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JTA Op-Ed: America needs a civility campaign

by Rabbi Steve Gutow | Published on November 3, 2010

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The elec­tion season has finally ended. Victors have cele­brated, the defeated have conceded and we are left to clean up the detritus: direct-mail fliers, defunct posters — and the scorched earth left by one of the least civil elec­tion campaigns in memory.

American polit­ical culture has always been spir­ited and combative, yet for some time now the tone of our discourse has often been down­right nasty. Smear tactics, name calling and distor­tion of facts are the order of the day, as the art of listening is not so much lost as tram­pled under­foot while politi­cians, pundits and activists rush to make points, heed­less to what the country might need.

It seems clear what the country needs: an end to knee-jerk hostility and the start of some­thing new, some­thing civil.

Within Jewish culture, we have a tradi­tion of “God wrestling” — strug­gling mightily to find the truth. Robust, vigorous debate is vital and, indeed, essen­tial in a plural­istic society. But sincere God wrestling requires both an open heart and willing ears. It requires that we treat each other with respect as we search together for the best path forward, and that we leave open the possi­bility that someone else might have some­thing worth­while to say.

It’s to be expected that deep divi­sions will exist when concerned citi­zens grapple with issues of real impor­tance. The economic down­turn, the health of the planet, America’s secu­rity, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — each issue is emotion­ally fraught, and each will continue to resonate for years to come.

Yet for this very reason — the enor­mous impor­tance of the issues over which we often disagree — it is crucial that we engage not in mud slinging, but rather in frank, civil discus­sion. The stakes are too high for us to do anything but pool the best of what we have to offer.

Simply put, the respectful exchange of ideas is the corner­stone of a func­tioning democ­racy. It’s only by seeking compro­mise and respecting differ­ences that we can hope to build a working consensus on our shared future.

Yet the first decade of this new century has seen growing polit­ical and socio-economic polar­iza­tion, a shrinking sense of common ground and a corre­sponding disin­te­gra­tion of the rules of engage­ment. The animus spills over into racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of prej­u­dice and bias. Ultimately no one is served — least of all the country we share.

If we are to genuinely resolve the issues that stand before us, we must genuinely engage in changing the polit­ical atmos­phere. We must actively seek and promote civil modes of discourse and codes of conduct — and this is precisely what the Jewish commu­nity has begun to do. The process is neither simple nor easy. Too often we fear that polite behavior signals unques­tioning agree­ment or grants a victory to those we oppose, failing to under­stand that civility is neither the lack of differ­ence nor the squelching of debate.

Civility is the quiet acknowl­edge­ment of human dignity, even those humans with whom we sharply disagree. Civility is listening care­fully when others speak and leaving open the possi­bility that we may have some­thing to learn. Civility is the guarding of tongue and the rejec­tion of false witness — two command­ments that our tradi­tion holds dear.

Beyond that, however, civility is also the proac­tive advance­ment of certain kinds of behavior. We need to speak up when others are being shouted down; we need to struc­ture our public events in such a way that no single opinion can monop­o­lize the conver­sa­tion; we need to care­fully main­tain an atti­tude of respect even when faced with shouts and accu­sa­tion; and perhaps most impor­tant, we need not to give up.

Many in our commu­nity have begun to step up to the chal­lenge. A state­ment spon­sored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs calling for more civil discourse, as part of a far-reaching campaign to set a new tone, is being signed by a who’s who of Jewish commu­nity leaders, including the heads of promi­nent Jewish commu­nity and pro-Israel orga­ni­za­tions, Republicans and Democrats, conser­v­a­tives and liberals, rabbis, acad­e­mics, former pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tion offi­cials and renowned Jewish activists. This is an impor­tant start, but it is only a start.

With the elec­tion behind us, we stand at a cross­roads. We can look to the past months and years as a template and continue down the same belligerent, damaging path, or we can choose to learn from our mistakes and seek a new way.

That which is hateful to you,” the great Hillel taught us, “do not do to your fellow.”

It’s time to take that lesson and apply it to our modern democ­racy, for it is only through civil discourse that we will be able to perfect the union that holds us together.

Rabbi Steve Gutow is the pres­i­dent of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. To sign the JCPA Civility Covenant, go to http://​engage​.jewish​pub​li​caf​fairs​.org/​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​_​i​t​e​m​/​C​i​v​i​l​ity.

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