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This incident led me to investigate right speech by making observations when an absent person was talked about, to see whether I could come up with any conclusions about the benefits of the precept. Note that I did not make an actual vow to practice right speech—you can see how deeply reluctant I was to take that on.

During my investigation, the first thing I noticed was that if you wished to stop hurting people, it unfortunately entailed renouncing a feeling that you enjoyed, and replacing it with your wish to stop doing harm. In other words, you have to see the emptiness of that feeling of pleasure, and you have to decide that the pleasure is not worth hurting someone. That’s easy to say, but it’s really hard to do. We’d rather not bother with the annoying question of whether the feelings of others merit forsaking a pleasure of our own. On top of all that, we don’t even get credit for making a virtuous decision! When I realized this, I was in a very bad mood for weeks.

But by then I was tuning in to what actually goes on when people talk with each other, and I was fascinated by all the little subtleties of human verbal communication. I even started applying the standards of right speech to reality shows on TV to try to pinpoint exactly how it is that people don’t realize what they say because they, like me, are focused on their own pleasurable verbal expression, rather than the feelings of others.

I should confess here that I love reality shows. To me this is the golden age of television. Now I don’t actually have a TV, but I often visit people who do. People have told me how politically incorrect it is to like these shows, and I’m sorry. There are many of them on the subjects of sex and power, which are my favorites and your favorites. Just call me a student of human suffering.

I always assume that I’m capable of the behavior that I see on reality TV. The people on the shows are human; I’m human. So what are the circumstances that would lead me to behave the way that they are behaving, since I know I’m capable of it? I look back at decisions I’ve made in my life and wonder which turn I would have had to take to come to what I am seeing on the screen.

A few years ago, I saw a show that so exposed human frailty and delusion that I wondered whether I had the mettle to continue watching it. It was like watching a horrible accident in slow motion. All these washed-up celebrities were put together in a luxurious house in Los Angeles. I knew many of them because about half were from my generation. The producers had various people (agents, supposed fans, pizza delivery boys) come in to try to provoke situations, and the celebrities fell for all of them. I watched them making needy, desperate bids for attention from each other and from anyone who came into their range. They had once been on top of the world, then their fortunes changed, and now they vied with each other for a shred of the attention and acknowledgment they’d once routinely attracted.


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