Civility In The Age Of Immediacy

Friday, September 17,2010
Kol Nidre 5771

Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, PhD Congregation Emanu-El

You may have already forgotten Steven Slater’s name but you will remember the Jet Blue steward’s 15 minutes of fame this summer after a particularly difficult flight dealing with what he said were “unruly” flyers. He boiled over, grabbed the intercom, cursed at the passengers, and with a beer in each hand made an unauthorized exit by activating and sliding down the airplane emergency chute.

Having an emotional melt-down is one thing, but the public reaction to his becoming unhinged is quite something else. AS a result of his brash exit from the plane and his job, T-shirt sellers began peddling garments with the legend, “Quit Your Job With Style” on one side and “I’m With Slater” on the other. Responses to the question “What job should Steve do next?” that appeared a one of many supportive Facebook and MySpace pages included: anger management consultant, talk show host, and air traffic controller. A Wall Street  Journal/NBC poll concluded that reactions to Slater’s brash act reflect broad public anger. But in the final analysis, it is not so much that the public is angry or that one airline employee went berserk. It is that so many applauded his shamefully ill-tempered uncontrollable behavior.

The public reaction to Slater’s behavior reflects a paradigm shift in which civility is not only lost but incivility is championed and rewarded. Examples of the acceleration of communal incivility abound as the Broken Windows theory suggests: the disintegration of the social order Intensifies Societal problems (1996). The Great Recession’s economic turbulence has led to an outbreak of collective rage and incivility, forming the leitmotiv of our age. Bitterness, resentment and obnoxious behavior rule the day.

Technology is also fueling the disregard for kind and gentle behavior. “Blackberry jam” is new term for texters who, not watching where they are going, bump into one another because the deluge of self-absorbed stimuli-texting, tweeting, blogging, downloading, uploading,
and listening to ipods makes people oblivious to their surroundings.

A recent Kenneth Cole fashion advertisement reads, “12% of people check their emails in their place of worship … OMG – Oh my God!” A more reliable source, a Samsung Mobil survey, reveals that 33% of respondents admitted to texting and only half paying attention during concerts and plays. At a recent young adult service, we lowered the lights for the silent prayer and suddenly blue lights popped up all over darkened sanctuary. In one synagogue, rude behavior is such a chronic problem that ushers distribute laminated bookmarks entitled: “Ten Commandments of Synagogue Etiquette.”

Today, multi-tasking is accepted as standard at meetings as participants text below the sight line of the table because they inherently know that it is impolite. our teeny tiny screens display messages and shows, late breaking news streams across the bottom, stock Quotes blink, pop up promos appear. Media critic William Power’s newly published book, Hamlet’s Blackberry (2010) terms this “digital maximalism.” This obsessive connectivity scornfully called the “Narcissus trance of the gadget lover” infects our self-absorbed age.

Narcissus, you may remember, fell in love with his own reflection in the river and drowned after plunging into the water in a reverie that led him to search for the image that he craved. The Greeks understood the tension between self-absorption and selflessness because they believed that self-love leads to unavoidable disaster.

Many of you heard Rabbi Bauer speak about his belief that technology has lulled us into the false sense of security, that we are connected, when in fact we are becoming increasingly isolated and disconnected from our partners and spouses, children, thoughts and books and, worst of all in my opinion, from civil behavior. He recommended countering the isolating impact Of technology by focusing on  community. Although we may be increasingly lonely and divorced from community, tonight I focus on the I-ness of our crowded 24n world because as we become more self-absorbed we become more isolated, and as we become more isolated, we become more uncivil, and as we become more uncivil, we focus primarily on ourselves and speak rudely to those who get in our way.

New Yorker film critic David Denby’s insightful book entitled Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining our conversation (2009) defines “snark” as “a nasty, knowing strain of abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation,” that is both increasingly unavoidable and intrinsically hurtful. “Snark is like a schoolyard taunt without the schoolyard” “… snark is hazing on the page.” It is humor used as a vehicle for cruelty, the repackaging of anger as a smear. Denby concludes that the “gas of snark enters the air around us as a corrosive sense that cynicism is hip and everyone is vulnerable.” Incivility, gossip and slander have been transformed into an art form in today’s “peep show culture,” where people thrive on sensationalism and titillating stories about others.

The full impact of snarking is yet unknown. Web sites where students leave cruel, anonymous postings are a high stakes game because they can be lethal. Consider the suicide of teenager Megan Meier who was hounded by a mother in her neighborhood who pretended on Facebook to be a boyfriend who suddenly dropped her with cruel and callous words, or 15-year-old Phoebe Price who was vilified, taunted and threatened for three months by her South Hadley Mass high school classmates and hanged herself on January 14 to escape on-line slurs, harassment and bullying. people may believe they have the right to say whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want, however cruel it may be, but in this case, nine of the harassing teenagers now face felony charges, having failed to consider the consequences Of their uncivil behavior toward a peer. we Should also wonder about the culpability of teachers,  administrators, and other parents who were aware of this on-line hounding and chose to ignore it.

Rumor mongering, termed “cyberpolarization” or “mass intellectual mugging,” is fueled by web sites that explicitly cater to user ideology. In his new book on Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why we Believe Them, What can Be Done, Cass R. Sunstein (2010), head of the white House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, writes that because Of the viral spread of rumors on the internet, even when disproven, rumors persist such as the inextinguishable falsehood that president Obama is a Muslim and non-native born American, further fueling distrust and uncivil comments in the public square.

Strident and vengeful behavior is on the increase. David Denby suggests that public speech is composed of spin, prevarications, and barefaced lies. “uncompromising” has become a term Of approbation. In our increasingly litigious and unforgiving society, we no longer sit down and agree to disagree, following “gentlemanly” etiquette. Instead, we try to smash our opponents with whatever means necessary. The YouTube advertisement of Rochester New York personal injury attorney Jim “The Hammer” Shapiro for example depicts a scene of exploding vehicles and street mayhem overlaid by “The Hammer” with fist raised, shouting:

Hurt? I cannot rip out the hearts of those who hurt you! I cannot hand you their
severed heads! But I can hunt them down and settle the score!

Israel has taken a trouncing in international arena, the press, on university campuses, even among sophisticated Jews who believe PR that is discrediting and delegitimizing the Jewish Homeland. This year for example, the shouting down of Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the US at a UC Irvine public campus meeting is emblematic Of ill-mannered efforts to shame and disgrace Israel with tasteless rhetoric instead of a civil discussion that focuses on the Challenges both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute face.

For this reason, Bay Area rabbis issued a pastoral letter calling for a year of “Listening and speaking Respectfully About Israel” in order to share respectful dialogue, even in the midst of passionate argument, model civil discourse often lacking in synagogues and communal institutions, and join “a sincere effort by all parties in the debate to listen and learn from one another, based upon our love for our people and for the state of Israel (paraphrase).”

Nevertheless, I wonder if it is possible to restrain the right Of self-expression for the sake of community. In Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette Of Democracy (1998), Yale Law professor, Stephen L. carter offers a concise definition of civility as “the sum of the many sacrifices we are called upon to make for the sake of living together.” In a truly civil society, we demonstrate our willingness to put others first and that selfless act makes society a better place. For Carter, “Civility discourages the use of legislation rather than conversation to settle disputes, except as a last, carefully considered effort.” Even the champion of civil disobedience, Henry David Thoreau, would never cotton to litigious or rude behavior.

The Hebrew phrase for common decency is derech eretz. Translated into the English as fairness, virtue, or civility, our sacred texts teachs about honoring one another, befriending the stranger, making peace where there is strife, converting an enemy into a friend, valuing and protecting minority opinions. Derech eretz stresses the importance Of problem-solving consensus-seeking societies that champion civility rather than promote incivility.

The sensitive treatment of civil behavior is demonstrated by mitzvoth that reveal the extent to which we should be willing to go to act nobly. You may find it unusual, but there is a mitzvah to forget, the mitzvah of sh’chee-cha-of not remembering to cOllect Sheaves of grain and crops left behind during the harvest, so that the poor may enter a field without asking permission and glean what has been purposely forgotten. Even more extraordinary is the mitzvah to lie. When asked if the bride is beautiful, we are commanded to say that she is beautiful even if she is not because in the eyes of her husband she is.

Jewish tradition seriously treats the words of proverbs (18:21): “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” because ill-timed or misused words have the power to end friendships, demolish reputations, destroy marriages, ruin business relationships, and embitter family members. so important is this that malevolent language and gossip is refined into four categories:

Lashon harah-evil or careless repeating of truthful information that is derogatory or damaging to others.

Rehilut-malicious repeating Of gossip that, even if not derogatory, can cause ill will or animosity.

Motzi shem ra-public humiliation or character assassination, the slanderous spreading of false, malicious, derogatory information.

Sinat hinam– malevolent language, haughty words that deprecate as contrasted with lash on ha tov-virtuous language.

The psalmist admonishes: “Guard our tongues from evil and our lips from speaking deceitful speech (Psalms 34:13).” what then are antidotes to incivility? My teacher, Eugene B. Borowitz, once was asked why we do not pronounce the unpronounced ineffable four-letter name of God, even if we think we know how to do so. His succinct response: “Because we don’t have to say everything we know or think.” Unfortunately, in our age of incivility, inner censors are dead!

In the midst of our fast from food, try a fast from words: no gossip, no cruel or derogatory comments, no telling tales out of school, even if accurate and true. Replace lashon harah– malevolent language, words that hurt with lash on ha tov-virtuous language, words that heal. caution children speaking or pushing “send,” without considering the consequences. Before engaging in “trash talk,· pass words by a gatekeeper who asks: Is it kind? Is it true? Is it fair? It is useful? Is it harmless? Is it hurtful? Is it necessary?, an advocacy group created to combat “verbal violence,” asks people to take the following pledge: “I will try to replace words that hurt with words that encourage, engage and enrich.” If we expect our children to become civil citizens by intuition, we are fooling ourselves. Our children cannot and should not learn about courteousness in the street any more than they Should learn about human sexuality from the worldwide web. Only a proactive approach will reign in uncivil out-of-control behavior.

Another way to raise the level of familial and public discourse is to encourage respect for the opposition. Sage Israel Salanter recommended: “Be vigilant in protecting the honor Of all people, especially those with whom you disagree.” In Great Britain, the party out of power is respectfully referred to “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.” What we miss today is respectful dialogue with a loyal opposition, whether about Israel, American politics, or controversial issues such as the debate over the proposal to build an Islamic center near ground zero in New York City. What has been missing from this controversy is a thoughtful way to talk about the balance between the freedom of religion and the sensitivities of the families of the victims of 9/11.

I think back several years ago to a comparable controversy that swirled around a Carmelite convent established at Auschwitz.  Recognizing the sensitivity of this issue, Pope John Paul II ordered the nuns to relocate their crosses and convent, even though they had every right to construct their facility there.

In the public square, the politics of moral annihilation ought not be rewarded. we should demand well-mannered behavior of our elected officials and business leaders. we can take our cue from the words of founding father of the republic, John Adams, in a letter to a friend in the spring of 1776.

We may please ourselves with the prospect of free
and popular governments, God grant us the way. But I
fear that in every assembly members will obtain an
influence by noise rather than sense, by meanness
rather than greatness, and by ignorance and not
learning, by contracted hearts and not large souls.
There is one thing, my dear sir, that must be
attempted and most sacredly observed, or we are all
undone. There must be decency and respect and
veneration introduced for persons of every rank, or
we are undone. In a popular government, this is our
only way.

Steelmaker Andrew Carnegie, at the time he was the wealthiest man in the world, was asked why he did not stop working long after he had more wealth than he could ever possibly need. He replied: “I didn’t know how to stop!” Examples abound of how to stop our collision course toward greater incivility, even if we do not know how.

William Powers (2010), author of Hamlet’s Blackberry, offers an antidote to our self-created bustle: “stop checking your inbox ten times a day, or ten times an hour. Concentrate on your higher more serious purpose. Enrich your own experience. Don’t be a slave to technology.” And if you need an example from the secular world, New York Times oped columnist Bob Herbert (2010) advises reducing “the speed limits of our lives and savor the moment by leaving cell phones at home every once in awhile. He concludes: “Try kissing more and tweeting less. And stop talking so much.”

September 21st is the U.N. International Day of Peace. people worldwide are being asked to pause at noon for one minute to pray for peace. Those prayers magnified a million times hopefully will align participants with something other than self-absorbed behavior
( we could try it here by focusing on our frailties, a central High Holy Day liturgy theme:

The sins of arrogance, bigotry and cynicism; Of deceit
and egotism, flattery and greed, injustice and
jealousy. some Of us kept grudges, were lustful,
malicious, or narrow-minded. others were obstinate
or possessive, quarrelsome, rancorous, or selfish.
There was violence, weakness of will, xenophobia. we
yielded to temptation, and showed zeal for bad

If we are less about the me of I-ness, we can subscribe to the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel who called mitzvot the “ineffable delight of sacred deeds.” His ennobling big-picture words remind us that we can redeem ourselves from our over-burdened, technology-laden,  self-centered lives. He wrote: “… be sure that every deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can all do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments … And above all, remember … to build life as if it were a work of art.”

Mitzvot, kind charitable acts, are better than friending, texting, screen keyboard tapping and emailing. Temple Emanu-EI’s Caring Community of devoted temple volunteers, for example, reaches out to those celebrating the birth of a child, recovering from illness, dealing with bereavement or in need of a kind word or friendly visit. Those who volunteer universally find that they get more than they receive and you can too. It is the perfect remedy for incivility.

Nitzavim, tomorrow’s Torah portion, reminds us that everything we do has the potential to fragment and diminish or ennoble and increase holiness. We can retreat into the little screen world or we can enter the sacred world of civility and engagement. Take a Yom Kippur moment to reduce the speed limit by unplugging, digitally detoxing, and adding a pinch of lashon hatov-virtuous language in order to change the focus from selfishness to selflessness. Amen!

Shanah tova!


Carter, S. (1998). Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy. New York: Basic Books.

Denby, David (2009). Snark: It’s Mean, It’s personal, and It’s Ruining our Conversation. New York: Simon & SChuster.

Herbert, Bob (2010). “Tweet Less, Kiss More” in The New York Times, July 16, 2010.

George L. Kelling & catharine Cole (1996). Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities. New York: Touchstone.

Pastoral Letter (2010). “Listening and speaking Respectfully About Israel.”

Powers, William (2010). Hamlet’s Blackberry. New York: Harper Collins.

Sunstein, Cass R. (2010). On Rumors: HOW Falsehoods Spread, Why we Believe Them, what can Be Done. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.


The cantor sings:


David Friedman

So many things you can’t control

So many hurts that happen every day

So many heartaches that pierce the soul

So much pain that won’t ever go away

How do we make it better?

How do we make it through?

What can we do when there’s nothing we can do?

We can be kind

We can take care of each other

We can remember that deep down inside

We all need the same thing

And maybe we’ll find

If we are there for each other

That together we’ll weather whatever tomorrow may bring

Nobody really wants to fight

Nobody really wants to go to war

If everyone wants to make things right

Then what are we always fighting for?

Does nobody want to see it?

Does nobody understand?

The power to heal is right here in our hands.

We can be kind

We can take care of each other

We can remember that deep down inside

We all need the same thing

And maybe we’ll find

If we are kind to each other

That together we’ll weather whatever tomorrow may bring

And it’s not enough to talk about it

Not enough to sing a song

We must walk the walk about it

You and I

Do or die

We’ve got to try to get along

We can remember that deep down inside

We all need the same thing

And maybe we’ll find

If we are kind to each other

That together we’ll weather whatever tomorrow may bring

And maybe we’ll find

True peace of mind

If we always remember

We can be kind.