So when Rodef Shalom approached him this year to help develop a new model for its twice-annual program on ethics sponsored by the Frank R.S. Kaplan Memorial Fund for Ethics, he saw it as an opportunity.
This year, Rodef Shalom will sponsor a two-part program: a panel discussion on Tuesday, Oct. 30, and a text study, Thursday, Nov. 1.
The topic for the programs is — what else? — “Civility in Political Discourse: An Election Season Panel and Community Discussion.”
“It’s been something I’ve been keeping an eye on for a long time,” said Aaron, the community scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning. “I just find it appalling on this question.
“This is a great time to have this conversation,” he added. While we see it at the national level, it is something we see in the political structure in our own state.”
Whether it’s the “visceral hatred” for President Barack Obama in some quarters or the dismissal of Gov. Mitt Romney as “shallow” in others, Aaron said Americans, be they candidates, journalists or average citizens, are dealing less with issues and more with impressions of the candidates.
The panelists for the Oct. 30 debate include Steve Hallock, director of the School of Communication at Point Park University; Gilbert N. Kahn, professor of political science at Kean State University in New Jersey and Jonathan S. Tobin, senior online editor of Commentary magazine
Aaron, who will moderate the discussion and text study, lined up Kahn and Tobin at the recommendation of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which also is holding programs on campaign civility.
He had approached the National Jewish Democratic Council and the Republican Jewish Coalition to send panelists. Both groups declined to participate, though an NJDC staffer later offered to help locate panelists. By that time, the panel was already set.
The Nov. 1 text study will explore a concept in Jewish tradition known as derech eretz (way of the land), which refers the practice of treating people with respect, and tokahaḥ — ways to argue and even offer criticism without embarrassing or defaming another.
“Jews are the last people to shy away from a good argument; this is who we are,” Aaron said. “But precisely because we value an argument, within our culture we have learned to set parameters for decent behavior.
“That was something America had in common with us,” he continued. “Certainly, there has been a lot of ugly stuff over the years, but there was a certain level of civility that was encountered too in national debates.”
Hallock targeted the media for its role in the deteriorating civility.
“The media, particularly newspapers, have gotten too caught up in a sense of what I call the false god of objectivity,” Hallock told the Chronicle. “They are so concerned about any possible perception that they may come across as biased that they have forgotten the first tenet of journalism: Find and report the truth.
“So many media outlets today believe they have fulfilled their function by reporting what politicians or public officials say and then going to somebody on the other side and letting that person respond,” he continued. “Thus, they claim, they have reported both sides of an issue and the readers or audience can then decide what is truth. Consequently, the truth is obscured by warring or competing claims of truth, which actually are more personal viewpoint or opinion, or hearsay, or fabrication.”
He added, “I think the media need to rethink their role and how they go about finding and reporting the truth behind political and public policy claims and stop allowing accuracy — reporting what others say accurately — substitute for truth. They are not the same.”
Tobin “deplored” the lack of civility, or bifurcation, in American politics, but he also note that spirited debate has always been a part of the country’s electoral process.
He also chided the Jewish community for backing away from that debate.
“We should remember that democracy is about disagreement and that as nasty as things may seem today, the American republic has seen and survived much worse,” Tobin said. “Unlike the organized Jewish world that has perpetuated a cult of consensus on issues whose aim is to stifle dissent, be it from the left or the right, in the name of unity, elections are about making choices, not avoiding them. That means not only tolerating but also inviting the sort of spirited debate that Jewish groups tend to avoid at all costs.
“It is in that context that we must regard efforts to avoid a discussion about which party or presidential candidate is likely to be a better friend to the state of Israel,” he added. “That this discussion should be suppressed, as some would have it, for Israel’s sake or to reduce incivility, is as absurd as it is counterproductive. One can make good arguments for either the Democrats or the Republicans, but the idea that this issue should be held out of bounds as some insist, isn’t good for Israel, the Jewish community or democracy.”
For his part, Aaron singled out the social media, which often encourages short, stinging attacks over substantial points.
“We’re measuring things in terms of people’s reactions by Twitter feeds of 140 characters or less,” he said. “Is that truly getting one’s insight into something. … The voices that talk about the need to focus on issues and not fluff often get shouted down.”
Want to go?
Panel discussion moderated by Rabbi Scott Aaron, Tuesday, Oct. 30, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Rodef Shalom Congregation.
Text study session with Rabbi Scott Aaron on Civility in Political Discourse, Thursday, Nov. 1. From 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Rodef Shalom Congregation.
Free and open to the community; preregistration required. Contact Danielle Kranjec at the Agency for Jewish Learning at 412-521-1101, ext. 3204 or dkranjec@ajlpittsburgh to preregister.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)