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Dr. Jill Biden and the Importance of Right Speech

The sad reality for content creators in 2020 is that if they want a large number of people to read their work, it needs to go viral.  

In other words, an article needs to get people so hyped up that they have no choice but to read it, share it, and write endless think pieces on it in order to feel some level of catharsis.

The writing doesn't need to be good, and it certainly doesn't need to be uplifting.  It just needs to get a reaction.  Often times, the best way to get a piece to go viral is to purposely garner a negative reaction; causing people to argue in the comments section; ensuring that the post will remain relevant for several days.

The Wall Street Journal did exactly this on Friday when it published an op-ed called Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an MD.  In the article, Dr. Joseph Epstein, who claims to hold an honorary doctorate from a school that he doesn't name, spends an inordinate amount of time belittling Dr. Jill Biden's doctorate of education and her insistence that people refer to her with the honorific "Doctor".

I won't link to the article in order to deny WSJ the clicks that they are fishing for, however, the following quote gives the general tone of the piece:

Madame First Lady-- Mrs. Biden-- Jill-- kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is not unimportant matter.  Any chance you might drop the "Dr.: before your name? "Dr. Jill Biden" sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.  your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title "Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students Needs."  A wise man once said that no one should call himself "Dr." unless he has delivered a child.  Think about it, Dr. Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.

If  Dr. Epstein wishes to make the argument that only medical doctors should refer to themselves as such.  That's his prerogative.  However, the general tone of the article is snide, condescending, and leaves the reader feeling like they need to shower.  

Dr. Epstein's argument seems to be, "My honorary doctorate is just as good as the one she earned through 15 years of study, so I'm going to put Dr. Jill Biden in her place"

But why is that necessary?  If a woman puts in the work, and earns the honorific 'doctor," and that's what she wants to be called.  Why wouldn't we honor her request?   As I ponder this, I'm floored yet again by the genius of the historical Buddha.

When he codified the Dharma in the Noble Eightfold Path, it's clear that he put the teachings in a precise order.  After  we see the causes of suffering in the world (Right View) and decide we're going to do something about them (Right Intention), he lists Right Speech as the first moral tenet that we should follow.

He doesn't tell us to donate to charity.  And he doesn't teach us how to meditate.  That all comes later.  Instead, the first moral teaching Buddha offers is that we must be careful with our words.

Words have power.  And in Buddhism the teaching of Right Speech requires us to use our words to either remove suffering (compassion) or add joy (loving-kindness) to the world.  More than that, when practitioners take vows to become Buddhists, they promise to refrain from lying and gossiping.

So, for for a newspaper article to be in-keeping with Right Speech it must be compassionate, loving, truthful, and free of gossip.  Clearly, Dr. Epstein's op-ed fails at 3 of the 4 benchmarks.  And that makes me sad.  

I'm sad that so many words were used to belittle and trivialize the hard work of an accomplished woman.  I'm sad that the Wall Street Journal used newsprint to bring angst and discontent into the world.  And I'm disappointed that someone who writes as well as Dr. Epstein didn't use his words for good.

But I'm not surprised.  We live in a world where many people see life as a zero-sum game.  If someone else is happy, that makes them less happy.  If someone else is successful, that makes them less successful.  And if a woman earns the right to call herself doctor, they have to drag her down because there just isn't enough respect to go around.

This is how our mind works when it's filled with the poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance. And that's why the teaching of Right Speech is so important.  Because it ensures that the garbage we have inside our heads doesn't get into the world.

For my part, one of the the ways I practice Right Speech is regularly using honorifics when I speak with people.  Perhaps it's a bit formal, but I've never had someone be offended because I started our conversation with, "Hello, reverend," or "Excuse me, venerable."  When speaking with lay practitioners, I generally fall back to my military training; using sir, ma'am, or another prefix if that's their preference.

It's been my experience that doing this doesn't devalue me in the least.  Quite the opposite, when I use my speech to uplift others, I feel myself being lifted as well.  When I speak words that honor people around me, I honor the Buddha within me.

I hope this is a lesson that the Wall Street Journal and Dr. Epstein learn.  In the name of getting clicks and going viral they brought suffering and discontent into the world.  Look at what they did through the use of Wrong Speech.  Imagine what could happen if they chose to say something right. 

Namu Amida Butsu

 If you enjoyed this essay, you'll love my book!

Dr. Jill Biden and the Importance of Right Speech 


  1. So true, Alex. And uplifting. Thank you for your rays of light!


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