The Religious Case for Less Civility and More Passion
by Rabbi Eric Yoffie
Originally posted in The Huffington Post
All this talk about civility is beginning to make me uncomfortable.Civility refers to courteous and polite behavior. But courteous andpolite behavior is not, in and of itself, a religious value. At times,it is to be subordinated to other, more important values.
When instructing the prophet Isaiah about how he is to confront thosewho oppress others, God’s instructions are as follows: “Cry with fullthroat, without restraint; raise your voice like a ram’s horn!” (Isaiah58:1). There is no suggestion here that Isaiah should be civil. What iscalled for is exactly the opposite: casting civility aside and speakingout with passion, power, and “without restraint” against those who causeor ignore suffering.
Like everyone else in America, I was appalled by the shooting inArizona, and the religious organization that I serve condemned those whouse ugly and violent rhetoric to create an atmosphere of hatred. But inthe aftermath of this terrible incident, it seems to me that theenduring emphasis on civility is misplaced. It has become an end untoitself, distorting the norms of democratic debate and distracting usfrom matters of more fundamental consequence.
In the year ahead, for example, America will continue the discussionon whether all of our citizens are to be granted, as a matter of right,access to a reasonable level of health care. The leading voices of talkradio will not be constrained by considerations of civility; neitherwill those who remain indifferent to the plight of the uninsured orwhose concern is the protection of privilege. When the case is made forassuring that health insurance is extended to every American, I want itto be made with conviction and “without restraint.”
Such is the American way. Our political system is constructed on theassumption that it will involve an intense exchange of political views.And as a religious liberal, I attach special importance to impassioneddebate. Precisely because I am a religious liberal, I know that I aminclined — as are others who share my religious outlook — to avoidabsolutes, to reject fundamentalism in all its forms, to be open tosubtlety and nuance and to see the other side of issues. These aregenerally good things, but they can also mean that when I advocate forwhat I believe, I do so in a tepid way. The challenge for religiousliberals is to argue passionately for their beliefs, even as theyrecognize that they might not always be right. It is to be certain, butnot about everything. It is to champion their values with conviction,even as they know that good people may have conflicting values on thesame matter.
I do not suggest, of course, that “anything goes.” Even if civilityalone is not a supreme value, other limitations are suggested in ourreligious tradition. It states in Leviticus 19:17 that “you shallsurely rebuke your neighbor.” This passage and others give rise to anextended rabbinic discussion on the nature of disparaging speech (lashonha-ra). While affirming the necessity of rebuke, the rabbis declarethat personal attacks are always forbidden, even when these attacks maybe objectively true. This is a valuable insight. As we givefull-throated expression to the values that we cherish, we should arguefor principle and avoid personal attack. As we articulate our beliefswith conviction and intensity, we should treat our opponents withrespect and as children of God. And we must never, ever incite othersto violence.
Still, as others fight for their view of justice, we must fight forour own — with, I suggest, a little less civility and a lot morepassion.