Disagreeing Agreeably: Dedicating Ourselves to Productive Dialog

"Has it always been like this?" That was the question I was asked not quite three years ago, in the midst of the two-week shutdown of the federal government, by a student on my campus. In the years since then, the level of incivility in our political life, as evidenced by the current Presidential campaign, has only gotten worse. I sought to reassure my student, and to do so not with platitudes but with examples. I chose two.

In 1973, Congress enacted and ultimately passed over a presidential veto, the War Powers Act, one of the most significant pieces of legislation in American history concerning the separation of powers and United States foreign policy. The law limited presidential power to commit American armed forces without a declaration of war or other congressional authorization. The president at the time, Richard Nixon, was a Republican; Democrats were in the majority of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. But the bill received bipartisan support and, perhaps most remarkable of all, one of the prime architects of the legislation was Senator Jacob Javits, a Republican from New York. The fact that Javits was from the minority party of the Senate and of the same party as the president did not keep him from playing a leadership role in a piece of legislation that restricted the president's powers and elevated those of Congress.

I also shared with my student a lesser known story told to me by one of my board members when I was a law school dean. This story took place in the 1960s -- once again, Democrats controlled the House and the Senate. This board member, while a student at George Washington University Law School, had worked on Capitol Hill as an aide to a Republican congressman. He delighted in telling the story of the instrumental role he was able to play in legislation protecting consumers of mobile homes. The most remarkable part of this story: at the time, it did not strike him as surprising or even noteworthy that a Republican congressman could play a leadership role in enacting legislation in a Democratically-controlled Congress.

"No," I told my student. "It has not always been like this." Is it possible to reverse the trend toward incivility in our political life and to restore some basis of cooperation, collaboration and dialog? And how might we, as citizens, play a role in this? We should look to the wisdom of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, a 19th- and early 20th-century teacher, scholar and ethicist in Eastern Europe, whose most famous work, "Guarding the Tongue," explicated Jewish laws and learning concerning speech, the power of words, and especially the danger of gossip and malicious speech. His teachings, as powerful and direct today as they were when written more than 125 years ago, are strikingly simple to articulate and deceptively difficult to implement -- we should watch our words carefully, weighing them as we would our treasures. We should speak, discuss, even argue and debate decently and respectfully of others, questioning their ideas but not their motives.

This Rabbi's teachings apply to us on the national and political level, and on the local and personal level as well. There are those in their political discourse who have condemned entire races or nationalities or ethnic groups. There are those in their personal discourse who disparage neighbors and colleagues, becoming "frenemies" or worse yet, bullies. Guarding our tongue is a message for national debates, for the workplace, and for the kitchen table.

The anniversary of the passing of the Rabbi Israel Meir Kagen occurs on Sept. 27. On that day, a group called Acheinu is asking all Americans to refrain from gossip and harmful speech. Just for one day. It is a small but significant gesture. Is it possible that if we could do so as a society for one day, we might be able to do it for another, and then another? This is something that, as seemingly unattainable as it sounds, is utterly within our control. Ronald Reagan once said, "I've always believed that a lot of the trouble in the world would disappear if we were talking to each other instead of about each other." And as Robert F. Kennedy said in Indianapolis, on the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,

"What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another.... Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people."