Jonathan Freirich
Listener, learner, thinker - leading to better actions.

Let’s Agree About Something

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”[1]

[Amendment I, the United States Constitution]

The American Constitution does not guarantee Americans the right to say whatever we want.

The First Amendment is about the laws that Congress may not make, and therefore what laws it can make, not what is reasonable, or even recommended, or even allowable for people to do on our own in our lives.

We do not learn how to be responsible citizens from the legal framework designed for our country. We learn how to be good citizens in the day-to-day interactions among the people around us, forming the very fabric of our own lives and the lives of our communities. And we do this with a whole host of unwritten customs that many of us buy into collectively. An agreement about how to be a person, even a citizen in public.

Society, usually defined as an organized group of people, is not a free-for-all. When we allow it to devolve into a “everyone can say whatever they want because it is their absolute right”, we become uncivil and head down the road to an acceptance of everyday interpersonal violence as a norm, something we see being advocated on mainstream news outlets regularly right now.[2]

Even individual relationships require us to think before we speak. In the most intimate spaces in our lives, with the people we care about most, we self-govern what we say through the lens of caring and compassion for those around us. We have strong agreements between ourselves in our households to maintain the highest standards of civility as a way of expressing closeness and love. If we accept that being kind to our parents, partners, children, and others we live with, means thoughtfully expressing ourselves to them, then how can we possibly accept that the public square, whether in person, in the workplace, in the media, or on-line, should be an unregulated forum of “say whatever your feel”?

What we apply to those closest to us, a high standard for sure, should also serve as a model by which we interact with people whom we have yet to meet or who know us far less well, who have less reason than our closest associates to be understanding of us. People we haven’t yet met, or have just met, participate in an unspoken social agreement. That agreement includes some things that are dictated by laws – it is illegal to assault the person that we have just met. Some parts of the agreement are dictated by our common understanding of decent participation in society – we generally don’t insult someone we’ve just met even though we are legally free to do so. Polite society’s demise has been lamented at least since the 1960’s so this is nothing new.[3] Still, it seems like we could use a bit of a refresher in how to relate to people in a civil, if not entirely “polite”, manner.

Recently, the entirely unreasonable question of “Is one allowed to publicly call for the extermination of another people?” made it into the public debate in front of Congress. The idea that “calls for violent destruction of anyone” are protected speech not only flies in the face of common sense, but also goes against proven and tested principles of American and international law that identify incitement as a necessary part of the violence that leads to genocide for which the speaker is responsible even when they never lifted a weapon or hurt anyone with their own hands.[4] Words lead to actions and create situations for which the speaker is responsible.

Let’s call for new thinking about how we communicate and behave in public.

We cannot hearken back to some time when “we got it right”. There is no golden age in past social norms and mores. Most of these were customs and manners imposed by the powerful few as a way of excluding the majority from access to the conversations that determined the course of our society. The loss of “polite society” can be seen as a loss only to the sensibilities of those with the most advantages. Furthermore, when issues became sufficiently substantive, words were abandoned for violence, even on the floor of our United States Congress in the decade leading up to the Civil War.[5]

We need to be explicit about a system of responsibilities and rights about discourse. Some people call it a “public ethics”[6] and that might be a path forward. Others convene regular meetings about citizenship to create a broader conversation about American civic identity[7], or gather around “service, leadership, and civics” to forge real connections and make substantive impacts.[8] We are in a clear crisis as an American Society, wherein the public portrayal of our divisions is regularly weaponized in political spheres. We must counter this with a broad-based movement held together by ever-strengthening strands of interpersonal discourse and connection. We need to reassert a common agreement about our responsibilities to one another, even the most basic ones about how we interact.

We will start local conversations and begin by building trust between all who participate.

When we have shown one another that we have the basics of mutual respect, we will begin to discuss anything that people regard as a “hard conversation”. Those things that we don’t talk about but impact us powerfully, like loss and grief, or religion and politics, or all the other things that we avoid for the sake of discomfort. We invite you to join us from wherever you are for our regular discussions on Zoom or in person. Once we convene and build bridges among those who attend, then will decide what we do next. The good ideas about making a difference must come from all of us working together.

Good relationships form the core of all healthy societies, and we must begin to build and share them again, within, between, and beyond our households and comfortable community settings. The American Experiment, and the future of civilization in the world, needs our dedication and participation. We get to decide what comes next, but only if we work on it together.

If you’re interested in helping build a better society for us all, please be in touch:

[1] The Bill of Rights: A transcription. (2023, April 21). National Archives.

[2] Sadowski, A., & Lee, J. (2024, February 8). Fox News praises vigilante group for a takedown of migrant “shoplifter.” Law enforcement say the man was neither a shoplifter nor a recent migrant. Media Matters for America.

[3] Fulford, R., Muggeridge, M., Mailer, N., & McLuhan, M. (1968). The end of polite society. The Marshall McLuhan Speaks Special Collection.

[4] Benesch, S. (2004). Inciting genocide, pleading free speech. World Policy Journal, 21(2), 62-69.

[5] Pusey, A. (2018). Abolitionist Beaten Senseless on Senate Floor. ABA Journal, 104(5), 72.

[6] Stensöta, H. O. (2015). Public ethics of care—A General Public ethics. Ethics and Social Welfare, 9(2), 183-200.

[7] Our core beliefs ⋆ Citizen University. (2023, May 19). Citizen University.

[8] Cathcart, G. (2023, August 3). ‘Will you help me build this?’: MPU executive director shares how the movement is working. + More Perfect Union.

About the Author
Rabbi Jonathan Freirich, a Reconstructionist and Reform rabbi, with training in public policy and community organizing, originally from New York City, now coalition-builds, facilitates, listens, learns, and writes in Buffalo, New York. Dedicated to compassion and cooperation, thoughtfulness and thinking, and effective collaborative actions, Jonathan aims to contribute to a better connected, more peaceful, and more sustainable world.
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