It’s hard to argue with an 8-to-1 Supreme Court decision. Today the Supreme Court ruled that Fred Phelps and members of the Westboro Baptist Church are within their First Amendment rights when they use the funerals of young people killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as opportunities to spread their hate-filled, anti-gay messages. While I may wish it were otherwise, I understand the justices’ ruling: such speech is legal in America. But it is unconscionable, destructive, and far too common in American society today.
Not all that is legal – or common - is morally acceptable. It would be difficult to think of a more hateful act than taunting a bereaved family at the funeral of their child, who gave his or her life in military service. But sadly, hateful speech is a commonplace in today’s America. The economics of the news business, the polarized environment of cable news and the peculiarities of the blogosphere have made violent rhetoric an everyday feature of our lives. We are confronted with it so regularly that we may not even notice it, or, when we agree with its political perspective, we may actually enjoy it.
But aggressive, hateful speech, while legal and common, is as destructive of human community as it is within a family. Children raised in families in which accusations and denunciations are common come to live with psychological trauma that is not easily healed. On the collective level, belligerent language reinforces divisiveness in our society and encourages our children to see those with different views as “the enemy.” In such an environment, we all come to live in a psychic war zone, in which attack and counter-attack are a way of life, in words if not in deeds.
There is good news, however. While the keen public awareness of the problem of violent rhetoric following the shootings in Tucson seems to have faded, many are still working to address the issue. One prominent example is the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), an umbrella group linking 14 national and 125 local agencies (including our own Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas). At its national conference in February 2010, the JCPA rolled out a multi-dimensional “Civility Initiative.” The Initiative includes a “Civility Statement,” now signed by over 1300 Jewish leaders, and working groups creating training materials for local activists and articulating standards for civil discourse within the member organizations, which constitute most of the American Jewish institutional community.
The organization’s 2011 annual conference begins with a three-day “Civility Institute,” beginning this evening, at which local activists will be trained to conduct campaigns for civil discourse within their own communities. There is sure to be vigorous debate at these sessions, related to definitions of civility, the practice of civil discourse, and strategies for introducing new norms of speech into local communities. But the goal of establishing a new standard of respectful community conversation is one worth working on, even struggling over. Maybe, just maybe, the efforts of those gathered this week will strengthen the hands of people all over the country who know that the hateful rhetoric must stop. Violent language is bad for human beings – both speakers and listeners – and bad for human society. Together we can create something better – if not in the law, than in the way we live and build community together.