The Perilous Decline of Civil Discourse Into Verbal Abuse

As politicians vie with each other to dredge up old sins and hurl insults, we’re reminded that the election season is again in full swing.

It is discomforting to witness the spectacle of our country’s leadership engaging in personal attacks, scurrilous claims and name-calling. Images of mental illness, fatal character flaws, emotional instability, temper-tantrums and the need for intervention are casually invoked. Who would have thought that calling someone a mess, flipped, dumb or crazy was acceptable?

Not content with how low the political discourse has sunk, the gleeful media also joyfully joins in the melee. It is appalling to hear seemingly expert pundits weigh in and excitedly give credence to the posturing by one side or the other on the political divide. Don’t they realize that the barrage of mutual verbal abuse is often just a pretense to avoid having to face issues of real concern to the electorate? Recently, this kind of abusive language was used, by the erstwhile interlocutors, to justify aborting an important meeting, scheduled to discuss weighty issues of national import. It appears it is easier to make sport of the other side than actually take a position or grant the hard concessions needed to achieve genuine compromise.

There is no justification for calling one another names or insulting each other. Besides being reprehensible, it’s also not an effective means of communication. While there may be some, on the fringes of the right and left, who might enjoy the virtual war of words and cheer it on like a sporting event, it is respectfully suggested that it is repugnant to most of the American electorate. Indeed, most of us desire our elected leaders to work together and solve problems. This requires quiet, reasoned and nuanced discussion, as well as, earnest compromise; not grandstanding and pontificating.

Unfortunately, these kinds of antics are also infecting what used to be polite conversation and civil discourse, among family, friends and neighbors. Qualities like sagacity, discernment, listening, understanding and graciousness, once so admired, seem to be very rare commodities. When did it become virtuous to shout down opposing opinions as suspect or evil, instead of engaging in respectful conversation?

What happened to the people we used to adoringly refer to as serious or refined? They eschewed pomposity and bombast and instead were circumspect and reserved. Understatement and subtly of expression were their stock in trade, as were precise and thoughtful answers to questions, including humbly admitting when they did not know or were in error. Has deflecting, changing the subject and forcefully parroting talking points become an acceptable way to discuss a matter? When did the use of demeaning metaphors or terms, such as denouncing a stated position as ‘red meat for the base’ or ‘a dog whistle’, become so prevalent? Does anyone really believe that those supporting a particular candidate are ravenous animals or dogs, instead of human beings? Why not have vigorous debates of ideas, without demonizing the advocates or their supporters?

I also don’t recollect people regularly and overtly insulting each other or casually employing obscenities, until recent times. While there may have sometimes been someone in the crowd who might mouth off, even if only for shock value, this was not a pervasive practice.

It appears like television and the Internet have so infected our consciousness that ordinary life is conducted as if it were a series of scenes in a reality show. Shouting provocative slogans without qualification or reasoned analysis, instead of measured and nuanced discussion, seem to be the rigour. Are we all running for election or contestants in some vast game? Why the need for this oppressive atmosphere?

Most people just want to hear open, respectful and responsible discussion of issues that matter to them. They find verbal abuse jarring and offensive. Must ideologues, who can’t adequately explain or defend their extreme positions, attack the virtue of those differing with them? Frankly, if they can’t convince others of the righteousness of their cause, with well-reasoned, evidence-based and sound arguments, then they have failed. Indeed, they might better re-examine the validity of their own positions than attempt to bully others by attempting publicly to shame them into submission.

The hyperbolic atmosphere is unnerving and makes many yearn for the more idyllic and less rancorous times of not so long ago. I remember well the lesson my mom taught us about how we must be careful with our words. She would invoke the Yiddish proverb that ‘a pattch vageiyt ober a vort steiyt’. It means the sting of a slap dissipates but the hurt of a word remains. She wanted us to be refined individuals, who understood that words could hurt and the pain was lasting. My dad, of blessed memory, a man of few words and great wisdom would counsel, you never regret what you didn’t say.

It is wrong to insult or otherwise verbally abuse a person. This ethic is ancient in origin and it traces back to the Bible. The Mishna[i] reports the Bible’s prohibition[ii] against exploiting someone else applies not only to monetary matters, but also to verbal mistreatment. This includes reminding a penitent of his or her earlier deeds. It even extends to telling someone suffering from an illness or affliction that it is a result of his or her own folly or some misdeed[iii]. Intentionally embarrassing someone by using a nickname is also proscribed[iv].

The Talmud[v] stresses how sensitive a person must be to avoid the prohibition. Thus, even using the word ‘hang’ in an instruction to hang a fish is inappropriate, when the directive is issued to a member of a family that experienced the hanging of an ancestor for a crime. This is because it might be demeaning.

Preserving human dignity is so important that it even overrides a Rabbinic decree[vi].

The martial like metaphors used in the Talmud[vii] to describe the debating process among scholars did not mean those figuratively sparring about a subject did not listen with acuity to each other’s positions. Indeed, as the Talmud[viii] declares, Beit Hillel would study its own, as well as, Beit Shammai’s opinions and always presented Beit Shammai’s position first, before arguing their own point of view. Resh Lakish also noted[ix] when two scholars listen or amiably defer to one another in their discussions of Jewish Law, G-d listens to them. However, if they don’t listen to each other, then the Divine Presence departs.

These are beautiful sentiments; yet, who doesn’t remember their own school days and how cruel classmates might be to each other? What about the nicknames, which were less than endearing when they were first uttered? Some may view them nostalgically, but it is doubtful those who had to bear them would agree. How about the way a teacher could make a student suffer by insulting their intelligence, demeanor or devotion to learning if they dared disagree with the teacher’s opinion on a subject[x]? Sometimes, it might just be a sarcastic remark or caustic expression of disappointment; but it was rarely subtle. Some students put on a brave face, but it was, nevertheless, a painful experience.

Then again, there were also inspirational teachers, who rarely raised their voices. Their approach was not to demean a student for holding an unpopular opinion. Instead, they urged us to use our G-d given skills to marshal facts, primary sources and arguments to make excellent presentations, even if they disagreed with the positions taken. Class debates were scheduled and they encouraged us to understand all sides of an issue so as to be well prepared for any argument that might be asserted. Sometimes they even turned the tables on us and made us argue the opposing point of view, with the same energy and intensity, as if it were our own. The process taught us invaluable lessons about nuanced discussion of complex issues. We were challenged to recognize how diverse the range of legitimate points of views could be and to respect those credibly espousing opposing positions. We were not rebuked for arguing an unpopular position well; instead, we were praised for properly elucidating the issues and the effect was ennobling.

The entire matter of rebuke is taken up in the Talmud[xi]. While, the Bible[xii] requires a person to reprove another for their misdeeds, upon reflection as to its efficacy, the Talmud takes a different tack. Thus, it notes there is a duty to withhold reproof when it’s likely not to be heeded. The Sifra[xiii] reports, even in Talmudic times, no one was genuinely capable of properly rebuking another nor was anyone truly able to accept rebuke. It was just not effective and even the skill to word it properly was lacking. There is often no way of anticipating the devastating effect a casually uttered remark might have on any particular individual. Some people are more vulnerable than others. Hence, it is better to refrain from making insulting remarks about anyone. This is the paradigm stressed by the Talmud[xiv], which excoriates any person who publically embarrasses another and describes all sorts of dire consequences for violating the prohibition.

The Talmudic model of sensitivity and the appropriate manner of communicating with one another should inform our modern discourse. It’s time to take back control of the way we talk. Let’s all refrain from using rebuke, insults or hurtful words. Graciously listening and discussing ideas respectfully, without personal disparagement, should be the way we engage with each other. Don’t let words get in the way of our enjoying the blessings of peace together.

[i] Mishna, Tractate Bava Metzia 4:10 and Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, at page 58b.

[ii] Leviticus 25:17.

[iii] Sifra, Behar, Chapter 42.

[iv] Tur, Choshen Mishpat 228. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tracate Bava Metzia, at page 58b.

[v] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Metzia, at page 59b. See also Shnei Luchot HaBrit (Shelah), Torah Shbichtav, Sefer VaYikra, Torah Ohr, Kedoshim 57.

[vi] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, at page 19b.

[vii] See, for example, Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Brachot, at page 27b and Kiddushin, at page 30b.

[viii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin, at page 13b.

[ix] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, at page 63a.

[x] Students must be respected by the teacher and, of course, vice versa (Avot 4:12) and each can learn from the other (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit, at page 7a). Patience and silence are attitudes to be cultivated. As Avot (2:5) notes, a person who is impatient or a stickler cannot teach.

[xi] See, for example, Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yevamot, at page 65b.

[xii] Leviticus 19:17.

[xiii] Sifra 89a-b. See also Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Arakhin, at page 16b.

[xiv] Babylonian Talmud. Tractate Bava Metzia, at page 59a.

About the Author
Leonard Grunstein, a retired attorney and banker, founded and served as Chairman of Metropolitan National Bank and then Israel Discount Bank of NY. He also founded Project Ezrah and serves on the Board of Revel at Yeshiva University and the AIPAC National Council. He has published articles in the Banking Law Journal, Real Estate Finance Journal and other fine publications.
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