Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Modeling Civil Discourse in an Uncivil World

By: Dr. Rivka Schwartz, Associate Principal, General Studies

I keep telling my students not to make the mistake of thinking that this year’s campaign is typical of past presidential election cycles, which they just failed to notice because they were too young to pay attention. No, I tell them again and again, this campaign is, in many ways, unprecedented in our lifetimes. And one way, certainly, is in the ugliness and rancor it has engendered.

Polling data tells us that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are the two most unpopular presidential candidates, ever. A substantial number of voters are voting against the opposing candidate more than they are voting for the one they putatively support. The rhetoric, political and otherwise, surrounding this campaign has been coarse and angry, amplified by the profusion of media outlets and the ability of social media to give voice to people with fringe views.

As educators, we have two goals in this election cycle. One is to inform students about the issues and the mechanics of how a presidential election works. (We don’t assume that our students, particularly those who have not yet studied American history, understand the arcane workings of the Electoral College.) But a second, even more important, is to model and teach engaging in civil and reasoned discourse with those with whom we disagree.

There are unfortunately few examples of this in the broader public discourse. In the quest for viewers, clicks, and retweets, confrontation and bombast are the currency. Candidates’ surrogates make their names by being provocative and combative. Calm, reasoned discussion that seeks to understand the other’s view and empathize, even as you disagree, doesn’t make for the most riveting television.

But it is vital that we teach and model this all the same, for reasons that range from the individual to the national. First, at the most fundamental level, we are trying to instill values in our students. We want them to engage the world, as the SAR mission exhorts, with humility and openness. Listening to someone else’s point of view respectfully must be part of that. Second as educators, we teach students to formulate arguments and to contend with the evidence for and against those arguments (rather than simply asserting that they are right at ever-higher volume.) One’s own position may be changed by that encounter, and, even if it is not, it is strengthened by having been tested against others’. And third, as citizens in the American body politic, we are witnessing an increasing sorting of people into like-minded communities, in the real world and online, in which they never encounter Americans of differing views. This siloing, and the divisions it reinforces, is already being felt for the worse in many ways in our national discourse and politics. For all of these reasons, it is important to encourage our students to hear each other out respectfully, and to work on expressing disagreement without delegitimation.

This ability to disagree without denying the other’s basic humanity is a value that emerges from the Talmud’s story about the canonical halakhic disputants, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. The Talmud attests that whatever their differences, they continued to marry into each others’ families. When we know each other as people--when we care about each other--even as we continue to hold our own strong points of view, we talk and think differently about those who think otherwise.

We know, too, that in most cases, Beit Hillel’s point of view is preferred to that of Beit Shammai. The Talmud, in explaining why this is so, says that Beit Hillel would study the viewpoint of Beit Shammai before studying their own. We can read this simply as courtesy on Beit Hillel’s part, but there is more here than that. In thoroughly seeking to understand the position of Beit Shammai before articulating their own, Beit Hillel ensured that their positions were tested against the strongest opposition, and their own positions were stronger and more compelling for it.

We want our students to care deeply about politics, policy issues, and election outcomes. But as we encourage them to be knowledgeable about this election and what it means for the future direction of the United States, we must work to teach and model how to disagree so fundamentally and about such important things without losing the ability to talk and listen to one another.


  1. Thank you for this thoughtful piece, Dr. Schwartz. In general what are your thoughts on restrictions like "safe spaces" and/or "trigger warnings"?

  2. On the lines of Mr. Danishefsky's comment, how do you think productive discourse could be preserved without compromising free speech? How does this manifest itself in the classroom?

  3. Kevin, thanks for this question: safe spaces and trigger warnings have gotten a lot of play recently, so it's worth addressing them.

    Trigger warnings and safe spaces are really quite different, so let's talk about them separately. A trigger warning is a warning to a reader or student that you are about to discuss a challenging or difficult topic, to give people a heads-up as to what might be coming. Trigger warnings are not about shutting down or minimizing speech. If you weren't discussing a challenging topic, you wouldn't need a trigger warning. A trigger warning exists so that you can discuss the topic, without causing unnecessary distress to someone who might have found herself taken unawares by a painful topic in the next page of the book. Trying to make sure that someone is able to participate in a class or a conversation without being ambushed by something that brings up past trauma is, it seems to me, a way to enable more speech, not less, and I don't see the problem with it.

    A safe space is something else entirely. A safe space means a space where you don't have to encounter certain difficult or unpleasant things. Are safe spaces a good idea? Well, not in a classroom they're not. A classroom should be a place where one encounters new and challenging ideas, even if they make you uncomfortable. Does that mean there's no room anywhere for a safe space? Think about one of our students on a college campus where there's strong and strident anti-Israel sentiment. He might be very happy to have a "clubhouse" for Jewish students to come back to, where his views on Israel will be more generally shared, and where he doesn't have to debate or defend his point of view all the time. There is room for safe spaces, in other words (and we all instinctively seek them out and benefit from them), as long as we do not confuse the role and the place of the safe space and the classroom

    Shamma, free speech is not inimical to productive discourse when it is engaged in with a spirit of respect and a willingness to listen. To foster that in the classroom, we as educators have to point out to students when they are expressing themselves in ways that show a lack of those things and therefore, that tend to shut down discussion. Students can and should express a broad range of views, including those other students and teachers might strenuously disagree with, because that's what teenagers do, and how else can they learn. But when students express themselves in a way that silences other students, that's when a teacher has to step in and say, "You can discuss any point of view or position, but it has to be in a way that doesn't demonize or disparage."

    Both of these questions get at an underlying concern in our society--that kids are too fragile to encounter challenging ideas. In SAR, certainly, that is not the case. But in college, in a much more diverse setting with a wider range of views, ensuring that all ideas can be aired while maintaining ultimately productive conversation is a much bigger challenge. Working towards having people engage one another with respect and empathy, rather than yelling, dismissing, or shutting down, is a good place to start.


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