In a household like mine, with nine kids between the ages of 1 and 15, respectful dialogue — not to mention plain old peace and quiet — comes at a premium. So my wife and I tend to do a lot of shushing to both bring down the noise level and to attempt to create an atmosphere conducive to conversation. (Admittedly, sometimes I’m even the one who ends up being shushed.)
But despite the ease with which parents of large families by necessity engage in the time-honored shush, I fear that when it comes to the fabled marketplace of ideas outside our front doors, we all too easily resort to stifling speech by casting the speaker as not worthy of the right to speak.
We do it to athletes — Fox News’ Laura Ingraham last month told Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James to “shut up and dribble” for having the temerity to speak about politics during an ESPN interview — and we do it to immigrants.
Until the #MeToo movement picked up steam recently, we did it to the women who made us uncomfortable by speaking about the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment — anyone remember Anita Hill? — and just days after a gunman mowed down 17 classmates and staff at their high school in Parkland, Fla., some of us even tried to silence the survivors who dared protest our nation’s unique problem with gun violence by smearing them as “crisis actors.”
I can understand the cognitive dissonance that causes someone to reflexively label any opinion or argument that does not comport with his view of the world as factually wrong, but what I cannot fathom is how anyone’s worldview categorically renders contrary speech as inherently invalid. And this anti-intellectual problem is not unique to any particular wing of the American electorate.
In many ways, CNN has become just as much a “safe space” for those of a certain political persuasion as Fox News has become a refuge to those of the opposing ideology. The result is not only are we as a nation dumbing down our “discourse;” we’re not even listening to one another.
Late last week upon his death, the Rev. Billy Graham was lionized by everyone from President Donald Trump on down — Christians, as well as Jews — as “the nation’s moral compass.” For sure, Graham, who attracted millions over the years to his “crusades” across the country, may have helped many embrace a spiritually sensitive approach to living.
But famously he also was an anti-intellectual who opted for sound bites over substance, winning over crowds with an easy-to-access religion whose promise of salvation was emphasized more than the rigorous demands of personal responsibility.
Why should we in the Jewish community care?
Because all-too-often I see similar strains among rabbis — of whatever stripe — and activists, invoking simplistic prophetically sounding dogmas whose rhetorical power are unmistakable, but when the emotion dies down leave little of substance in their wake. There are those of us who hold a Chumash in one hand, preaching with fervor like Graham, but who have neither the time nor the inclination to engage with the commentaries that explain and provide meaning to the biblical text.
There are those of us who are quick to consult pocket versions of the Constitution but are wholly ignorant of the debates during its formation and ratification, let alone its interpretation over the course of more than two centuries by the Supreme Court.
That’s not to say that such things as faith and emotion are bad things. On the contrary, they are necessary components of a Jewish and human way of life. But without the intellect to temper it, emotion alone can be like a backdraft that sucks up all the available oxygen and thereby snuffing itself out. (Intellect without emotion is just as dangerous, tending toward inaction and a refusal to engage with the world.)
So returning to the question of who has the right to speak, my answer is that anyone should be able to give voice to their thoughts and feelings without fear of being silenced. My concern isn’t so much for the well-being of the speaker, but for the health of those who would be doing the silencing.
Refusing to listen, refusing to be challenged might offer the temporary benefit of a deluded sense of ideological safety, but a nation of tribes is no nation at all, at least not one worthy of the adjective “united.”
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]