Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Is Civility overrated?

One of my recurring topics recently has been civility: the importance of simply being nice to each other. Of trying not to hate, or, at least, not to act in a hateful way towards each other. I think it's an important message, and one I'll continue to give. But, there was one aspect of it which was making me a little bit uncomfortable, and it was expressed beautifully by Rabbi Eric Yoffi, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism (it's a short article, and well worth clicking through for):

When instructing the prophet Isaiah about how he is to confront those who oppress others, God's instructions are as follows: "Cry with full throat, without restraint; raise your voice like a ram's horn!" (Isaiah 58:1). There is no suggestion here that Isaiah should be civil. What is called for is exactly the opposite: casting civility aside and speaking out with passion, power, and "without restraint" against those who cause or ignore suffering.
Like everyone else in America, I was appalled by the shooting in Arizona, and the religious organization that I serve condemned those who use ugly and violent rhetoric to create an atmosphere of hatred. But in the aftermath of this terrible incident, it seems to me that the enduring emphasis on civility is misplaced. It has become an end unto itself, distorting the norms of democratic debate and distracting us from matters of more fundamental consequence.
Aren't there some issues which are so important that, civility be damned, we should be shouting from the rooftops about them? Aren't there some causes which are so sacred that we should be doing anything that we can to fix them, rather than trying to tread carefully around the feelings of others?

I can probably list a dozen of them. How about same-sex marriage? That one seems pretty clear to me. People are entitled to their opinions, of course, but I don't see a lot of reason for sitting down and politely discussing the intricacies of Leviticus with those who would pick and choose verses from it, in order to stop others from getting married. I just want to get these laws changed!

I think it's still pretty safe to say that we'd all be better off if the obnoxious hosts of radio and television “shock news” shows would just be quiet, already. I don't think that anything is served by that kind of vitriol or, frankly, that kind of nonsensical rhetoric which often passes for reasoned debate there. But, there's a difference between being reasonable, and being polite, on the one hand, and being meek, on the other.

Or, maybe more to the point, perhaps they're at times when being polite isn't really that important, at all. I mean, I'm not sure it would have been useful, or appropriate, to engage in polite discussions about why the Nazis were so bad. I'm not sure I feel the need to be respectful towards anyone who still holds those views. The same would go for members of the KKK, to pick another example.

Thankfully, nearly all of the topics about which we argue these days are less black and white than those. In nearly every one (maybe, every single one) the side with which I disagree has valid points. But, that doesn't mean that I can't be passionate in support of the views which I hold. And, if someone perceives that passion as disrespectful, maybe that's not the worst thing in the world.

One of the first things which I read in rabbinical school was an essay by Ahad HaAm, entitled “Priest and Prophet.” Basically, the argument was that society needs Priests—reasonable people, dedicated to the system, who are really to compromise, adjust, and work from within, but it also needs Prophets—people who are strident, single-minded, and often unreasonable. The Prophets provide the impetus, and the energy, for change. The Priests take that energy, and make it happen. Without the Priests, Prophets could never get anything done. Without the Prophets, the Priest might never bother. We need both.

By nature, I'll probably always tend towards the middle, towards reasonableness, towards thoughtfulness. That's a good thing; it's one of the things about myself which I like best. But, I'm thankful (sometimes) for those who see things a bit more clearly than I do, and those who have no patience for half measures, and slow progress.

I guess I have to laugh at myself, just a little. I'm so damn reasonable that I'm even willing to accept a bit of unreasonableness. All well. The curse of being a centrist liberal, I guess. I just hope it never keeps me from speaking up, and yelling, when necessary.

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