In today’s ever-more-polarized world, there seems to be a decline in civility. The norms which dictate decent behavior seem to be eroding, as our interactions have become angrier, uglier and more vulgar. We make assumptions based on superficialities; we engage others with a diminished sense of trust and respect; we frequently jump to conclusions based on how people look, what they believe, how they vote and who they love.
In the marketplace of ideas, our engagement with each other has become a fragile, hyper-sensitized battlefield. We rarely listen to each other anymore, and when we do, we do so to find holes in the arguments of the other. A nuanced art of dialogue has given way to knee-jerk defensiveness, as a desire to find common ground and compromise has been replaced with viewing opposing opinions as an adversary that needs to be defeated. It has become almost impossible to have a reasonable conversation on any given topic of concern without having to brace ourselves for reactivity. Healthcare, public education, guns, taxes, national security are real issues which deserve discussion and debate, but instead, these topics quickly erode into vulgar, disrespectful diatribes from all sides.
The truth is that at the heart of the democratic process is civil engagement. Civility is the bridge to a place where common ground can be established, and the Jewish New Year provides us with an opportunity to consider better ways to engage those with whom we may disagree.
There is a famous parable about the ongoing disputes between the house of Hillel and the House of Shamai. According to the Talmud, God ultimately sides with Hillel on all matters of the law. This is because the House of Hillel (unlike the house of Shamai) always cited the rulings of both sides of every dispute. Hillel’s rulings always gave credence to Shamai’s view, demonstrating humility and legitimizing the value of the perspectives of others.
As our nation prepares for heated debates among presidential hopefuls in the months to come, and as we engage each other on controversial topics at large, we need to strive to be more like Hillel. Instead of digging in our heals, insisting we are right, we need to open our minds to alternative ways of seeing and understanding. Instead of listening for holes in arguments, we need to listen attentively to the narrative of others with curiosity and interest. We need to seek common ground (even when we know we don’t agree), and we need to find ways of continuing a conversation with reason and respect.