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Sunday, December 21, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
What went wrong? A plea for civility in a combative world

By James L. Mirel
Special to The Times

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"When I think of the road we're traveling on, I wonder what went wrong. I can't help it, I wonder what went wrong." - Paul Simon, from "American Tune"

For a few hours on the evening of Nov. l, 20,000 of us baby boomers were transported back to our youth. The KeyArena seemed more like a sanctuary than a concert venue as we waited for Paul and Art to begin their set. Simon and Garfunkel back together again, and it was magic.

But as we walked home, I am certain that many of us reflected on the lyrics of that beautiful, hymn-like song. Something has gone terribly wrong with our society and it saddens us. It saddens us because it's so difficult to know exactly what it is.

After all, we were the rowdy and obnoxious critics during the '60s and '70s. We pushed the envelope to the limit and beyond. Why are we so ill at ease in the current moment as the voices of dissent and criticism carry many of the same tones of shrillness and rudeness that we "invented"?

Maybe we have matured a bit. I hope so. I write today with the fear that I may appear the old fogy that rankled me so much as a youth. But, that is the chance I will take.

My message today is a plea — a plea for a new civility in a world where the ratings and book sales seem to belong to the one who is most combative, negative and downright nasty. No, I am not arguing for any curtailment in our freedom of speech or press, simply expressing the hope that we might use those important civil rights wisely and judiciously.

Though it may fall on ears and eyes unwilling to hear or to see, here is what I look for from the columnists and letter writers, from the commentators and talking heads on the left and the right. In place of the O'Reillys and the Frankens with their shrill rhetoric, unveiled sarcasm and undisguised rudeness, I seek a gentler but no less impassioned voice — a voice that will command my attention without earning my contempt.

Is there a market, I wonder, for the measured, yet prophetic opinion?

One may ask: How did this situation come to pass? There is no one simple answer. As in all issues of social criticism, we need to be self-reflective and self-critical. Is there something in me, and in all of us, that gravitates to the sensational and bombastic?

No doubt, the answer is yes. This negative trend has many contributing factors and blame can be directed at many quarters. But ultimately it can be reversed only when enough of us stand up and say collectively: Enough.

Here is my proposal and my plea.

I do want to hear what you have to say, but I will hear it better and be more likely convinced if you follow these suggestions.

When holding up an opinion for disagreement, this is how you should treat "the person with whom you disagree," henceforth TPWWYD:

Please do not call TPWWYD "stupid." Even if this is true, how is it relevant to the argument? If intelligence were the most relevant requirement for our leaders, we should ditch democracy and resort to the Platonic philosopher-king. The whole point of our system of government affirms the right of all people to express opinions and to assume leadership if chosen.

As a liberal, I am privy most often to harsh criticism directed at those on the right, Republicans and the like. I would venture to say that most of the people who call George Bush "stupid" have IQs and SATs below his. But even if he were, let's say, less intelligent than some other politicians, how does that make his ideas and policies inherently wrong?

The policies should be judged on their merits or lack thereof. Let's agree to can the words "stupid" or "unintelligent" from the discourse on policy.

I would caution about saying of TPWWYD that she is "insincere." That is something no one can ever know. What you are saying in effect is "no one could possibly hold that position." But they can and do.

Humility dictates the acceptance that reasonable people can sincerely disagree with you on a variety of issues. They may be wrong, you may be wrong. Granted, you think that you are right. If so, you think that they are wrong — but they are not insincere.

I would be very reticent to say of TPWWYD — "this is an evil person." Some people and some positions are evil. As a Jew, I can think of no other word for Hitler and Nazism. But the word becomes meaningless when it comes to denote every person whom you think is wrong or misguided. There need to be gradations in our rhetoric.

I can see why some environmentalists would call certain policies "disastrous," if they can argue that the policy would lead to irretrievable damage to the eco-system. Many have pointed out that, in their scientific opinion, a failure to address the issue of global warming in a meaningful way will lead to an environment that can no longer sustain higher-level life. That is a disaster.

But the word "evil" has a diabolic connotation: "This person wants the Earth to come to a premature demise." No. The person wants the Earth to continue but does not realize how this policy may lead to damage that cannot be undone. That is cause for alarm and very strong words, but not the word "evil" as I understand it.

Evil should be reserved for those individuals and movements that deny the essential humanity of certain groups. Period.

Finally, for now, I am very skeptical of the use of sarcasm. Yes, it can be funny in small doses but it does little to advance an argument. Sarcasm is the tool of the arrogant because it does not permit the possibility that I may be wrong and you may be right.

If you analyze sarcasm at its core, it is a cowardly way of closing the door to serious counter-argument. It essentially dismisses the other point of view without being open to hearing it out.

Recent books by pundits Ann Coulter (on the right) and Al Franken (on the left) attempt to be humorous but end up polarizing. If you treat TPWWYD with constant sarcasm, you are in large measure disrespecting his or her humanity. In short, sarcasm is a self-indictment: I am not able to argue my point of view on its merits.

As I said at the outset, I am liberal and I am surrounded by liberals. I am saddened when I hear shrill voices that speak of conservatives in disparaging tones. I think President Bush is wrong on many of his major policies; I do not think he is "stupid," "insincere," or "evil." I suspect, indeed, know, that conservatives speak of us in similarly dismissive language. And I am saddened by that as well.

But all too often, we liberals will criticize Bush's use of phrases like "axis of evil," as we should, but then end up using similar language in our criticism.

Most of us do not aspire to punditry or a regular column in the paper. We will not become the next Franken or Bill O'Reilly. But all of us talk politics and policy, and some of us write an occasional letter to the editor. I am also directing my plea to everyday speech and dinner table conversation.

We need to create a climate of civility in our everyday lives so that when we read or listen to the mean-spirited, we will be shocked once again, and turn them off — figuratively and literally.

Granted, even if everyone followed the advice here, it would not resolve the current malaise and climate of shrillness, but it might help.

It was President Bush's father who spoke of a "kinder, gentler nation." At the time, it struck me as facile, but on reflection and as time has passed, there was considerable wisdom in those words.

Let us aspire to them, each in his or her own way. Let us aspire to be "kinder" and "gentler" to ourselves and to each other.

Rabbi James L. Mirel is a longtime participant in human-rights and interfaith endeavors.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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