In his remarks at the memorial service for the victims of the Tucson shooting, President Obama urged us to be more civil in our dealings with each other:
“The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better. To be better in our private lives, to be better friends and neighbors and coworkers and parents. And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy - it did not - but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.”
Why is civil discourse so difficult? This is a very important question, dealing with the very essence of being human. I think of it as a Darwinian-kind of question. As this provocative Economist article – “Why we are, as we are” - from December of 2008 observed: “For a Darwinian, life is about two things: survival and reproduction.”
Humans are social animals, and like all such animals, we are ill-equipped to survive on our own. Our social impulses cause us to naturally gravitate toward forming communities to help us get the necessary survival strengths from each other. But our evolution - or at least our history - has also channeled these social impulses into forms that are tribal. That is, we affiliate with our own kind and against the others.
From time immemorial we have battled with these two conflicting forces. Our affiliative social side brings us together and enables us to form increasingly civilized, sophisticated societies, improve our lives and standard of living, and achieve major accomplishments in science, technology, culture, arts, economics, politics, and many other areas of human endeavor. But to the degree that it continues to express itself in tribal forms, that same impulse gives rise to conflicts, violence and wars that drive us apart, leads to many tragedies and deaths, and often destroys many of our most cherished achievements.
This conflict between our affiliative and tribal natures applies not just to us as individuals, but to all our institutions as well. Religion, for example, which we generally think of as a force for peace and reconciliation, has been used to justify extreme violence and uncountable deaths throughout history, a pattern that unfortunately continues to this day. Religious fanatics justify their hatred and violence toward other groups by claiming divine favor and absolute righteousness.
But religion has also taught us how to live together and behave toward each other so we can establish more harmonious societies. Religious teachings, such as those in the Jewish and Christian versions of the Bible, provide each of us with a moral compass to help us tell right from wrong.
The Golden Rule is one such moral compass. It essentially asks us to put ourselves in the shoes of our fellow man and treat others as you want to be treated. Just about every religion has its own version of The Golden Rule. Moreover, you don’t have to be religious at all to live your live by its simple, human tenets: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; Love your neighbor as yourself.
When it comes to nations, a look at recent history shows us how much can be accomplished when the positive, social side of our nature brings us together, and how much damage gets done when our tribal side pulls us apart. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the 20th century history of Germany.
At a conference in Berlin in the summer of 2009, I heard an excellent talk by Richard von Weizsacker, who was President of Germany from 1984 to 1994, a time that included the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. President von Weiszacker reminded us that before the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, the city was the intellectual center of the world. People everywhere learned German to be able to read the best textbooks and academic journals in their fields, much as they do now with English.
But despite being such an advanced society, Nazi Germany was responsible for one the most extreme forms of racial and ethnic hatred the world has ever seen, resulting in The Holocaust and the genocide of millions of additional innocent civilians. Following World War II, Germany has once more become a highly civilized society, and one of the world’s scientific and cultural leaders.
In recent years we have, unfortunately, continued to see genocides driven by ethnic and racial hatreds, such as those in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, as well as a number of other massacres of civilians in several countries around the world.
Our own American history has its share of shameful chapters, most notably slavery and the Jim Crow segregation laws, many of which were only repealed in the 1960s. But thanks to the values embodied in our short but powerful Constitution, and to the brilliant system of government bequeathed to us by the Founding Fathers, the US has continued to make great strides in righting previous wrongs and becoming a more just nation, especially in the past fifty years.
I am very proud of the continuing social advances our country keeps making, most recently exemplified by the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy of the US military. So, given how much we have achieved and how far we have come, why are we so disturbed by the polarized feelings and angry rhetoric that seem to be on the rise in the country? Why am I personally so upset at the anger around us as we tackle major national issues, including immigration, and health care reform? Why does it bother me so much when I see our President not just disliked, but almost demonized by so many Tea Party members, let alone their leaders?
My Jewish heritage has undoubtedly sensitized me to the damage that skillful demagogues are able to inflict. So have my personal experiences growing up in Cuba, when I saw my parents lose everything they had worked for when Fidel Castro came to power and established a communist state over fifty years ago.
But, as a simple glance at the news around the world reminds us, civilized society is fragile. The feelings of we versus they are very strong and are very likely hard-wired into our brains. Feelings of affinity, cooperation and altruism toward the members of our own group come naturally to us. But so do feelings of discrimination, prejudice and violence toward those we view as the others, which can then lead to violence and death, to conflicts and wars, and in the extreme, to massacres and genocides.
We need to be particularly vigilant during times of economic stress, such as those many in this country are living through. During these times, people are fearful about their own ability to survive, and may look for scapegoats to blame for their problems and fears, especially if egged on to do so by the angry rhetoric of politicians and media personalities. As the President reminded us in his Tucson speech:
“But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized - at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do - it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”
Beyond the damage that anger and hatred can inflict on even the most robust societies, the President also reminded us that “only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation.” As we know, those challenges are very complex, indeed: creating new jobs and bringing down unemployment, reducing the deficit, lowering health care costs, developing a sustainable energy policy, fighting terrorism, and on and on and on.
Big as the challenges are, so are the opportunities to do something about them, . . . but only if we step back, stop bickering about ideological fine points, come together and collaborate with each other so that we can move forward and make progress. And the only way we can come together, as the President reminded us, is with “a good dose of humility,” so we can engage in a constructive dialogue about the complex challenges we all face, stop “pointing fingers or assigning blame,” and instead, commit “to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.”
Only then can we become a better nation and a better world.