication is a central concern in Buddhist ethics, and four of the ten precepts I follow address it. The precept of speaking truthfully addresses the tendency to distort what happens. The advice to practice kindly speech suggests the importance of the tone of what we say. The next precept is speaking in a way we hope will be helpful and constructive; and the last is using our speech to create harmony, rather than division.

The words of certain, rare individuals who exemplify skillful or ethical speech have a distinctive authority and beauty. Of course, my personal practice of the speech precepts, not to mention what I experience around me, typically falls well short of this. But I’ve come to believe that effective communication and better relationships mean letting go of the self-interested stories we weave from our experience. Then both parties can speak and listen to each other more honestly and more completely.

Hilary Mantel’s recent comments are a complaint about our culture’s capacity to listen. It’s a point worth considering and prompts me to reflect how different our lives would be if, individually and collectively, we could both speak and listen with a little more truthfulness, kindness, helpfulness and harmony.