July 23, 2024
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July 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

I’ve often appreciated the finesse with which The Jewish Link navigates a difficult course. You can’t possibly please everybody, all the time—let alone this tough audience, full of diverse perspectives and opinions. But The Link pulls it off, with content that is consistently thoughtful and insightful … And of course, if anyone disagrees with something they read, they’re free to send in their dissenting views. That’s how American society on the whole has always worked (or it used to).

Lately, though, we as a society seem to be taken with a strange, alchemical mode of thinking, wherein simply being displeased with what someone says or thinks is somehow taken as proof that the offending opinion is inherently wrong, hateful, or worst of all, shouldn’t be allowed expression. This runs directly counter to one of America’s most cherished, fundamental principles.

The First Amendment guarantees every person’s right to free speech, unharassed and unrestricted by the government. But its effective reach and influence on American life are incalculably greater than merely protecting us from our government. “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion!…” “It takes all kinds…” “If someone says something you don’t like, say something back!…” The idea that anyone is free to speak and think as they like permeates American culture; it’s in the air here.

Those who disingenuously point out that the Amendment only applies to government, not companies like Twitter or Facebook, are missing something—much as to observe Shabbat by merely refraining from proscribed activities is technically valid, but hardly captures one of Judaism’s most potent, transformative experiences. The beautiful zealousness with which Americans have upheld this principle of free speech elevates America. It is arguably our passionate, thoroughgoing devotion to the First Amendment that makes this truly the freest nation in history. And now that devotion is unraveling.

Examples of academic institutions and media outlets enabling or committing outright censorship abound. But equally troubling is seeing the inane concept that “words are violence” take root in our communities, our local organizations, in ourselves. Forget the media companies and academia—let’s talk about we the people.

In decades past, court-enforced “tolerance” for free expression exposed us, albeit sometimes with teeth and fists clenched, to what others had to say. Sometimes that helped us recognize that their views represented not evil incarnate or the end of our society, but simply something with which we disagreed. Other times, we breathed deep, and reminded ourselves that the same America that allows neo-Nazis to spew their hateful nonsense, or artists bent on provocation to display deeply offensive “art,” has also allowed religious Jewry to thrive like never before. Even as a sheltered yeshiva boy growing up in Borough Park—hardly a bastion of cultural relativity or heterodox thinking—I got it. We all did: You can hate their views, but you’ve simply got to allow all people the freedom to speak their minds. That’s how America works.

Now, all that seems positively quaint.

In 2021, among the self-proclaimed arbiters of cutting-edge morality, allowing all people to speak their minds is just “not a thing,’ as the kids say. Paradoxically, the old standard of etiquette, by which one kept one’s political and religious opinions to one’s self, have also been retired in those circles. So you’ve got lots of “woke” people loudly proclaiming their opinions—about America’s endemic racism, white privilege, Palestinian oppression, the patriarchy, the sheer inhumanity of conservatives, etc.—all of it stated with that casual presumption of Universally Accepted Fact formerly reserved for only death and taxes … while anyone who swims against the progressive tide risks jeopardizing their job or social standing—because it turns out that, no, they are not actually free to speak their mind, not if that makes some wokeling feel “unsafe.”

I’ve heard people make insulting, ignorant, blanket assertions about Jews religiously or politically to the right (of them) without the slightest thought of it possibly being offensive. Hey, it’s only words—as long as you’re aiming to the Right of you. But anyone who pushes back against those remarks is an aggressor, guilty of “attacking someone for their views.” I once responded on Facebook to someone’s offensive generalization about haredi Jews; a friend later told me I “came on very strong.” One side is always granted latitude, the other none at all.

But wait—there’s more: Increasingly, individuals and companies are being faulted for sounding neutral, or not asserting the rightness of the Left loudly enough. Recently, this newspaper was bitterly criticized because, in reporting on the Capitol rioting, you mentioned President Trump’s and President-elect Biden’s remarks about the violence—in one sentence! That’s right: You didn’t write about how different Trump’s speech was from Biden’s. What—no pie chart comparing the two anti-rioting speeches? Lives, property and our perception of our democracy as rock-solid were all tragically damaged that day … but, for some people, Trump & His Supporters Are Criminals! must be the primary motif of any article or dialogue about the incident.

In one recent letter to the editor, the correspondent magnanimously allowed that he’s confident “no one in our community” personally stormed the Capitol or destroyed property … but they did vote for Donald Trump … or displayed lawn signs, or donated to his campaign. And so, the letter writer explained, all those people need to look within, and examine how they contributed to the events at the Capitol. Again, the writer stressed, you—the misguided Trump voters—did not actually commit any crimes. But still…

On behalf of people who voted Republican, allow me to humbly say, Thank you, sir, for that equivocal dispensation—more than fair!

Another letter granted that “it is not too late” for community leaders who previously failed to speak out against supporting Trump. But—should they fail to do so now, then they are morally analogous to the Torah’s case of town elders judged as if they’d harbored a murderer.

Have we reached the exact opposite of open, rational dialogue yet? Because that’s where we’re headed.

I believe most people mean well. And we all agree, theoretically, on the need for mutual respect. But the problem is not symmetrical. Whatever their faults or foolish notions, Right-leaning readers are simply not the ones screeching in outrage, demanding apologies and banishments for every utterance that seems to depart from their perspective. The number of rabbis, community leaders and giant internet companies who have publicly reprimanded or simply banned Left/Liberal opinions is probably zero. People on the Right are generally willing to hear criticism and arguments—even if only to disagree strongly!—but that same simply cannot be said of the Left. If liberals don’t speak up against companies practicing censorship, and people overreacting at the personal level, all Americans may soon be waxing nostalgic about the days when we all used to argue, get mad and get over it—like a big, argumentative, caring family.

Josh Stern is from Springfield. During the workweek, he is writing a novel. At the Shabbat table, he, his wife and their three teenagers talk, argue, laugh, and learn from each other’s opinions.

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