Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Against Civility

Last week, I published a short defense of Sarah Silverman after the comedian was personally and viciously attacked by Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt in the pages of The Jewish Press

I normally don’t read comments on my articles—you tend to stop after you’ve been compared to a Nazi in a thread—but I broke my own rule and perused the ones that had cropped up. I guess I was just curious to see what my fellow Jews thought of this display of misogyny and the response to it. 

Of course, there were some in support of my piece (thanks!) and several against it (thanks person who thought I shouldn’t reproduce!). And there was one that I just couldn’t place. It was about civility. 

Specifically, one of the commenters very kindly pleaded for a return to civility. I’m not sure if she was referring to the substance of my article as being uncivil or if she was pointing to the previous comments or if she was referring to Silverman’s videos or Rosenblatt’s original letter. Or maybe she meant some combination thereof. I can’t be sure.

As well intentioned as this commenter is, I have a problem with cries of “civility” in general. They tend to suggest a false equivalency between two competing sets of ideas, that all sides in a debate are somehow legitimate. Cries for civility seems to suggest that our biggest concern should be whether or not we can sit down together and chat nicely. 

But as Lindy West (marry me!) over at Jezebel recently wrote in her appraisal of the “culture wars” and her desire to win them—“Not all ideas are created equal.”

This is isn’t like sitting down at a Michelin rated restaurant and ordering from the menu. In that scenario, anything you choose will be delicious. In the above example, you’re being asked to choose between a tender steak and rotten eggs. Who in his right mind would choose rotten eggs? 

Advocating in favor of women’s second-class status (both in secular and Jewish settings) or the continued oppression of minorities are the rotten eggs on the menu of ideas. Sorry if that’s “uncivil” of me to note in such a blunt way, but there you have it. I might be uncivil. But I’m also right. Or at least should be in a society that purports to strive for equality for all before the law.

You know what’s truly uncivil? Shackling a woman and dragging her across the floor for the crime of wearing a prayer shawl on the women’s side of the Western Wall. Forcing women to literally sit at the back of the bus. Removing them from ads and public life in Jerusalem for the sake of “modesty” and “decency.” These words are a mere hop, jump, and skip from “civil.” 
Not a lot of people have openly supported these actions outside of the ultra-Orthodox community. But rabbis, leaders, and other officials continue to speak out in favor of an unequal framework in which these actions make sense, at least at the extreme end of the spectrum. When you continue to assert that women have different “souls,” which mind you, is something that can never be proven, it should not be surprising when some try to codify this “difference” into rules regarding dress, behavior, and aspirations. 

And heaven forfend if you’re a woman who expresses that she does not fit the so-called womanly mold, you’re pathologized, just as Rosenblatt did to Silverman. He didn’t attack her ideas (the most recent video argued pretty forcefully about the injustice of voter ID laws), but her choices as a human being, her decision to not have children.

He could not possibly accept that she simply doesn’t fit the “feminine ideal” and that’s okay. Why?  Because the structure of halacha and Orthodox Judaism depends upon women fulfilling the mother-wife role. After all, one of the rationales I was taught about why women are not obligated in “time bound” mitzvot is because of their duties in the home. But what happens to strictures such as these when women are necessarily mothers and wives above all else? Does this mean that these laws have outlived their usefulness?

As far as civility goes—unlike Rosenblatt, most of his critics did not attack him personally. They attacked his arguments, his beliefs about women and their role in the world. I didn’t question his life choices and write something like, “Hey, why did you become a rabbi? Is it because you didn’t do well on the SATs and couldn’t get into a good college?” Of course, I have no idea what his SAT scores were or if he has always wanted to be a rabbi or if he event went to college. I’m merely using this as an example of uncivil discourse that I didn’t engage in. I didn’t suppose to know about him personally. I stuck to his arguments in my response. (With a dash of snark for entertainment value.) Though Rosenblatt didn’t use “vulgar” language, his attacks on Silverman’s person could be categorized as uncivil.

This doesn’t matter all that much. Silverman is hardly a shrinking violet and can more than defend herself. (I’d like to think that she finds the talk about her uterus very amusing.)  And civility, while admirable, is not the highest virtue is. Justice is. Equality is. 


Jacob Berman said...

Hear hear...you forgot to mention the part where most people who plead for "returning" to civility don't seem to remember that disagreements used to be settled by physically dueling. If not then, when exactly are we supposed to be "returning" to? The McCarthy 50s?

Dvora Meyers said...

Yup. Nostalgia typically involves a whole lot of forgetting.