Civility Isn't What America Needs | Opinion

It's almost 2021, and it seems that president-elect Joe Biden captured the wishes of most Americans, even those who didn't vote for him, when he promised a return to civility.

That's a terrible idea.

I say this not because I favor the Twitter school of public communication, which holds that each exchange must be nasty, brutish and short. Such a noxious style has served us very poorly these four years, and we'd do well to lay off the bloviations and the insults. But if you believe, like me, that politics is not a contact sport but the sacred duty of making our collective future better, you ought to recognize that being perfectly civil is about the worst thing we can do.

To understand this baffling statement, consider the Talmud. Compiled roughly 1,400 years ago, this essential Jewish text is a collection of arguments between some of the wisest men who ever lived. To make sense of the world, of their faith and of each other, they argued over everything—from how to judge a murder case to how to properly tie their shoes. One might imagine that discussions among such esteemed and holy rabbis would be conducted in hushed, respectful tones. Instead, the ancient sages cracked jokes, traded vicious puns and insulted each other's appearances. In one particularly memorable instance, a sage grumbled hyperbolically to a disagreeing colleague that had he been anyone else, "I would have cut off your legs with an iron saw." They fought so hard because, as people of faith, they knew the stakes of their debates could not be higher. They believed wholeheartedly that their shared cause was deciphering the divine and ultimate good, and believed just as passionately that nothing, not even feelings or friendships, should be spared in the search for virtue.

If you think this is all ancient history, all you need to do is walk into any traditional house of Jewish study in America. There you'll encounter what will seem like a bunch of unhinged lunatics screaming at each other over matters of religious thought and practice. When given a tour of Yeshiva University's study hall, columnist George Will was so taken aback by the ferocity he encountered that he exclaimed, "How does anyone get any thinking done amid all this shouting?!" But of course, this culture of study has been so successful for thousands of years not despite the shouting but because of it. When it comes to the most important things in life, you should toss civility aside and fight for what's right with everything you have.

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An American Flag flies over the entrance to a disaster morgue where refrigerated morgue trailers believed to be holding the bodies of people who died of COVID-19 are at South Brooklyn Marine Terminal on November 23, 2020 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty

Now more than any other time in recent history, the world needs an America that believes so passionately in its grand founding ideals that it's willing to shout about them. So what's really wrong with our public discourse these days? It's not that we're no longer nice and polite, but that we are increasingly losing faith in our deepest, truest values. We no longer believe that ours is an exceptional nation dedicated to fulfilling a God-given mission to promote human liberty and dignity worldwide. If we can't unite around that fundamental and ancient idea, any attempt to restore civility would be like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound.

Let us, then, seek inspiration in our earliest and most majestic founders, people who both shared a grand vision and were never above bickering and trading pointed barbs. Consider, for example, our second and third presidents: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Their relationship in the realm of public affairs was so bitter and contentious, it makes our contemporary political spats look like a charmed romantic comedy. Because of this, people today may feel shocked to discover that these two sworn enemies spent the last decades of their lives embraced in friendship, right up until dying within hours of each other on July 4, the birthday of the nation they were so instrumental in building.

If we wish to restore American society to its greatness, let's be more like Jefferson and Adams. Instead of masking our crisis of confidence in our core values behind the thin veil of civility, let's fight like titans, ferociously and whole-heartedly. Let us remember that the true aim of politics isn't to score points for our side, but to advance our shared ideals. And let us, at every turn, fortify our strong, rowdy commitment to these ideas, by again dedicating ourselves to studying not trendy and toxic theories but our founding political document, the Constitution, or our founding moral document, the Hebrew Bible.

If we do that, we'll discover 2021 to be as miraculous as 2020 was grim—a year of shouting that leads to much greater unity and progress than any attempt at milquetoast civility could ever muster.

Rabbi Dr. Ari Lamm is the founder of The Joshua Project. He is one of the youngest leaders of a major Jewish organization in the U.S., serving as chief executive of Bnai Zion, which has supported educational and humanitarian projects in the United States and Israel for over 112 years. Rabbi Lamm is a Princeton-trained historian of religion.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.