Civil Discourse

     During an 1863 Senate debate on the propriety of President Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeus corpus during the Civil War (which allowed the government to incarcerate people without charges or trial), Senator Willard Saulsbury of Delaware took to the floor and began in berate Lincoln in an apparently liquor-fueled harangue. He denounced Lincoln as an “imbecile” and “the weakest man ever placed in a high office.” Ruled out of order, Saulsbury refused to be seated or be quiet. When the sergeant at arms came to escort him out of the Senate chamber, Saulsbury pulled out his revolver, pointed it at the officer, cursed him and said: “If you touch me, I’ll shoot you dead.” Some time later Saulsbury was disarmed, removed, calm was restored, and the distinguished senator’s political career continued intact.

      So much for the halcyon days of civility and graciousness in public life. And this happened to Abraham Lincoln, not Franklin Pierce or some lesser light !

      It is unfair to say that matters are worse today than ever before; in fact, it probably was far worse in the 19th century than today. But that sad fact does not make it any easier to digest the pitiable depiction of politicians and public officials in our society. The pervasiveness of the news cycle exposes everyone’s blemishes and peccadilloes (and worse), so much so that the options in all recent elections seemed to be limited to choosing between the racist or the sexist, the adulterer or the embezzler, the clown or the crook, and the abuser or the thief. It is enough to make one want to avoid voting altogether – which, in fact, is the reality for most Americans.

       The disturbing tendency – exaggerated by the media, that most enthusiastic purveyor of lashon hara – to define a person by one word, one quote or one event is rampant, misleading and ultimately grossly unfair. People are not caricatures, but, often, when we disagree, we reduce our adversaries to such, which is an attempt to score polemical points or intimidate them into silence. It is relatively easy to find a molehill, and to build a mountain of lies and distortions around it.

      These unfortunate tactics are not limited to politics, just like the Gotcha ! gang is not restricted to members of the media. There are times when controversial issues arise in communities that often find people on opposite sides of an ideological, substantive or procedural divide – issues that have no one right answer and on which reasonable people can differ. We mimic the most appalling aspects of the modern secular media – and modern life generally – when we seek to demonize the “other” side on a personal level, or when we attribute to them ignoble or despicable motivations, or when we lift a word or phrase out of context in order to smear an antagonist, or when we concoct conspiracy theories that reflect more our own baser instincts than have any counterpart in reality.

       It is a well-worn cliché, but a most noble sentiment nonetheless, that people must learn to disagree without being disagreeable. Chazal (Brachot 58a) noted that just like the faces of human beings differ one from another, so too our thoughts, minds and personalities also differ. That is not lamentable but normal, and a tribute to the wisdom and glory of our Creator. It is what makes life interesting, and what enables us to learn from each other. It so normal that it ensures the existence of a machloket l’shem shamayim (a dispute for the sake of Heaven) that, Chazal (Avot V:20) teach, will “endure in the end.” A machloket l’shem shamayim has no winner or loser; a decision must be made that offers practical guidance, but the machloket remains, and can be the source of further discussion, review, insight and inspiration.

     In fact, Chazal (Yevamot 14b) make a point of stating that despite the fact that Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel disagreed on hundreds of important matters, ranging from the laws of Shabbat and kashrut to marriage eligibility, they “did not refrain from marrying into each others’ families nor from using each others’ utensils, always evincing love and friendship for each other and in fulfillment of the verse ‘love truth and peace.’”

      Truth and peace may not be natural allies, but they need not be bitter enemies.

      To disagree agreeably – to contend with another and yet remain friends – is a mark of maturity, intelligence and decency. It is far easier to make noise and generate strife than it is to foster peace and mutual respect. The former requires only one person, a Senator Saulsbury-type who can transform a lively debate on the weightiest issues into a madhouse of pandemonium, peril and incivility, and ruin the environment for all. The latter requires humility, tolerance, respect for others, and perhaps even self-respect for one’s innate potential to be good and to do good, to see the best in others and in our institutions, and to preserve a spiritual environment that glorifies Hashem and His Torah.

      It is that spirit and that commitment that guides and sustains us throughout our lives, and quantifies the extent to which the ideas and values of Torah have permeated our core and animate our daily existence – as individuals and as a community – and which elicits the blessings of Heaven for continued success, prosperity and peace in all our endeavors.

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