Thursday, 1 November 2018

In the Wake of Pittsburgh -- The Other Demand of Democracy

It may be inappropriate to begin this serious piece reflecting on a most tragic event with a reference to a statement from a comic book -- but the message presented therein is actually most appropriate in our difficult times. "With great powers come great responsibilities." By extension, we must recognize that with rights also come responsibilities.

Western society, indeed, prides itself on the values of democracy and human rights. We strongly advocate for the rights of all and for the various freedoms which have advanced and can continue to advance our society. This standard, though, does not only provide rights but also demands responsibilities. The value of freedom of speech, for example, allows us to voice our thoughts (within reason) without fear but it also demands of us to let the other voice his/her opinion (again, within reason) even if we may disagree with them. The right to speak is, as such, not one-sided, allowing us a simple right to vent. What we are sadly seeing within our modern times, however, is such a misconstrued advancement of such a perception of this freedom and right -- with violent consequences.

Within this same parameter of understanding, as we recognize that democracy gives a voice to all, we must still acknowledge that it also declares that majority rules. People have diverse opinions, and, while there is a value in allowing such diverse opinions to be heard, there is still an inherent parameter to such expression. A conclusion in action still has to be reached and that, within a democracy, is determined primarily by the majority. Freedom thus also demands the responsibility to accept the decision of the majority. Democracy, however, still cannot become the tyranny of the majority. Of course, within the context of the democratic process the minority still deserves continuing voice. The true demand is that reason must still clearly govern.

The true ideals of democracy and human rights. as such, can only be reached if there is a recognition of the value of dialogue and the importance of the positive interpersonal dynamics that can emerge in the sharing of diverse opinions. Freedom of speech was never intended to grant any autocrat the right to simply scream his/her singular viewpoint, developed out of a simplistic, self-centered vision of the world. With this right, we also have a responsibility to give the voice of the other respect and to listen attentively in order to improve upon one's own thoughts. With all the staged protests and the forced effort to drown out any measure of a voice of the other, this responsibility is becoming less and less observed within our society. This is not to say that every opinion is deserving of being heard. While it is fully proper to ignore the rhetoric of the hate-monger, our normative behaviour must include not just the right to speak but the responsibility to listen with thought.

It is praiseworthy to note within Jewish thought the accolade given to Beit Hillel for respectfully presenting the view of Beit Shammai even prior to presenting their own views. Contrast this with the present mood within our society where people only want to hear their own opinions voiced and solely comment on another's differing view simply in order to mock and belittle it and show it lacking in any value. Not only is that ethically problematic but also further distances us from finding a truly exemplary solution to a problem which often only emerges in the heat of the honest debate of ideas. Life is actually most complex and answers can usually only be found if we honestly confront the diversity of opinions on a subject. Tragically, our society is moving further and further away from this ideal.

I write this in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh massacre which continues to affect many of us, including myself, with anguish and tears. Such hate has been expressed throughout history so it cannot be solely seen as a result of the problems of contemporary life. But, nonetheless, in what occurred and continues to occur, we can see weaknesses in present life which need to be addressed. One can only act in such a horrific manner if one so adamantly believes oneself to be absolutely correct in one's views without even a hint of self-questioning. This is obviously the position of the demagogue, the tyrant and/or the extreme, dogmatic individual. Yet, even as one may cry of personal rights, if one only sees oneself in this vein, without any recognition of value in the other, the possibility of harming the other in the advancement of one's cause only grows.

The other is, more and more, inherently being seen as lacking any value, who only has purpose as the target of attack. I can thus disrupt the other when dining in a restaurant for I am not concerned about this other's rights. I can disrupt a Senate vote by shouting that I am not being represented even as there are senators on the floor who share this person's opinion. What these individuals are actually declaring is that it is not the majority of these elected individuals who should make decisions but it should be solely themselves with their dogmatic voice. Is it any wonder that, by extension, the extreme autocrat will then maintain a right to kill? Jewish thought has always argued for the absolute opposite - the full analysis of life in pursuit of the truly thoughtful conclusion under the spirit of the Divine.

The other side of democracy is, indeed, the need to recognize one's responsibility to the other. In shouting for one's rights, one must also shout for the right of the other. If we truly value freedom and rights, we must recognize the overriding value of the dialogue of thought. Rights demand of us to recognize our responsibilities - and to find the proper balance between these two necessary demands.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

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