In a famous 1856 incident, South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks caned U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts after he gave a pro-abolitionist speech in the Senate condemning South Carolina Sen. Andrew Butler, Brooks’ cousin, regarding the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act.
The rhetoric on both sides of this debate was unkind and personally offensive.
The back and forth between the senators provoked Brooks to violence. The incident itself became a national controversy as the slavery debate heated up.
Sumner was touted as a martyr back home, and Brooks was a hero in the South. Historical accounts claim that some of their colleagues refused to stop the melee and called for everyone to let them fight it out on the floor of the Senate.
Surely this incident was indicative of a descent into chaos that would ultimately lead five years later into civil war.
No decorum. No respect. No regard for human life. How could democracy, let alone the union, survive in this kind of political climate?
Thankfully, our nation’s leaders have not yet stooped this low into the abyss of physical violence inside the halls of Congress.
The religious community should, nevertheless, have a vested interest in the nation’s moral and social fabric.
Still, what many see today is a climate of political callousness and disrespect coming from our own elected officials from the highest offices in the land to the local levels of government.
Is the use of profanity, to cite one example, just the tip of the iceberg to demonstrate the new normal in terms of public discourse? Where is the wave of outrage and indignation that our airwaves condone when an elected official or commentator use profanity? Is their language or our silence a disgrace to everything decent and sacred about the American moral compass?
Recently, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott visited our community (Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island) and spoke about the deepening chasm on political discourse between Americans, which is corrupting the soul of our nation. Senator Scott said to me once on a phone call, “Rabbi, we can disagree on policy issues but we can still respect each other.”
Senator Scott spoke about rebuilding the broken bridges and repairing the breaches of trust between fellow Americans. Given the circumstances of our current state of affairs — the acrimony of political combat that we see on cable news and in local communities, including within the houses of worship and in governing bodies — isn’t it time we find a way out of this darkness into the light?
It is time to ask hard questions of ourselves about civility in public discourse.
Will truth and decency become collateral damage in America’s political wars? If America is a big family, can it endure the lack of civility in our nation’s politics? How can the American family find a way of continuing the passionate and healthy debates on policy without destroying the entire social infrastructure of the culture? Is there a cure for the metastasizing rancor and inflammatory rhetoric spreading through the body of our country?
Friendships and families are divided. People are not talking to each other any more. Some elected officials only speak to their so-called base, using caustic terms to denigrate their own constituents who oppose their views. These elected officials ignore their duty to represent all the people they serve and, instead, immerse themselves in incendiary barbs, believing that this will make their poll numbers rise.
Is the new norm in politics and in other sectors of society that the loudest voice — the most harsh voice, the voice that divides, demeans and impugns the integrity of those who disagree with their views — carries the day? Has the time come when need of a reset in our public discourse?
Senator Scott has made a national reputation for creating economic opportunity zones for Americans. Is there a new opportunity zone with our American family? One to reestablish the tone of propriety and mutual respect that, despite our profoundly different visions for what America should be, we can, nevertheless, find common ground at least in the way we speak to each other and then find solutions to our nation’s greatest challenges? Cut out the profanity and reject the insanity that swirls around us.
The ancients guided our forbears in the importance of decorum and respectability in public discourse. Their lessons are as important today as they were then. “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back” (Proverbs 29:11).
We need more wisdom and thoughtfulness today from our elected leaders, and maybe that will help us all.