Are you aware of the concept of the three gates? Most simply, before you speak or – in my case, write – let your words pass through three gates. Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?
The quotation has been ascribed to various Eastern thought leaders, from the Buddha to Rumi, a Sufi mystic. In truth, there are references in Eastern literature where the gates expand to five, where the expression of monks is described as
“It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”
Superficially, the now five gates seem to be a straightforward consideration, but what are the underlying definitions of true, kind, and necessary? Initially, those understandings lie with the speaker or writer.
Truth in science is often misunderstood; it is a verb rather than what we commonly think of as a noun. We pursue scientific truth, but we do not attain it. It was once true, with draconian consequences for disbelief, that the sun traveled around the earth. It was once true that disease was due to an imbalance of one of the four humors. Today’s truth for disease remains an imbalance, but we give the humors new names: cholesterol, insulin, and stress.
In ancient times, say two hundred years ago, it took Black Americans nearly two years to find out the truth that they were no longer enslaved. Today, scientific truths through media, pre-prints, and journals travel near the speed of light. Sometimes, the sheer rate of communication renders a truth false or perhaps less true. That said, it is through the first gate, is it true to the speaker, that words must pass. The words having passed through this first gate may be wrong, but they are not duplicitous. This gate is the widest of the three.
Are they kind? Kind to whom: speaker, listener, friend, or foe? In our increasingly polarized view of politicized science, words are especially unkind. Deranged, idiot, right-wing wingnut, deep state traitors. Interestingly, for much of science, there is passion but far fewer unkind words. There is disagreement in determining whether the dinosaurs died from an asteroid or a volcano, but not vitriol. And when, since the Scopes trial , has there been such a divisive argument over evolution – which does not mean differences of opinion over evolution’s role do not still exist.
Through our word choices, we can reflect our commonality rather than our differences. Kindness in word choice, to choose our words carefully, allows us “to catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Today’s means of communication, the digital word, puts a greater emphasis and “value” on sharp, hurtful words; communication, the actual sharing of ideas, does not. Words passing through the second gate are respectful to the speaker or writer and the listener or reader. They come from a common, level playing field, not from a high ground cloaked in expertise or morality. This second gate is more narrow than the gate of truth, and fewer words may pass easily
Are my words necessary? This is increasingly subjective. What I believe is essential depends upon the moment, to whom I am speaking, to what has already been said, and, truth be told, to how frustrating or reassuring the communication has been. This is the narrowest of gates, requiring us not to pile on, to not necessarily signal our virtue, to sometimes say the uncomfortable, to speak truth to power. Do our words advance the discussion or strengthen our argument? Or are they only meant as a “me too” identifying with our tribe?
Out of those three increasingly narrow gates emerges well-intentioned words – speaking our understood truth in a manner that respects the listener or reader and that serves to improve the communication, not simply reinforce by repetition or ALL CAPS.
This is how I would hope my writing is judged.
 My colleagues reminded me that perhaps not everyone remembers the Scope trial. The trial, in 1925, was a criminal action brought by the state of Tennessee against high school teacher John T. Scopes for violating the state's Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools. It is the basis for the 1960 movie, Inherit the Wind.