By Rabbi Debbie Reichmann
It’s election season. Banners and flags and signs dotting the landscape. Ads on the television (and social media) lauding the qualities of the candidates. American Democracy in action.
It’s election season. Property is defaced, neighbors draw their political lines at their fences. Ads on the television (and on social media) attack and smear the candidates. American Democracy in action.
It would be naive to expect the first iteration and not the second. It may be nostalgia that it seems to me that it wasn’t so vitriolic in the past. But, just because something exists and has existed doesn’t mean it can’t be examined again.
The crucible that is today’s media environment, online, on paper, on tv raises the volume of political speech to levels unimaginable even in the recent past. When in a screaming match, though, an argument ceases to be an argument and becomes each side bludgeoning the other with cruel and bitter soundbites. The audience, aka the electorate, aka the American public, is treated as a receptacle for trash and poison. The candidates are subject to ridicule, incensed rhetoric and innuendo.
Somewhere in there everyone forgot about human dignity. The dignity of the candidates, the dignity of the electorate, the dignity of democracy. This lapse is nothing short of sin, yes sin, “a transgression against divine law.” At least, this is so in Judaism.
Of all the values of the Torah, human dignity has a place of primacy, so much so that preserving and protecting human dignity overrides almost all the other mitzvot (commandments).
The Talmud retells the argument between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4) as to which fundamental principle encapsulates the teachings of the Torah. Rabbi Akiva held that it was the verse (Leviticus 19:18) “You shall love your fellow as yourself.” Ben Azzai disagreed and held that it was the verse (Genesis 5:1) “This is the book of the generations of Adam. On the day that God created humanity, God made humans in the likeness of God.” In either case, the reverence of humanity as worthy of respect and the acknowledgment that holiness is a human trait points to respect for fellow humans.
One can make the argument that political and electioneering speech doesn’t cross the boundary into degrading human dignity. I argue that in today’s world of echo chambers and polarization, it does. Instead of seeing candidates as human beings with distinct ideas and nuance, the nature of today’s campaigns reduces people to binary equations, yes/no opinions, in or out mentalities. This is a direct contradiction to the reality of humanity as living on a spectrum. No one shares all of your opinions, and no one opposes all of them. If we can not look to find the commonalities, in addition to the differences, the democratic process is lost because we no longer see others as human and deserving of human dignity. They are reduced to insubstantial representations of hatred, of otherness, of less than human.
The stakes of politics and elections are high. The nature of the system of parties and positions doesn’t allow for a great deal of deviation. I am not arguing that people shouldn’t vote along party lines, along specific ideals, along defined issues. That IS the nature of democracy. The blanket demonizing of the other side, though…. That is a problem. The Jewish sage, Hillel, famously taught, “that which is hateful to you, do not do to others.” I for one appreciate having my human dignity acknowledged and protected, and it is the least I can do to extend that dignity to others. Whether I agree with them, or not.