Hate speech: Words have consequences

When do we leave the realm of politics and enter into the bigger world that surrounds it? The world where words matter, where decency matters, where name-calling is relegated to schoolyards and incitement to violence is seen not as funny or dismissed as incoherent but treated as the genuine threat it presents to the civilized world?

This election season has surfaced extraordinary slag heaps of ugliness. The idea that the way to make a political argument is not by laying out facts, making a logical argument, yes, appealing to emotion, but weaving emotion in with philosophy, but instead by spewing incoherent venom, is terrifying.

We are not discussing the content of the political argument, such as it is; instead, we are pointing out that one side is making political arguments, with which voters are free to disagree vociferously, and the other side is issuing vague threats, the more sinister for being incoherent.

Donald Trump’s rallies have been notable for their violence, and for the way the candidate has seemed to condone if not actively encourage it. That should make Jews uneasy. We’ve read about similar rallies before, and we’ve seen the old documentaries that show the rabid-looking mobs.

Think about Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous speech, which ends with these lines:

“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

That speech has been quoted so often that it seems hackneyed. Trite. Oh, not that one again. But yes, that one again, because it’s true, and because we must remember it. Sometimes words become clichés because they are so true, and because put together in that particular order they are so compelling, that there is no better way to say it.

We can think of no better way to make this argument.

But there is something else to remember as well. This week, Yuval Rabin, the son of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, murdered in 1994 after a campaign of vilification by his political opponents so foul that his opponents could justify his assassination, at least to themselves, wrote an op ed in USA Today.

“The social pact that democracies honor depends on words, not weapons, being used to debate issues,” Mr Rabin wrote. “It relies on the populace accepting the outcome of elections, as well as on the ability and willingness of government officials to compromise.

“But compromise becomes impossible when one’s political opponents are vilified. How can one enter into an agreement with a counterparty that is illegitimate, or worse?

“Some critics have called Trump a threat to American democracy. It is not my place to make this claim, and my purpose here is much more limited. But I have been touched by political violence, and I have witnessed the environment that led at least one person to believe such violence was called for.

“While I do not expect Trump to modify his behavior, it is incumbent on responsible members of his party to unmistakably condemn these remarks and clearly state that they are unacceptable.

“Trump’s words are not just words. They can sow the seeds for something much more sinister.”

Yuval Rabin knows from bitter experience what the results of such hate, and such hateful words, can be. We should learn from experience, so that we don’t have to learn from our own.

About the Author
Joanne is the editor of the Jewish Standard and lives in Manhattan with her husband and two dogs, so she has firsthand knowledge of two thriving and idiosyncratic Jewish communities. (Actually that's three communities, if you also count the dog people.)
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