I have yet to meet my first person who does not say that we live in terribly polarized times, and that something definitely needs to be done. I can count on one hand the number of people I have met who believe that the solution lies, in part, with one’s own side.
I am reading a column in the Denver Post, reprinted from The New York Times, by the liberal columnist Paul Krugman. The column is about the debt ceiling. Toward the beginning of the column, I run across this sentence: “I hope that I’m wrong about this — that President Joe Biden will, at the last minute unveil an effective counter to GOP blackmail.” Not: GOP policy. Not: GOP strategy. Not: the GOP view on government spending. But: “GOP blackmail.”
This is how we talk about each other.
I am reading an advertisement in a Jewish newspaper by a Jewish group in advance of last November’s New York state gubernatorial election.
Incumbent Kathy Hochul, Democrat, was challenged by Lee Zeldin, Republican.
The advertisement urged voters to reject Hochul and elect Zeldin. I could not miss this one word, in bold type, that said why one should not vote for Hochul. She is “EVIL.” Not: wrong. Not: against Jewish interests. Not: an ineffective governor. But: “EVIL.”
This is how we talk about each other.
Mr. Krugman is identified as a “distinguished professor and scholar at the City University of New York.” Does the distinguished professor teach that in the American political system today, on the one side, there are those whose position is principled, namely, being “terrified of the consequence of default” (as Krugman said of Biden), and, on the other side, there are those whose position is “blackmail?” If he does teach this way, then you get a glimpse of higher education today, at least in one classroom at CUNY.
The organization that published the anti-Hochul advertisement was, perhaps, a fringe group. I don’t know. But I do know that the Jewish newspaper in which the advertisement was published has a great reputation and a great readership. When I read in this newspaper that it deems it OK to publish political advertisements that stoop to calling political opponents “evil,” I cringed. You can see how corrupted the discourse has become even in instruments that pride themselves on upholding authentic Jewish values.
This is how we talk about each other today: “blackmail,” “evil.” No doubt the reader can fill in a slew of other terms that once were unacceptable in public discourse but today have become commonplace.
I imagine that if I were to ask Prof. Krugman whether the US is endangered by the depth of the political polarization today, he would say yes. I imagine that if I were to ask him who is responsible, he would not include himself. I imagine that if I were to ask the authors and the publishers of the advertisement, I would get the same answers.
Who is ultimately responsible for this state of affairs? Is it leaders who speak in unspeakable ways? Or is it the listeners who elect the leaders? Is it good people who are so turned off by the current language of debate that they do not run for office? Is it the publications who convey all this ugly language with nary an attempt to quote or publish somebody else on the same side who makes his points civilly?
I had occasion to read last January a rebuttal to a piece that had been published sometime before. I thought the rebuttal was excellent on the merits. I also thought the rebuttal was ineffective, not likely to convince a single reader who thought highly of the original piece. The author, a friend, was puzzled. How could a rebuttal be right but ineffective? I told the author: “The adjective and the adverb are the enemy of persuasion.” It is one thing to say that an author’s point was “off the mark.” It is quite another to say that it is “so totally off the mark that it’s ridiculous.” Strictly on the merits, the point is the same whether it is expressed plainly or embellished with an adverb or adjective. The point is wrong — but as far as being persuasive, the adverb — “totally” — and the adjective “ridiculous” — will persuade no one who isn’t already persuaded.
This is the bottom line today. Who is ultimately responsible for the current state of discourse? It is those who only reads or publishes what he or she agrees with and only talks to people with whom he or she agrees and who talks about those with whom he or she disagrees in over-the-top language that, it is assumed, one’s discussant will surely support, because, after all, one talks only to people who one agrees with.
Perhaps the most meaningless yet most pervasive pejorative parading as a descriptive today is “extremist.”
No doubt, there are extremists. Perhaps the least effective way of countering what they think and do is to call them or those who agree with them .” The art of rhetoric used to be geared toward teaching people how to win a debate. Today, the agenda all too often is to not acknowledge the importance of debate at all.
The Torah urges us, “Live by them!” Our language today is not a prescription for life.