22. A Newbie's Guide to Public Discourse
Updated: Sep 18
Finding your way around the Baha'i Faith when you're a 'newbie' can be quite daunting.
I first came across the term 'consultation' when I was a fledgling Baha'i, and felt a bit bewildered by the unfamiliar words. I was relieved to learn it basically meant 'group discussion'. Time moves on and today the word consultation is in common usage.
Most women are naturals at group consultation. It's what we do when we're sharing with other mothers how to toilet train our children, or discuss how best to support our daughters with their first relationships with young men. Perhaps many men develop their earliest consultations while talking about their jobs or discussing sporting passions.
'Newbie me' gradually learned more about consultation and eventually I found myself at my first Feast in a room full of Bahais, listening attentively and just a little ill at ease in case I was asked to say something. Then, almost before I knew it, my confidence 'trainer wheels' were off, and I found myself increasingly familiar with the Faith and ready to speak up and share my thoughts in a group.
However, learning is a lifelong process. New terms continued to crop up that I needed to explore. I clearly remember studying messages from the Universal House of Justice where I learned about the unfamiliar arena of 'Public Relations', followed by 'External Affairs' and then 'Institutes'. The current subject the UHJ has encouraged us to learn more about is 'Public Discourse'.
Actually it is not that new; it became a 'thing' way back when Shoghi Effendi wrote about it in 'The Promised Day Is Come'. (It's mentioned 25 times in Bahai Reference Library).
At its simplest, it just means to converse, talk, or speak. Sounds easy doesn't it? We do that all the time. But it can also take the form of a sermon, of preaching, giving an address or making a speech. Take for instance, Christ's 'Sermon on the Mount' and Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream". Although centuries apart, both are great examples of public discourse.
The first example of Public Discourse I could find from Shoghi Effendi was his words on Táhirih; "It was to her doors, during the height of her fame and popularity in Tihrán, that the flower of feminine society in the capital flocked to hear her brilliant discourses on the matchless tenets of her Faith". --Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day Is Come.
He also wrote of Queen Marie of Rumania, "...who, born in the Anglican faith and notwithstanding the close alliance of her government with the Greek Orthodox Church, the state religion of her adopted country, has, largely as a result of the perusal of these public discourses of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, been prompted to proclaim her recognition of the prophetic function of Muhammad: -- Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By.
Discourse can be variously described as engaging in discussion, communicating, talking about, addressing or conversing. What distinguishes 'discourse' from our usual casual exchanges with friends and colleagues is when it is 'Public'.
After realizing its importance, I was fortunate to discover the free Public Speaking classes run at our local high school, which provided really supportive, non-judgemental experience. It helped break the ice of painful self-conciousness and set me on my way, so that when I was invited to address a large public rally on the needs of women I was the only one who knew the terror silently expressed in my shaking knees.
I know I will always be light years away from Dr. King's level, but as we grow in wisdom and knowledge, our capacity to contribute also grows. We are all strengthened and inspired to move beyond simple natural conversations as we study, pray and strive for greater capacity.
The UHJ challenges us all to develop skills in discourse. Internalising the words of Abdul-Baha gives us both knowledge and method; simple and rational at the outset, becoming progressively more elevated with practice. He advises; "...we must first present the rational arguments and only afterwards the spiritual ones".
The famous "Discourse on the origin of Inequality" by Jean-Jacques Rousseau may be a little above our heads to begin with, but any simple thought we can share on that topic of 'Inequality' makes a great start.
It might surprise you to learn that 'A Discourse against profane swearing" [Gibson, Edmund, 1669-1748)} was so popular at the time that it entered its 2nd edition! We could probably benefit from it today.
Today the Universal House of Justice guides as follows;
"While eschewing partisan political activity, Baha’is are to vigorously engage in constructive public discourse and in a wide range of social endeavours aimed at the betterment of the world and the progress of their respective nations. They undertake such activities with humility, discernment and respect for prevailing laws and social conditions, in a spirit of learning and in collaboration with like-minded groups and individuals, fully confident in the power inherent in the principle of unity in diversity and in the efficacy of mutual aid and cooperation."