Elevating the Discourse by Zarrín Caldwell

Elevating the Discourse by Zarrín Caldwell

I started this essay in a writing retreat at Desert Rose Baha’i Institute, which is located, essentially, in the middle of nowhere in Arizona.

A small group came together for meals, but most of the time was devoted to contemplation or writing. With the now almost constant presence of technology in our lives, it’s harder than one might think to disconnect from overscheduled lives, from information overload, and to “hit the pause button” as I like to say.

The participants at the retreat all spent their time working on different genres, e.g. biographies, memoirs, essays, fiction, etc. Not everyone is cut out for every genre—or even for writing. My husband, for example, is a computer geek and an engineer, and writing for him would be akin to a form of torture.

But, for those of us who do use writing as a form of expression and inquiry, some helpful insights exist in the Baha’i teachings about what constitutes good writing, or, rather, writing which will have a positive influence on humanity. In fact, the Baha’i teachings contain powerful, effective advice for anyone who communicates, whether verbally or in writing.

Speaking about the emerging role of newspapers in the 19th century, Baha’u’llah referred to them as the “mirror of the world.” He also cautioned journalists:

… to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing. – Tablets of Baha’u’llah, pp. 39-40.

That advice seems more relevant then ever in an age of “fake news.” I read the weekly edition of the Christian Science Monitor and a recent editorial was titled “Why Truth is Under Fire.” It noted that “social media throw out vast quantities of incorrect information; 24-hour news fills much of its day with opinion and commentary. In large doses, neither is terribly helpful.”

The editorial went on to suggest the practice of articulating alternative viewpoints as a way to consider other perspectives, to engage in critical thinking, and to move out of our “mental comfort zones.” Back when I was initially studying journalism, that is the role that reporters used to play.

Needless to say, there is little commentary in the Baha’i writings on maneuvering the minefield of information we have access to in the 21st century, but there are definitely guidelines on how to use writing and speech to make a more positive impact. The words “tact and wisdom” are used repeatedly, as in the following:

… Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation. As to its influence, this is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure. As to its moderation, this hath to be combined with tact and wisdom as prescribed in the Holy Scriptures and Tablets. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 143.

In the introduction to a Baha’i Compilation on Writers and Writing by Robert Weinberg, he notes that Abdu’l-Baha, one of the central figures of the Baha’i Faith:

… skillfully balances social analysis with spiritual exposition, using language that epitomized Baha’u’llah’s call for a style of communication replete with tact, wisdom, fairness, and integrity.

Personally, I’ve not been known for being especially tactful. I’ve generally placed a higher value on “telling it like it is” than “sweeping things under the carpet.” Sometimes, people have appreciated my honesty when no one else will step up to the plate to say what needs to be said. But, I’ve also learned—through a lot of trial and error—that how and when we say things can make a big difference in how different points of view are heard, or not. Sometimes silence is the best option.

One of the wisest pieces of guidance on this point comes from Baha’u’llah who says:

Not everything that a man knoweth can be disclosed, nor can everything that he can disclose be regarded as timely, nor can every timely utterance be considered as suited to the capacity of those who hear it. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 175-177.

He also elaborated on the power of words to either uplift us or bring us down:

Whatever is written should not transgress the bounds of tact and wisdom and in the words used there should lie hid the property of milk, so that the children of the world may be nurtured therewith, and attain maturity. We have said in the past that one word hath the influence of spring and causeth hearts to become fresh and verdant, while another is like unto blight which causeth the blossoms and flowers to wither. – From a tablet of Baha’u’llah to an individual Baha’i.

On a related and practical level in the internet age, I’ve found it helpful to consider the well-known THINK acronym for social media posts: Is it True; is it Helpful; is it Inspiring; Is it Necessary; Is it Kind? Whatever tools we use, it seems more important than ever, in a time filled with too much anger and disunity, for each of us to play a role in elevating the collective discourse.