William Hamilton

Spaciousness: A way back from the brink

Staying informed isn’t helping bridge our ideological divides. It’s actually deepening them.  Those who follow the News misperceive the views of those with whom they disagree three times as much as those who don’t.

A fresh study shows how opponents caricature each other in ways that vastly overstate differences.  Democrats estimate that no more than half of Republicans recognize “racism still exists in America.”  In reality its 80%.  Republicans perceive that no more than half of Democrats are “proud to be American.” The actual percentage exceeds 80%.

Education? It can actually worsen the perception gap.  Democrats with a High School degree misperceive more than those who lack one.  Democrats who went to college misperceive more than those who didn’t.  And those with post-graduate degrees have vastly more skewed views of Republicans than anybody else.  But “Americans who rarely or never follow the news are surprisingly good at estimating the views of people with whom they disagree” observes Yascha Mounk. “On average, they misjudge the preferences of political adversaries by less than 10 percent.”

A better way forward is not to become unlettered or uninformed.  Rather, it may be to become more spacious in our approach to learning and listening.  Rather than condescending to those who live beyond the reach of “the informed”, those who abide in our nation’s heartland may yet be key in walking us back from the brink.  They are no more stereotypical than we are.  And we would do well to make room for their normal nobility and spacious spirits.

This week’s portion of Torah points to a way forward.  The Children of Israel experience ‘shortness of spirit’ (tikzor nefesh ha-am) (Num. 21:4).  What follows short-spiritedness?  Expanse.  The balance of the portion finds the People covering more ground than they do anywhere else in the Torah.  Spaciousness acknowledges the reality that we make mistakes in judgement.  This week the IDF, for example, admitted mistakingly killing a Hamas Officer on the Gaza Boarder within hours of the accident.

Our discourse is nearing complete meltdown. The Holocaust continues to be trifled with.  It has recently been a reference point for multi-faith American Jewish homes and for blurring the distinction between Detention Camps and Death Camps.  A current google search of “Gaza Auschwitz” yields more than two million hits.  Global divisions are deepening at dizzying rates.  We need ways forward that are, at once, forceful and leave space for those who earn influence but lie beyond our truncated horizon.

Given how few times we are precisely right and how many are beyond our reach, it behooves us to bring measures of humility to our assertions.  This doesn’t mean we feel less fiercely.  Rather it recognizes that less contact with others will continue to impair our effectiveness.  May the Torah’s passages this week that cover more time (38 years) and more terrain than any other, encourage more expansive minds.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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