Kinder, Gentler Discourse
Years ago, I heard two fifth graders speaking to each other, clearly parroting their parents’ views of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. One said in a dispassionate voice, “Don’t you know what the Palestinians are doing to the Israelis?” and the other responded, equally emotionless, “Don’t you know what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians?” Their conversation unfolded into a reasoned discussion. Would such a civil conversation be possible in today’s zeitgeist?
This question invites others. What does Judaism say about civil discourse, and what current issues are getting in the way? How can we tackle these issues so students learn to assert their own voices, while compassionately listening to opposing ones? How do we help them develop the ability to understand a position with which they vehemently disagree? Below, I offer sources and responses to these pressing questions.
Issue #1: Contemporary society demonstrates weak civil discourse skills.
The Babylonian Talmud (BT) Hagigah 16a lays out the need for multiple opinions. The Mishnah says, “Hillel and Menahem did not differ. Menahem went out, Shammai entered.” This demonstrates that a hevruta must offer different perspectives in order for people to hone their own ideas. Of course, too harsh a rhetoric between even close hevrutot can have disastrous results, as in the case of Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish (Bava Metzia 84a). Rabbi Yochanan shepherded Reish Lakish in his journey from being a brigand to becoming a great scholar. During a dispute, Rabbi Yochanan invoked Reish Lakish’s shady past, which upset Reish Lakish so much that he died. Subsequently, upon being unable to learn with Reish Lakish as his treasured hevruta partner, Rabbi Yochanan also died.
This story, probably apocryphal, illustrates potential negative effects from today’s general lack of civil discourse. Our language and that of our leaders has become coarse and vulgar, full of ad hominem attacks. This contributes to a lack of healthy communication, and it emboldens people to act on their worst inclinations, mirroring the trends in the larger society that is becoming coarser and crasser in speech.
Issue #2: People today often confuse philosophical debates with moral ones.
BT Eruvin 13b explains that for two and a half years Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel disputed the philosophical topic of whether or not it was best that people were created. Together, they ultimately decided it would have been better for the human race not to have been created. However, since humans do exist, they felt it was essential to examine our past deeds and future actions. Even with this debate raging for years, the Talmud tells us that each house married into families from the other house (BT Yevamot 14a). Although their debates carried numerous moral overtones, the discourse remained philosophical in nature with each side understanding the other, even when disagreeing with the conclusions.
Today there is often a perception that philosophical issues are the same as moral issues, resulting in the idea that someone who disagrees with us is ignorant, misinformed or worse, immoral. Shouldn’t we get back to the place in which two people can disagree on fundamental issues and still respect each other and their right to have differing perspectives?
Issue #3: Society’s current approaches to persuasion are imbalanced.
Society no longer follows Aristotle’s measured approach to the art of persuasion. He encouraged an equal use of ethos, ethical appeal to convince an audience of the author’s credibility or character; pathos, emotional appeal to persuade an audience by appealing to their emotions; and logos, appeal to logic to convince an audience by use of reason.
Pathos now takes the lead, followed closely by ethos. In many precincts, logos has completely fallen into disuse. We hear many arguments today based either on emotional appeals or on a cult of character following the proponent of a particular ideal. While using their hearts, people also need to use their heads to independently arrive at conclusions about their own beliefs and values.
Issue #4: Facts are harder to discern than ever before.
Rabbi Moses Feinstein, in his introduction to his books of responsa, Igrot Moshe, says that one of our tasks on earth is to approximate the truth as closely as we can, while understanding that only the Master of Truth can fully embrace it.
This is perhaps the thorniest issue. The proliferation of information in this technological age has made it harder to ascertain the truth and separate fact from fiction. Social media, software like Photoshop and commentary charading as news have blurred the lines between what is real and what is not, between what is objective and what is subjective. How can anyone conduct a discussion or a debate when there is not even agreement on the facts? Imagine how much more virulent today’s Holocaust deniers would be if we had been able to digitally remaster photos in the early 20th century.
As educators we have the opportunity to shape the direction of future discourse and to teach students how to disagree kindly; utilize refined speech; remain above the moral fray; use analytical logical arguments in discussions; and even discern the truth. Following Ross Greene’s ideas in Lost at School, we should not assume that children will automatically engender notions of positive discourse, and we should strive to teach every student explicitly the skills necessary for healthy and respectful debate.
The approaches below are not surprising or new; I offer them in the hope that we can revisit how to embody and teach them consistently.
Strategy #1: Do not tolerate any conversation that is less than polite and kind. Sometimes it is easier to look away and pretend we don’t hear one student saying something nasty to another than to confront the perpetrator. However, the path of least resistance in this case may have negative long-term consequences for the speaker, the victim and those hearing the exchange. We cannot give students the impression these are acceptable ways to speak.
Equally as important, teachers need to model proper speech practices both at and out of school. Guided by the laws of Lashon Hara, we should never speak about another person in any setting in which we can be overheard and that we should be careful even about what we say in private. Steer clear of assigning “cute nicknames” to students or giving them epithets they do not appreciate, another rule governing Jewish life. No matter how angry a student or a colleague may make us, take one or more deep breaths before responding so as not to speak in a manner that anyone would find offensive. This directly reflects Maimonides’ thought that one should never become angry, since our anger will control us rather than the opposite.
Strategy #2: Help students differentiate between philosophical and moral issues, and encourage them to explore the rationale behind differing opinions. We need to instill in ourselves and in students the innate sense that most people really do want to live good lives and truly wish the best for others. Often, what is characterized as a moral argument is simply two people prioritizing competing values, rather than making deep moral statements. For example, is the priority to accept anyone who wants to enter the United States, or is the priority to protect the sovereign borders of our country as part of the covenant with which each nation is created? Having one or the other priority does not necessarily make others “stupid” or “evil”; it makes them different and worthy conversation partners.
Of course, this does not obviate the idea that students should press for those values in which they believe and take action based on those values. It means that we must teach them to appreciate perspectives different from their own and work positively with all comers. At the same time, we need to instill the confidence in students that what they believe and the values they espouse have meaning, merit and worth; if they do not, then we, as teachers, are not doing our jobs.
One idea I tried in my classroom was having students debate, taking the side with which they disagreed. They needed to research reasons supporting both sides and convincingly argue against their own beliefs. This imbued them with an understanding that there are often legitimate arguments that may oppose their own views. As adults, we should intentionally internalize these approaches in order to transmit them to students authentically; children have a way of seeing right to an adult’s core and discerning what is genuine and what is not.
Strategy #3: Deepen students’ critical thinking and articulation skills. It is often said that as soon as someone loses their dispassion and objectivity in an argument, they have lost the argument. And we need to get away from the cult of personality that some teachers cultivate, and influence students through our passion rather than our personae. We want to enable them to become the best selves they can be rather than to become clones of us. Intellectual passion is different from emotional argumentation. One is our internal excitement about our thoughts and ideas; the other is appealing to feelings to the exclusion of thought and is often a more powerful yet shallower approach.
Strategy #4: Build into curricula and lesson plans how to sort fact from fiction. There are ways to teach media literacy and help students develop the emotional intelligence they need to discern truth. We can teach them how to read critically and to recognize bias or sloppy and erroneous reporting. We can coach them to look closely at the material and “read between the lines” and assure that what they are looking at has been reliably sourced. We can open conversations with them about why the truth matters, leaning on relatable examples from their own lives. We can guide them in proper and positive conduct concerning posting and reposting on social media with the reminder that anything they post should be verifiably true and something they would be comfortable saying in person—and in front of adults. And consequently, we can help keep them from developing a sense of distrust in everything by using the approach of trust but verify.
Strategy #5: Teach students the art of civil discourse by example. This includes asserting personal meaning and exhibiting compassionate listening and acceptance, especially when those elements are at odds.
One of the most important and impactful ways to pass this on to children is to model it in our own lives. One occupational phenomenon of working with children is that we never really get to take off our “teacher hats.” That includes every single individual who comes into educational contact with a child. Students learn by observation, which means even teachers’ supposed “off” moments matter. As Robert Fulghum says, “Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.” Teachers should think about the kind of dugmah, example, they want to be and remain mindful of the overt and covert messages they send to students, especially when “off-duty.”
As educators we can change the current atmosphere by teaching and inspiring students to create a new and better one. Many important societal changes have evolved from a movement that was bottom up rather than top down. Not the least of these is the halakhic category of minhagim (customs), laws that begin and are propagated by the way people do things and, in some cases, have binding influence. We have the power to make civil discourse our minhag. Let’s use it to create a kinder, gentler, more authentic way of being so that students can continue to have measured, respectful conversations. Maybe my fond memories of those two students can again be realized with students in dialogue today.