As the election season swings into full gear we are again barraged with political advertisements and news reports pitting one candidate against the other. The combative climate is marked by an atmosphere of confrontational and uncivil discourse.
Although there have always been political divisions, heated debates and disagreements on matters of policy, the polarization in our country seems greater than ever. There is little incentive to reach consensus. In fact, suggesting that the other side might actually have an idea worthy of consideration is tantamount to political suicide. The desire for personal advancement takes precedence over the critical needs of the public welfare, the civil good. Gaining power takes priority over solving problems.
Jim Leach, chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities and a former U.S. representative from Iowa, was recently in Indianapolis as part of a 50-state tour to promote the importance of civility in a fragmented society. He said, “Civilization requires civility. Words matter . . . Little is more important for the world’s leading democracy in this change-intensive century than establishing an ethos of thoughtfulness and decency in the public square.”
Such a conversation is urgent.
Not long ago a local television station asked us to comment on a controversial issue. The reporter had already interviewed one prominent individual, and now he wanted an opposing view. We indicated that we did not have an opposing position but would be happy to be interviewed to discuss the important matter further. The reporter wasn’t interested. The newscast wasn’t designed to offer an exchange of nuanced ideas, but rather to highlight divisiveness and discord.
This treatment of conflict is emblematic of our culture. We tend to approach disagreements as either/or debates that generate over-simplification, false dichotomies and invite hostility.
A colleague, who speaks nationally on the need for civility, once asked the people in his audience if they could go for 24 hours without saying unkind words about others. The vast majority admitted they could not pass the test. We have become addicted to incivility and, as with any addiction, the results are proving disastrous.
Technology has made the addiction worse. Anonymity and speed contribute to the intensity of acrimony. Faceless communication makes it easier to demonize others. The demand for instantaneous response does not allow for reflection or for tempering of anger. Civil society operates within the framework of cherished liberties. However, the right of free speech does not mean we should say everything we think; nor that everything we say should be written; nor that everything written be published or given a public forum. Yet that is what often happens on the Internet.
Words have power. Biblically, the divine act of creation is verbal. Cosmos (order) is called into being out of chaos (disorder). The magical expression “abracadabra” comes from the Aramaic. It literally means abra — I will create, kadabra — as I speak. Words create worlds. The words we chose will determine the kind of world we create. Unfortunately, our words are generating chaos rather than cosmos, tearing us apart rather than bringing us together.
We need fewer split screens of pro/con debates that seek to entertain us and more in-depth and thoughtful analyses that seek to educate us. We need to refrain from character assassination and engage in issues illumination. We need our politicians and legislators to do less for the sake of partisanship and more for the sake of our republic.
Remember the first sentence we were taught in learning to type? It contains some advice we should heed: “Now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of their country.”
The Sassos are senior rabbis at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis.
Author:Dennis and Sandi Sasso