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Washington Post On Faith Forum: We need ‘civil’ discourse

by Rabbi Steve Gutow | Published on November 3, 2010

With the midterm elec­tions behind us, America is not only sorting through the polit­ical impli­ca­tions of the results, but also dealing with the after­math: A swath of destruc­tion wreaked by months of mean-spirited campaigning.

Democracy is messy, and American poli­tics have always been hard-fought — but for some time now, the fight has not just been hard, but ugly. The art of listening has been jetti­soned in the rush to be heard, as we amplify our voices through name-calling, mud-slinging, and fabrication.

Those making the most noise insist that they have the country’s best inter­ests at heart, but pundits, politi­cians and activists alike need to under­stand one thing: What is in this country’s best inter­ests is not more fighting — but more civility.

America is a land of many reli­gions, but our faith tradi­tions share powerful messages about both the need for honesty, and the need for kind­ness. Treating each other well, regard­less of our rela­tion­ships or opin­ions, is at the core of our belief systems — now is the time to bring this simple moral imper­a­tive to bear on our national discourse.

Americans face a host of issues of enor­mous import: envi­ron­mental woes, finan­cial decline, wars in the Middle East, secu­rity concerns at home. It’s only natural that we bring passion to our efforts to resolve such prob­lems, and that disagree­ments over method­ology run deep — if these issues weren’t of such great conse­quence, we wouldn’t care so much.

And yet, this very conse­quence demands that we approach our strug­gles not just with passion, but also with care. Rather than shout each other down and shut each other out, we must engage in frank and civil discus­sion, with the under­standing that we need not only to talk, but also to listen.

Democracy simply cannot func­tion without a respectful exchange of ideas. Our entire system of govern­ment is pred­i­cated on the notion that no single ideology holds a monopoly on truth, and that compro­mise is a neces­sary compo­nent of a healthy body politic.

Yet early 21st century America has been frac­tured by growing polit­ical and socio-economic polar­iza­tion, a corre­sponding shrinking of our sense of common ground, and a dete­ri­o­ra­tion of common manners. Bigotry is on the rise and often painted as wisdom. Words are stripped of context, and used as weapons. Even conver­sa­tion becomes a zero-sum game — and ulti­mately, we all lose.

The chal­lenges we face cannot be effec­tively met until we change the poisoned atmos­phere in which we func­tion. 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.

Changing our behavior will not be easy. The zero-sum-game mentality too often leaves us feeling that polite listening signals unques­tioning agree­ment, or gives those we oppose leverage against us. Too often, we fail to under­stand that civility requires neither acqui­es­cence nor censorship.

Civility is simply demon­strating respect for the dignity of our fellow humans — even those humans with whom we have sharp disagree­ment. Civility is allowing others to speak, and having the humility to admit that we may have some­thing to learn. Civility favors truth over cheap gain, and patience over knee-jerk judgment.

Civility is more than good manners, however. It’s also the pro-active advance­ment of codes of behavior that will heal our society from the damage it has sustained. We need to plan our public events care­fully, so that they can’t become occa­sions for ideo­log­ical grand-standing; we must stand up to defend each other from attack; we must main­tain an atti­tude of respect even when faced with smears and false­hoods. We must become aggres­sively reasonable.

The Jewish commu­nity has begun to take steps in keeping with the moral imper­a­tive to treat each other with respect. 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, has been 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.

As trou­bling as this past elec­tion season has been, we can choose to turn it into a national turning point. Rather than continue down the same angry, destruc­tive path, we can choose to replace invec­tive with respect, disre­spect with civility.

In doing so, we will not only be working to perfect our union, but acting to fulfill the demands of our faiths, and our consciences. We will not only be healing our nation for today, but building a better one for tomorrow.

Rabbi Steve Gutow is the pres­i­dent of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Under Rabbi Gutow’s lead­er­ship, the JCPA is launching a new campaign to inspire more civility into our national discourse. You can sign the JCPA Civility covenant at: www​.civil​i​tys​tate​ment​.org.

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