Standing up for what is right

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In October, I wrote a blog, Masking Truth, about the consequences of living in a Post-Truth world. At that time I was focusing on COVID-19 and the fact that millions of Americans were not following the scientific protocols established by the medical community with tragic results. The pandemic rages on, but is currently overshadowed by the ongoing political crisis in Washington D.C. It is hard to imagine another point in our history where 375,000 virus-related deaths in a year could have occurred without deafening outrage. 

Instead, our attention is completely consumed with the actions that played out on our televisions last week at the Capitol Building. This event is yet another tragic example of the inevitable consequences of living in a post-truth world.   

As a parent and grandparent first, an educator, and a Head of School, I deeply believe that I not only have a responsibility to engage in teaching the power of truth but also to serve as a role model of what it means to speak truth to power. I have a moral responsibility to reach out not only to my school Kehillah (community) but also beyond, and express my profound hope that a school like ours can lead the way by teaching integrity, honesty and critical thinking in an effort to reclaim the essential place of truth in our communities and in our democracy. We lose our ethical footing when we allow our beliefs and biases to blind us. We must grapple with the uncomfortable reality that alternative facts do exist and that there are psychological reasons for this. To learn more, read, “Why We Believe in Alternative Facts,” by Kirsten Weir, in the American Psychological Association.

The incident at the Capitol Building was precipitated by the relentless accusation that the Presidential election was stolen. This lie began long before the actual 2020 Election even took place. In every 2016 primary election that President Trump lost, he always charged fraud as the reason for the loss. Even when he ultimately won the presidency, he still claimed voter fraud prevented him from getting more votes, and in the months before the 2020 Election, he planted the seeds of fraud, stating that if he lost, the only reason would be fraud. In America, we have a system in place to resolve disputes when questions arise over facts and truth through our courts. 62 lawsuits were filed challenging the 2020 election and 61 failed. The decisions were made by Federal judges appointed by Republican Presidents and Democratic Presidents, including judges appointed by Trump himself.  Whether you agree or not, our democratic system provided the remedy and the bi-partisan courts decided there was no evidence of fraud and repeated calls for the presentation of evidence yielded nothing substantive. 

I realize that some will accuse me of being political and overstepping my place, but these facts lead us to the truth of January 6th, 2021. Senator Lindsay Graham, from the Senate floor, not only acknowledged there was no widespread voter fraud that would have thrown the election, but he spoke of the importance of honoring the decisions of the court, whether we agree or not. As the perpetrators chanted “Stop the Steal,” they broke into the Capitol Building and threatened our elected officials who were in the process of certifying the election, causing significant physical and emotional damage along the way. Based on the wording of the statute concerning seditious conspiracy, there is no doubt that some will be charged with sedition. Whatever the reasons and motives, it is clear that those who chose to attempt to overrun the Capitol Building were focused on their own set of facts and their biases led to the violence aimed at one of the most iconic symbols of our democracy.

Last week I met with middle school students at my school and asked them to consider the differences between truth, lies, and opinions.  I explained that while opinions can be important as they help individuals to formulate judgments and viewpoints, they tend to be statements that are not conclusive. True statements are based on evidence and facts and can usually be proven in some form. Lies are false statements. While everyone is entitled to their opinions, it does not mean every opinion is right. In order for democracies and civil societies to survive, there must be ethical guardrails that lead citizens to follow rules and standards that are generally intended towards the common good. A common conception of what is right and good underpins these ethical guardrails.

As a country we have learned more than once over the past several years how easily these guardrails can be breached — and that sometimes, they are not even commonly understood across our society. We are shaped by our own experiences and biases, which can be drastically different. These experiences and biases are foundational to what people choose to believe and what they do as a result. Therefore, we must acknowledge that arriving at a common truth is more complicated than we would like to admit. 

Once we understand how powerfully our bias influences our perceptions we can begin the journey of uncovering truth by accounting for our biases. This of course requires critical thinking and analysis, open-mindedness, a search for evidence, and a willingness to be wrong. 

In teaching our children about truth, we must help them to understand and recognize how biases can color reality.  As a Jewish Day School leader, I believe we must, with great clarity, also stress the vital importance our tradition places on truth and seeking truth. In Talmud, Masechet Shabbat 55a we learn: “Truth is the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He.” In the Book of Shemot we learn: “Distance yourself from a false matter (falsehood)” 23:7, and in Shemot 34:6-7, we learn of God’s attributes which includes being the “God of truth.” 

On Monday, January 18, we honor the memory and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  He had the courage to speak truth to power. He had the courage to stand up for what was right and for justice and equality against the will of millions who believed otherwise.  In a speech that he gave on April 28, 1967 when he decided to oppose the Vietnam War he said, “No matter where it leads, no matter what abuses it may bring, I’m gonna tell the truth.”  

For the sake of our society and our democracy, it is incumbent upon all of us to respect the decisions of the courts, and the certifications of every state whether we are happy with the outcome of the Presidential Election or not. No matter where it leads, no matter the criticism we may face, this is the time to stand up for what’s right, parents, educators, and clergy — to model for our children that words and actions matter — and to teach the lessons necessary so our children will grow to become the protectors of the guardrails that defend our democracy and our society. That is how we protect our guardrails. We all should be vocal and teach our children. 

I cannot be silent during this critical time in our history. I need only to invoke Elie Wiesel for the sake of my children and grandchildren,  and for your children,  grandchildren: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

About the Author
Steve is Head of School at a Jewish day school and has served as a Head of School for over 18 years. He also served as a Congregational Education Director. Steve has taught and mentored new educational leaders, has led sessions on leadership and change at Jewish Educational Conferences, and at Independent School Conferences.
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