Can Civil Discourse Prevent Our Second Civil War?

Sixth in a Six-Part Series by Larry Greenfield
May 28, 2021
Image by wildpixel/Getty Images

To read Part 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 in this series, click here, here, here, here and here.

Both the Jewish tradition and the American way reject uniformity of thought.

Our religious texts and traditions prioritize study through argument. A Talmudic disagreement may not find resolution in the text, but both sides are richer for having engaged in the dispute. Likewise, our political economy benefits from robust democratic debate, while science and invention progress through evidence-based inquiry and discovery that consistently demand fresh thinking and exploration.

We aspire to set aside ideological bias in the pursuit of truth. We work to honor context, nuance, and open-mindedness. The mind that never changes or corrects is one to which we might say “never-mind.”

Society flourishes in an environment in which mutual respect for ideological differences is an accepted norm. Without these shared values, we run the risk of a division so deep it splits the foundation.

Unfortunately, sincerely held disagreements among Americans are so prevalent that we have become increasingly polarized, cornering ourselves into a state of contempt and a level of mutual antipathy with predictable and problematic consequences.

Our Disputes Are Real

A concise list of our culture wars and ideological battles might include:

Religious Civilization vs. The Secular Ideal

Is our human nature inherently good, bad, and/or requiring of divine moral authority?

Do our natural rights come from God or is government the source of our liberty?

Are traditional distinctions (God and humankind, men and women, humanity and nature) true and relevant?

Nationalism vs. Globalism

Did the God of Genesis move us forward from family and tribe to the idea of the nation as the best organization to fulfill our destiny?

Shall the nation-state model, successful since the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) ended Europe’s religious wars, continue or give way to a new era of global governance?

Free Market Economics vs. Statism

Was Karl Marx in error to reject Jewish law, which promoted private property guided by behavioral responsibility and charity, in favor of his attempt to impose an international worker’s movement?

Does a highly taxed and regulated citizenry reduce incentives for innovation and achievement?

Security Deterrence vs. Appeasement

Must we re-learn in every generation the necessity of peace through strength?  What lessons do we carry forward from the examples of two British Prime Ministers:  Neville Chamberlain’s pronouncement of “peace in our time” and Winston Churchill’s proclamation that “we shall never surrender”?

Race Blind vs. Race Conscious

Does Abraham Lincoln merit our deep respect as the Great Emancipator and our nation’s final founding father, or should his statue be torn down along with other important, but flawed, historical figures?

Has Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of brotherhood and judging ourselves based on character rather than skin color been eclipsed by race-conscious victimhood?

Are we are a nation of equality under the law or reparations and revenge?

Justice vs. Social Justice

Is justice blind?  Shall the law favor neither the rich man nor the poor man?  Or does the equity imperative prioritize favored groups and, for example, the rejection of mathematics as systemically racist?

At times in our American past, our disunity has descended into insurrection, rebellion, riot, assassination, and even civil war.

Before we devolve into separation and divorce, and perhaps even more political violence, let us consider three strategies for reconciliation and re-commitment to the motto of the United States of America, e pluribus unum — out of many, one.

Stop the Name-Calling

Imagine a political culture in which politicians were not rewarded for demonizing their opponents. Both Republicans and Democrats play to their base, rushing into extremist rhetoric and partisanship through the use of war rooms, nuclear options, impeachment, and the politics of personal destruction.

President Trump’s policies may have been successful, but his popularity never rose above 50% due to his verbal assaults. He attacked the war record of John McCain, a Navy pilot who spent years under torture and captivity while remaining loyal to his shipmates and his country, by claiming “real heroes don’t get shot down.” He crudely insulted journalist Megyn Kelly, asserting “you could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

The political and media left certainly have their way with insults, too, frequently calling their opponents deplorable, Neanderthals, white supremacists, domestic terrorists, and, that old stand-by, racists.

One commonplace rhetorical bomb used by the political class is analogizing to the Holocaust. The frequent online use of memes connecting an issue or dispute to the Holocaust is now categorized as proof of Godwin’s Law, which asserts that as a discussion on the internet grows, the likelihood of someone being compared to Hitler or the Nazis increases. Some have sought to claim that whoever sinks first into this comparison loses the debate at hand.

The use of Nazi analogies and reductio ad Hitlerum is especially vulgar because of the unspeakable human suffering perpetrated by the Nazi regime and collaborators. An insult meant to degrade a political opponent offends all Nazi victims and those who cared for them, liberated them, or remember them.

Stand by Your Principles

Disagreeing without resorting to insult requires a certain level of smarts and good faith. It does not mean one must abandon strongly-held beliefs or pretend there is agreement where none exists.

While some object to the use of “whataboutism,” (the response to a claim of wrongdoing by a political opponent by pointing out the same behavior or worse on their side) it can be a truthful and effective way to point out hypocrisy. This is consistent with the shared sentiment, across the political aisle, by all those who object to “rules for thee, not for me.”

Whataboutism is the use of comparison in the search for clarity and truth, and it can be a legitimate attempt to demand that others argue in good faith. Likewise, the casual dismissal of a challenge by comparison can be an attempt to shut down speech. If the comparison is not apt, dismissing the challenge is a fair retort.  But the claim that argument by whataboutism is illegitimate per se is simply a way to end debate by suppressing examination.

Americans have a reputation for being open-minded, perhaps to a fault, given that historically we have seen the power that demagogues, seeking to exploit this collective trait, can hold over mainstream Americans. But the dominant American sensibility is more moderate than the loudest, angriest voices from far- left and right margins might demand.

Demagogues from right to left that have temporarily held sway over segments of Americans include Father Coughlin, Theodore Bilbo, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, Al Sharpton, and Louis Farrakhan among others. But over time, the American people have tended to self-correct in order to hold the middle, demanding that our politics not swing too far right or left.

The Compassion of Unknowing

Rabbi Irwin Kula is the President of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Wisdom Daily website. He sees our time as deeply complex and challenged by technological change. Our response to modern stresses has been to double-down on our ideologies and perspectives, blaming opponents and fiercely defending our own inherited philosophies.

Kula believes we need “an ethics of unknowing” to relieve ourselves (aggrieved conservatives and utopian progressives) of our righteousness and apocalyptic thinking. Our certainty masks our unconscious uncertainty, turning opinion into aggression. We might choose instead to model self-awareness, courage, and curiosity. Humility not hubris.

Today, some on both sides of the red-blue / right-left battles have given up on the idea of American liberal democracy.  Both are increasingly suspicious of and angry at their opponents.

“Hard conservatives see fighting cultural degeneracy and some fetishized version of freedom as more important than the American liberal democracy and hard liberals see identitarian inequity and some fetishized version of justice as more important than the America liberal democracy,” says Kula, “and both sides have become aggressive and increasingly dangerous in some reaction-formation toxic dance.”

He continues:

“We need to expand our own truth horizons. But moderates have become so powerless — philosophically, conceptually, psychologically, and spiritually — that we have ceded the public culture, news media, and political discourse to the extremes. At this moment it is more threatening psychologically for moderates to grapple with the partial truth of moderates from the other side than to support or downplay or pander to extremes on their own side. Until moderate liberals and moderate conservatives are willing to risk everything from status to money, from reputation to elected office, from being cancelled to being vilified for heresy/selling out etc. nothing can get better.”

Rabbi Kula offers two rules for all conservative and liberal political and religious leaders who still have faith in The American Experiment (or The Jewish People).

First: “Only criticize extremists in your own group. In a polarized society extremes can’t hold each other accountable, rather they tend to bully the moderates in their own group and demonize those in other groups. Moderates can hold their own extremes accountable.”

And second:

“In every argument with a moderate from the other side we should start by listening very carefully and locating one insight/truth, however partial and on whatever level —factually, conceptually, psychologically — of the other side that just may be right AND one opinion, view, or fragment of thought that we have that might just be wrong. As moderates incorporate the partial truths of the other side, extremes lose their resonance. Let’s do this in the name of the American experiment and as an expression of faith in the rule of law, reason, and conversation. Let’s model this for a year — allow this method of discourse to trump our desire for power and let’s see where we are.”

Americans have recovered from disunity and civil strife in the past: the Federalists and Anti-Federalists of our founding, the North and the South in the Civil War, and the cultural conflicts of the turbulent 1960s Civil Rights and Vietnam War eras.

Today’s tensions have already spilled over into violence. Before we take up arms against our political opponents, let’s make one big push to turn political enmity into a more respectful engagement of voices.

Larry Greenfield is a Fellow of The Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship & Political Philosophy.

The Speech Project is an initiative of the Jewish Journal that brings together some of the most compelling voices from across the political spectrum to address the topic of free speech. In a cultural moment where civil liberties often seem to be under siege, we encourage freedom of expression, independent thinking, and personal choice. The articles, podcasts, books, and other resources you’ll find here all challenge the growing illiberalism of our time in their pursuit of balance and authenticity.

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