Can we consider the argument against civility?
One of the signature Jewish communal reactions to this age of polarized and downright nasty political debate are calls for “civility,” defined in a 2010 proclamation by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs as “a commitment to dialogue and mutual respect for those with whom we may disagree.” In 2015, when supporters of the Iran deal were called anti-Israel and opponents were called warmongers, President Barack Obama asked Jews to remember that “we’re all family.”
If “civility” means avoiding Donald Trumpian excesses of invective and name-calling, few can be against it. Even supporters of President Trump’s policies have a hard time defending his personal and often schoolyard taunting of his adversaries. They may have bristled when Trump’s opponents claimed the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings grew out of the uncivil tone he sets in his tweets and rally speeches, but when pressed they usually admit that his rhetoric is “not helpful.”
When every political opponent or critic is a traitor, a loser, or an enemy of the people, language itself loses meaning and constructive dialogue — constructive anything — becomes impossible.
But too often “civility” is used as a call for complacency, of putting aside personal and communal differences in the name of courtesy or consensus. If you are a leader or clergyperson or hold any position of relative authority, civility means you’re told to avoid the kind of rhetoric that “divides rather than heals.”
Congregational rabbis face this as few other professionals do. I feel for the rabbis who had to write their High Holiday sermons in the midst of what felt and feels like a national breakdown. Take a position on the only topic that their congregants seem to be talking about, and they face the wrath of those who disagree with them. They are told that politics has no place in the pulpit. But if they ignore the headlines, they signal that Judaism has nothing to say about the most important issues of the day, from immigration to climate change to poverty. They can quote Torah on justice and equality but God forbid they hint at the institutional or political approaches that can bring them about.
In addition, the burden of civility is “distributed in uneven terms,” as the writer Emma Goldberg pointed out in Haaretz. The powerful sometimes invoke “civility” to quash uncomfortable ideas, or to tarnish activists whose tactics they regard as rude or disruptive. Imagine any of the key social movements of the past 100 years — from the labor movement to feminism to civil rights — if their supporters had heeded the powerful’s calls for civility.
Civility works when both sides agree to play by the same rules. I can respectfully disagree with you, but will not attack your person or your motives. You will allow me the same space and opportunity to be heard, and if that is not practical or feasible you will find a way to note my dissent. I will argue in good faith — that is, I will be consistent in my principles no matter whose ox is being gored — and trust you to do the same.
The bad faith arguments in the current impeachment debate are as follows: Trump’s adversaries insist there is only one way to read the signals sent by the president and his team of diplomats and lawyers in their conversations with Ukrainian leadership. To his opponents, all those conversations and emails undeniably point to a quid pro quo, offering aid and other goodies in exchange for an investigation of the president’s chief political opponent. An inquiry is merely a formality, since the conclusion is already obvious.
The administration argues in bad faith when it says that the various conversations and emails in no way point to an abuse of power. Or that the role of the president is to root out corruption, and that it is only a coincidence that the only corruption probes he proposed would directly accrue to Trump’s personal and political benefit. These bad faith arguments accompany attempts to impugn the whistleblower, the CIA, and the FBI — undermining faith in constitutional protocols and institutions. And Trump can’t resist personally attacking his adversaries, from “Shifty” Adam Schiff to “Sleepy” Joe Biden to “Nervous” Nancy Pelosi.
And perhaps the baddest of the bad faith arguments are the ones that try to normalize behavior that is anything but normal. Former high administration officials were unanimous in telling The New York Times that they would not have enlisted help from a foreign power for their boss’ political advantage. Rudy Giuliani’s blurring of the lines between personal lawyer, campaign operative, and freelance diplomat is not standard operating procedure. And Trump’s refusal to acknowledge that Russians interfered in our elections and will try again, or that there is really anything wrong with seeking such interference, is not business as usual.
That doesn’t mean Trump should be impeached, or, if impeached, that he should be convicted and removed. That’s a political call. But the process should be allowed to play out, so that either Congress or voters have all the information they need to decide his fate, in November 2020 or sooner.
Jewish tradition says there are “arguments for the sake of heaven” and “arguments that are not for the sake of heaven.” What’s the difference? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that the civil debate is the one in which we argue not of cantankerousness or a base desire to prevail, but “out of a desire to discover the truth.”
Wherever we fall on the impeachment question, we should all be able to discuss it without fear that we will be called uncivil, or hopelessly biased, or shifty. It’s not the position you take on an issue that tests your civility — it is how you weigh the evidence and how you treat your adversary.
Civility doesn’t mean you are being nice, or agree to disagree. It means you and our adversaries are more like partners, working together to find out what’s true, and what isn’t.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor in chief of The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. He served as NJJN editor for 13 years.