December 10, 2018

How to Reward Civility in American Society

I don’t think it’s overly dramatic to characterize the current state of American society as a cold Civil War. Our population is as divided as our houses of Congress. We’ve weathered this type of condition many times, but today’s climate presents something new. We’re now demonizing one another so badly that longstanding relationships are cratering over ideological differences. 

Families are becoming as bitterly divided as they were in the Civil War. Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth had a brother Edwin who was a fervent Union supporter. What was their Thanksgiving like in 1864? This year’s Thanksgiving gatherings are sure to be stressful for many families. Some will awkwardly avoid politics, others will get into heated arguments that may lead to feuds and estrangements.

Those of us who wish to engage in civil discourse with our loved ones often look to publications for help in explaining why we believe what we believe. We seek articles we can share that will sum up our best points on a given issue. The problem is that these articles often display a contemptuous tone toward the other side. Our relatives will not be swayed one bit by an article that mocks their own dearly held views.

At AccidentalTalmudist.org, we’ve created an award in partnership with the Jewish Journal to address this problem. The Hillel Prize for Elevating Public Discourse will recognize a prominent individual who exchanges ideas with his or her opponents without resorting to insults or sarcasm. I’m writing this column to encourage more writers to qualify for consideration. I believe they will thus gain more readers and provide a critical public service.

Such writers would do well to emulate the Talmudic sage Hillel and his followers. Even in the most heated debates, they would state the positions of their opponents before their own, and they would do so fairly. 

“The Hillel Prize for Elevating Public Discourse will recognize a prominent individual who exchanges ideas with his or her opponents without resorting to insults or sarcasm.”

I will now model what I am recommending. My thesis is that we need more political articles that present both sides fairly. The opposing view would hold that political writing is too important at this critical time — when the country could fall down a slippery slope toward irreparable damage — to offer dangerous views any veneer of legitimacy.

There is a time for civility and there is a time for street fighting. When you’re dealing with people who subscribe to a dangerous ideology, you have no responsibility to be polite. In fact, being civil to those who preach (fill in the blank) is cowardice. We are in a battle for the soul of America. It is a time to fight for justice, not to worry about offending those who promote injustice. When so many people in this country are marginalized and suffering, we need to be respectful of them and fight for them, rather than showing respect to their attackers. We don’t negotiate with terrorists.

I hope I’ve expressed the opposing viewpoint fairly. If not, I look forward to hearing about it in the letters section. Now here’s my argument.

In a few days, we’ll sit down to Thanksgiving with loved ones who disagree with us on crucial issues. We’d love to communicate our views so clearly that our relatives will open their eyes and join our side. If that’s not possible, we’d just like to be understood and respected for maintaining independent opinions. Since we’re not all as articulate as the professionals on TV, we need articles we can share with our families that advocate effectively for our side while respecting the views of our loved ones.

Such articles will not only make Thanksgiving more pleasant, they also may save America from plunging into a second Civil War. Faced with crucial issues, no one will change sides when they feel insulted. Fair and balanced articles, however, presented by thoughtful citizens to the people they care about most may just lead to new votes for the causes America needs most.

To nominate a worthy recipient for the Hillel Prize, visit accidentaltalmudist.org/hillelprize.


Salvador Litvak writes about Judaism at facebook.com/accidentaltalmudist.