I was so excited to hear that Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Ellen Goodman would be speaking at St. Francis University next month. I’ve been reading her for years. She’s really smart, really insightful, witty without being smarmy, and is a fabulous writer. Except that now, she’s not coming. Because she happens to be pro-choice when it comes to women’s reproductive rights.
The faculty scheduled her months ago. The students have known since April about her appearance. The president of the college, Reverend Gabriel Zeis, says he just found out about it – and when he discovered she was pro-choice, he decided to kick her out because she didn’t represent Roman Catholic values.
Zeis says that the university welcomes a diversity of viewpoints when it comes to war and capital punishment. But apparently not a woman’s right to choose. The faculty and students who were looking forward to meeting her are reportedly furious. Goodman herself says she was stunned – she’s spoken at many catholic colleges over the years and it’s the first time she’s ever been dis-invited. She wasn’t planning on talking about abortion anyway. As it happens, she was planning to talk on the topic “A Civil Tongue.”
As Goodman put it, “I wrote about my passionate belief that the country needs to move from polarized food-fight politics and media to a more civil and modulating voice.” That sounds like exactly the kind of conversation we should be having. So we’re going to have it anyway, with Ellen Goodman or – as it turns out – without her. And we’re going to start right now.
Just last night, we heard the words of Kol Nidre – a solemn plea for forgiveness. In the Middle Ages, and even into modern times, the words of Kol Nidre were held against Jews by the Christian world: “See? We told you Jews couldn’t be trusted. Their promises are empty, their words devoid of truth – because they turn around and ask their God to pretend it never happened.” The popularity of Kol Nidre and its haunting melody won out over rabbinic objections.
But those rabbinic objections had some merit. We need to consider our words very carefully, they said, because words have consequences. Somebody is bound to get hurt when we say what we don’t mean, or when we talk without first thinking it through, or when we make claims that cannot possibly be true. Nothing good can come of even one person’s public humiliation of another, or one person’s gossip mongering, or one person’s slander. The sins of one individual, the rabbis teach, can affect the entire world.
Managing to keep a civil tongue used to be easier when communication was slower and more intimate. Spreading a rumor or a lie took a while, as it went from person to person. But incivility can now go viral in a matter of seconds. All it takes is a computer or a smartphone: Take a picture, type a text, hit the send button, and the most intimate details of somebody else’s life – true or not – are on Facebook or YouTube in no time at all. And once a rumor, or a lie, or a slander, is out in cyberspace, it’s impossible to take it back. Like the feathers of the proverbial shredded pillow lifted by the wind, they are quickly out of sight and out of control.
But it’s not just the speed at which incivility can travel that bothers me these days – it’s the fact that so many people are so willing to be a party to it.
It’s like a filter has been removed from the brain, that part of us that used to think before we speak. As a result, language that was once unthinkable in public discourse now has become commonplace. And that’s not a technological issue – but a human one.
When did it become acceptable for a member of congress to yell out “You lie” in the middle of a presidential address in the US capital? He’s the president of the United States! You don’t like him, fine, but respect the office. Joe Wilson apologized later, and said his emotions got the better of him. But clearly, he planned the outburst as a way to get our attention. As it happens, Wilson was wrong on the facts regarding health care and illegal immigrants. But the facts were irrelevant. The video went viral – which is exactly what Wilson wanted.
When did it become acceptable for the prime minister of Turkey to call Israeli President Shimon Peres a murderer in the middle of an international economic summit? “When it comes to killing, you know well how to kill,” said Recep Erdogan before storming off the stage. The Gaza flotilla had nothing to do with the conversation at hand – but it was Erdogan’s opportunity for another viral You-Tube moment, designed to rouse the anti-Semitic masses against Israel.
When did it become acceptable to permit Islamic students to stage a coordinated campaign of heckling so loud and intense that the Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was unable to speak last year at the University of California, Irvine? Thank God, 10 out of the 11 students were recently convicted in a jury trial of conspiring to disrupt the speech, and ordered to perform community service. What they were doing did not promote freedom of expression – it undermined it.
When did it become acceptable for teenagers to target and torment one of their own using social networking sites, to such an extent that a 15-year old girl committed suicide last year in Massachusetts? Nine students were accused of cyber-bullying in an unrelenting attack that continued for more than three months, while parents and school administrators did nothing.
And did it have anything to do with the fact that Phoebe Prince was a new immigrant, not “one of us” in her little town? Cyber-bullying, cyber-mocking, cyber-namecalling is all the rage now among young people. My Grandmom Freda taught us: If you can’t say something nice to somebody [finish the sentence: “Don’t say anything at all”] But if you’re actually not talking directly to somebody, apparently that doesn’t count.
Just last week, the Associated Press and MTV released a survey showing that young people – in their teens and 20’s – don’t really give much thought about the things they Tweet and text about other people. 71 percent say they agree people are more likely to call somebody a slut or a fag or a spic or a kike or a retard on line, and only about half say they’d be likely to ask somebody using such language to stop. More than 25 percent say they wouldn’t be offended it all by such on-line language
Mostly, they figure people are just trying to be funny. But if you identify as a black or a Jew or a woman or a gay person or someone with disabilities – it’s not funny at all. And, as one college student told the surveyors, when you’re on Twitter, nobody really cares about anybody’s feelings. And you never know how bad it hurts people, he said, because they don’t say anything.
Maintaining silence in the face of incivility – whether it be on a Twitter feed or in the halls of congress or in an international forum – is not acceptable behavior.
As Maimonides wrote, “When one person wrongs another, the latter should not despise him in silence but must make the matter known. He must ask ‘Why did you do this to me?” “Why did you wrong me?’” We Jews – we who know full well the power of language to do harm, from the denouncements of Haman in Persia to the incitement of the mobs in Nazi Germany – we Jews must do our part to promote a civil tongue.
The Jewish Council on Public Affairs – a national advocacy group that usually deals with matters like foreign policy, domestic spending, and workers’ rights – has organized a year-long project on civility in public discourse. It saddens me to think that we’ve come to the point where we need a year-long program to teach people to keep a civil tongue. But apparently we do. The JCPA states that:
“Civility is neither the lack of difference nor the squelching of debate. It is the application of care for the dignity of every human being, even those with whom we may sharply disagree. It is listening carefully when others speak, not just to understand what they are saying and thinking, but to open ourselves to the possibility that they may have something to teach. “
Civil speech and respectful disagreement are a fundamental aspect of Jewish communal life. Our sages teach us that anything worth discussing is done l’shem shamayim, all for the sake of heaven. In the disputes between the great rabbis Hillel and Shammai two thousand years ago, Hillel nearly always won the halakhic battles – not because he was smarter or because his arguments were better, but because he respected his opponents so much that he offered their arguments before his own.
In this afternoon’s Torah Portion – and it’s no coincidence that we read the Holiness Code from the Book of Leviticus on Yom Kippur — the Torah teaches: “Hocheach tochiach et amitecha v’lo tisa alav chet.” We usually translate this phrase something like: “You shall reprove your neighbor that you not incur guilt on his account.” In other words, make him get in line so you don’t get into trouble for something he says or does.
But we might be better off with this translation: “You may reprove your neighbor if necessary, but not to the point where you yourself are guilty of sin” – that is, the sin of public shame and humiliation, which is strictly forbidden by our tradition. This interpretation, I think, makes a lot more sense in context, since the Torah goes on to say: You must not seek vengeance, you must not bear a grudge against your kin. You shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am Adonai.”
The Jewish tradition and the American tradition have much in common here. The Book of Proverbs says: “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.” More than two thousand years later, Rabbi Israel Salanter taught: “Be vigilant in protecting the honor of all people, especially those with whom you disagree.” And in between, John Adams, one of the founders of American democracy, warned: “I fear that in every assembly members will obtain an influence by noise rather than sense, by meanness rather than greatness, and by ignorance and not learning. There must be decency and respect and veneration introduced for persons of every rank, or we are undone.” To which I say: Amen.
We must urge those in public life – those who were elected or appointed to represent us – to cool down the heat of their discourse, to shun the impulse for a viral 15-minutes of fame at the expense of hurt that lasts much, much longer. We must diligently teach our children – v’shinantan l’vanecha – the ways of derech eretz, of proper and respectful behavior toward one another, whether in private conversation or in the context of texts and tweets and social networking. And we must model that behavior for them. Where do kids learn pejoratives about blacks and Jews and Latinos and Asians and gays in the first place? Where do kids learn it’s okay to use that kind of language? Each of us was created in the image of God – and our sages teach that when we embarrass, shame, humiliate, or denigrate another human being, we are also doing so to God.
Last night, after reciting Kol Nidre, we read these words: “Vayomer Adonai: Salakhti kid-varecha,” And I will pardon according to your word. God will pardon us on this Day of Atonement if we recognize that our words have the capacity to hurt or to heal, and if we choose to address others with dignity and respect. As Ellen Goodman would have said, had she been given the opportunity, let us keep a civil tongue about us.
Kein yehi ratson. Be this God’s will, and our own. And let us say together: Amen.
©Audrey R. Korotkin