Town tackles decline in civility

Town tackles decline in civility

Upcoming meeting will explore ways to raise the tone of public discourse

Mayor Paul Aronsohn, left, and Rabbi David Fine

Why can’t we all just get along?

The rabbis have been asking that question for years, particularly in late summer, around the time of Tisha B’Av, when sermons inevitably wrap around the themes of baseless hatred and intolerance.

But our secular community – especially as political discourse turns ever more hostile and bullying pervades both our schools and our social media – has been asking that as well, and at least one town has decided to do something about it.

According to Ridgewood’s Mayor Paul Aronsohn, the town began its civility initiative last year. With a core group including Rabbi David Fine of the town’s Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center, Councilwoman Gwenn Hauck, the Rev. Jan Phillips of the Religious Society of Friends, and Mr. Aronsohn, the town already has held two roundtable discussions on the issue, seeking to identify the problem and locate the line between disagreement and incivility.

“It’s not only what you say, but how you say it,” Mr. Aronsohn said, noting that any discussion must include both content and attitude. “It’s good and fine to disagree, but we should be able to disagree without being disagreeable.”

The mayor told participants at the first meeting – which drew a cross-section of the Ridgewood community – that during his more than six years in municipal government, he has seen people berate experts who testify at public meetings and has met with parents who have encountered coarse behavior on athletic fields. He also has seen an increase of incivility in online comments.

In a December 2014 op-ed for the Record, the mayor urged that “civility should become the new normal.

“Although incivility is nothing new,” he wrote, “it seems that 2009 was a pivotal year that began a steady decline. That year, a congressman from South Carolina broke tradition and yelled out during a presidential address to a joint session of Congress – effectively calling the president of the United States a liar. It was also in that year that New Jersey elected a governor who felt it was fine to vilify public workers, talk down to reporters, and shout down residents at town meetings…. Now, five years later, it is time for us to declare that enough is enough.”

To continue this discussion, the mayor has organized a program, slated for February 24, to provide a platform for a variety of perspectives. Panelists will include Englewood Councilwoman Lynne Algrant, North Jersey Media Group Publisher/President Stephen Borg, Ridgewood Police Department Captain Jacqueline Luthcke, public affairs executive and Jersey City official Robert Sommer, and Bergen County Executive James Tedesco. Rabbi Fine will facilitate the discussion.

Mr. Aronsohn said that he selected the panelists and the facilitator with an eye toward generating “good, thoughtful discussion – one that adds to our ongoing community-wide conversation about civility. By bringing our community together around this topic, my hope is to raise the level of public discourse and encourage respect for differing points of view.”

Panelist Robert Sommer noted that “public participation in government policy-making is vital – but we shouldn’t confuse participation with wanton disrespect of adversaries. Policy-making should mean working to accommodate various views. Disagreement is a valuable part of the process. Disrespect never should be.

“This panel will explore how to improve public discourse.”

In an email from Berlin, Rabbi Fine noted that he has been “happy to assist Mayor Aronsohn lead our village in a public discourse on civility. Our country was founded on the ideal of the right to engage in government, a right that is rooted in the ability of the citizenry to engage itself through the deliberative process. We have to know how to do that.

“It is very difficult, when people get passionate about their concerns” to speak against their opponents in a measured way, Rabbi Fine continued. “We too often allow our disagreements to become personal, when we ought to be debating an issue rather than the people who hold different opinions on that issue.

“In Judaism, this is included under what we call lashon hara, which translates literally as ‘evil speech.’ There are so many rules about lashon hara in Judaism because it happens all the time. It is the easiest mitzvah to transgress, but it can also be so harmful. While sometimes the motivations are sinister, usually that is not the case.”

He added that “people argue with each other at meetings, whether they be public village meetings or synagogue committees, because they care deeply and are invested in the community and the question at hand”

“We are blessed with the very clear model offered by Robert’s Rules” – the parliamentarian’s bible, which details the protocol that attends public speaking – “that when one speaks at a meeting, one should not address anyone in particular at the meeting except the chair. By addressing the chair, the speaker is forced to address the issue, not any other person in an adversarial ad hominem way. Ridgewood has begun a public discourse about public discourse, an exploration of the ways we can be more civil in public and communal discussion. I hope this process can serve as a model that can inspire others.

“Civility is important, not only for our village, but for society in general,” the police department’s Captain Jacqueline Luthcke wrote in an email.

“Just the simple ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are rarely heard anymore, and they are words we all learned to say as children. We also learned as children that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.’ Unfortunately, we have seen that names can, in fact, lead to hurt.

“That said, civility and common courtesy may help prevent fights, road rage, suicides, and any manner of disagreements. It is much easier to speak your mind without expecting someone to insult you, providing you don’t use insults when speaking. Many people take the anonymous route to speak their mind both to be able to use insults freely and to protect themselves from being insulted. Using anonymity is the equivalent of talking behind someone’s back, then lying to their face, without actually having to say the lie.

“Civility does not stifle disagreement or progress, but allows people to feel heard without the sting of personal negativity. Just because I disagree with your idea, does not mean I find you to be a disagreeable person.

“I was fortunate to take place in the first civility discussion, and I found it very soothing. Many people had similar thoughts, that civility was missing from many places in society. I am hopeful this next discussion will open the dialog more and start to bring about a change.

“As a police officer, I find that we are the ones that tend to bring civility to incidents. Yes, there are times we must come in strong to break up a fight or control an out-of-control person. But many times we have gone to a scene, such as a domestic violence. Here you have two people who originally fell in love, married, and had children – who at that moment can’t stand to be in the same room at the same time. Tempers have flared, name calling is rampant and violence is brewing.

“The police arrive and separate the parties to give them time to explain what is going on and see what kind of help is needed. Although some scenes may end in arrest, there are many times that both parties realized they said things they shouldn’t have, apologize to each other, and are able to work through their differences.

“The more personal the relationship, the more important civility becomes,” she concluded.

What: Panel discussion on “Civility in Public Discourse”

When: Tuesday, Feb. 24, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Ridgewood Public Library

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