Philip Goldwasser
Philip Goldwasser

Be Nice!

As we get closer to the November general election, I am starting to wonder about a rather large question.  When, as a community, did we forget how to be nice?  It is a simple question, with very complicated and wide ranging answers.  When did we forget how to be nice?  I find myself asking this question, and others like it, as I read through my friends posts on Facebook, as I watch new programs on TV, and even as I engage in conversations with friends in public spaces.  When did we forget how to be nice?

To start tackling this question I think we need to first ask “About what are we not being nice?”  This question is a little easier to answer.  Since I only seem to consider this question around our national general election, I think I can safely say that we are not being nice about the people who are running for office, particularly those running for President of the United Sates.  I know that during the rest of the time, please are often not nice when referring to the sitting President of the United Sates, and for my purposes it is the same thing.  Any other examples of people “not being nice” may be similar, or may not.  For the purposes of this blog post, I am limiting myself to “not being nice” to candidates for the Presidency and sitting Presidents of the US.

So now, if we have a subject, we can ask a more directed question.  “When did we forget to be nice about people running for President?”  To be fair, with the emergence of a two-party partisan political system in the 1800s each party has always been upset with the other.  Often so much so that members of one party would take to the newspapers and other forums to bad mouth the members of the other party, especially the President.  For over two hundred years our country has continued in this manner.   Federalists and later the Whigs hated the Democrats and vice versa.  Democrats hated Woodrow Wilson.  Republicans hated FDR, and on and on.  People would write editorials and other opinion pieces; however, it was a much more civil discourse.  There was a level of civility that we seem to be lacking today.

I think there has been a change in the past decade or two, and it has not been for the better.   Today it is impossible to read through your Facebook feed without seeing postings eviscerating one candidate or the other.  Even more troubling is seeing reports of violence after political rallies throughout the country.  This is taking partisan politics to a whole new level.  When one candidate for President can be seen as possibly suggesting the assassination of the other candidate, I think it is clear that we have gone too far (I am trying to be as non-partisan as I can in this posting, so I am not suggesting that one candidate DID condone assassination, but I am suggesting that many people BELIEVE that is what happened).

So what has changed, and why do I think it is such a problem?

As to what has changed, I think with the advent of the Internet and Facebook, it has become increasingly easy for people to get their opinions out there.  Before there was an Internet, Americans got their news from publications such as Newspapers and Magazines, and from the Radio and TV news programs.  We got our information from a select group of journalists and personalities.  And while they were clearly too, the actual words and language they used was more polite.  Certainly on the Radio and TV, with censors, you would not often hear someone swearing at another person or calling anyone nasty names.  To be sure, in public conversations, I am sure that many heated arguments occurred between friends of differing political beliefs, but for the most part things were more civil.

With Facebook, we can write something with a level a pseudo-anonymity with little worry about the results.  I have seen people call others nasty names on Facebook, when, if face to face with that person they would never consider using those words.  In fact, if I were to scroll down my Facebook feed right now, I would wager that I might find more foul language than I might hear in an R-rated movie!  Don’t get me wrong, I like Facebook, but I think it makes it much too easy to forget to be nice.

Why is this a problem?  One could posit that if people are comfortable enough with writing this, then it is becoming more acceptable.   How about the my old favorite?  If I do not want to read it, then don’t go on Facebook, or don’t follow the people who are making such posts.  Well, I like Facebook as I said, and if I had to un-follow everyone who swore on Facebook, I would probably have few posts left in my feed!

Judaism gives us the answer, and although a simple answer, I understand it is not so easy to implement.  The simple answer is don’t say negative things!  Be nice to people!  Of course the simplest ideas are always the hardest to do.  I know that if I want to lose weight, I should eat less.  Pretty simple.  Just not so simple to do!

מִי הָאִישׁ הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים אֹהֵב יָמִים לִרְאוֹת טוֹב: נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה: סוּר מֵרָע וַעֲשֵׂה טוֹב בַּקֵּשׁ שָׁלוֹם וְרָדְפֵהוּ:  תהלים לד:יג-טו

Who is the man who desires life, who loves days in which we find goodness?  Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceitfully.  Shun evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.  Psalms 34:13-15

The great ethicist, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagen (1839-1933) spent much of his life writing about the evils of Lashon HaRah and other forms of using words for bad purposes.  One of his well-known books was called Hafetz Haim, and he later became known by the name of his book.  This book was about the laws pertaining to Lashon HaRah.  His next book was called Shmirat HaLashon, a philosophical work on the same topic.  He taught that it was important to be careful in the way we use our language because it was so easy to harm another through its improper use.  The ability to speak is perhaps our most powerful tool and the easiest to misuse.

Lashon HaRah actually refers to statements that are negative about another person, not previously known to the public and are true.  So by this definition, much of what we hear about politicians does not classify technically as Lashon HaRah because most of it is already in the public domain.  In order to be Lashon HaRah, you need to say something that is not known by most people.  The Hafetz Haim suggested that even if it is not truly Lashon HaRah, that we should still avoid saying it.  His reasoning was the typical Rabbinic response, to keep one from saying actual Lashon Harah.  I would take it a step further though, and say that we should not say it because even though it is public knowledge, it is still hurtful to others.  “Don’t do unto others what you would not have them do to you” is a very important statement.  If you want to post something on Facebook about a Presidential Candidate, take a moment to think if you would want someone writing that same posting about you.  If the answer is no, then don’t post it.  We teach our children that if you do not have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything.  Perhaps we adults need to listen to this as well.

I had a conversation with someone not too long ago (on Facebook of course) about calling someone a nasty name.  I asked him if he would be happy if his children came home calling other people this name.  His response actually shocked me.  He said that if the other person were threatening his child, then yes, he would be fine with his child calling the other person nasty names.  With this I knew that we have hit rock bottom.  It is time for us to re-learn how to be nice.   Before you write something on the internet, take a moment to think about your words.  When talking with friends about others, take a moment to consider your words.  And when speaking in public, choose your words carefully.  Remember that once you say something in public, or write it on the internet, you cannot take it back.   If we can do this, perhaps our world will become a better place to be.

About the Author
Phil Goldwasser served on the board of directors of his synagogue, The Highland Park Conservative Temple - Congregation Anshe Emeth in Highland Park NJ, and chairs the youth committee. He holds a masters degree from JTS. For close to 20 years he was involved with USY as a USYer and staff member. Having conquered being a parent of USYers, he and his wife Marsha have returned to staffing USY.