A call for civility in the public sphere

A call for civility in the public sphere

Diversity of opinion has long been a feature of Jewish tradition as well as of American democracy. Argument “for the sake of heaven” — disagreement in search of a higher truth as opposed to disagreement for the sake of obstinacy — is a core feature of Judaism. Similarly, a robust and vigorous debate about political and social issues has always been a hallmark of American society.

But since the presidential election season began in earnest last fall, civility — even a thin veneer of it — has been overshadowed by a troubling phenomenon: invective in place of debate. That has given way to a dangerous brand of politicking: argument, accusations and name calling for the sake of self-aggrandizement.

It’s easy to call names, to churn frustration into hate and to divide an already fractious community. But it must stop. Every candidate from every party — and every political voice — must reaffirm, through their words and actions, their commitment to the shared core values of American political life: free thought, mutual respect and civic engagement. The electorate is entitled to nothing less.

In the American Jewish community, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which met last weekend in Cleveland, is circulating a statement on civil discourse during elections and beyond. We support that effort and its call for everyone “to engage in a thoughtful, respectful and civil discussion over the future direction of this country” and to “strive to make our politics represent the best of our American values.”

“Shrill political discussion can cross the line, and spread intolerance and bigotry,” the statement continues. “Especially during elections, when divisions are most pronounced, we must be vigilant in preventing political discourse from drawing on deep-seated resentment and intolerance.”

America is what it is because of the rule of law and its free institutions. Some of the founders were as fearful of the tyranny of the mob as they were of the despotism of those in power. To this view, a demagogue and his or her followers are threats to the people’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness because they seek to uproot the institutions that safeguard stability and foster incremental change.

That change seems even slower today, as the pace of activity and communication continues to increase and the opportunity for deep thinking decreases. So perhaps because it is so easy to repost statements or pronouncements that have the depth of bumper stickers and make disparaging comments without thinking about them while scrolling down a Facebook wall, we each need to take up the practice of civility as a discipline. Today is a good time to start.