Candidates’ words, tone matter

(The Indianapolis Star, June 22, 2016)

We are preparing to celebrate 240 years since our nation’s birth at the same time we are about to elect the 45th president of the United States. Throughout our history, we have known the pain and violence caused by racial, religious and gender stereotyping and discrimination.

Despite the difficulty in eradicating deeply held prejudices, there was a moment when the rules of civil discourse began to limit hate speech. We valued politeness, recognizing that certain beliefs were unacceptable in public discourse.

It was more than political correctness; it was an unwritten moral understanding. We knew that words reflected on our character, and the character traits we strove for were generosity, courage, justice and compassion.

We knew that words could hurt others, but we also knew they were a mirror that reflected on ourselves. And no one wanted to see the face of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, xenophobia and homophobia looking back at them.

We taught our children to choose their words carefully. We told them that words could comfort, but they also could hurt. We stopped them when they shouted out in anger, “You’re dumb; I hate you!” We banned name calling and “potty words” in our schools and our homes. We corrected our children when they made fun of or spoke negatively about those who were different than they. We did not tolerate bullying.

Today it appears that rudeness has overtaken politeness, incivility has overcome respect and vulgarity has triumphed over courtesy.

We feel compelled to say whatever comes to mind, no matter how repulsive, demeaning or intolerant. All filters have vanished. There is no longer a moral compass that tames our baser thoughts.

The fact that this rhetoric comes from political leaders is all the more distressing. Great public discourses were once models of elegance, reflecting exemplary grammar, good vocabulary and lofty ideals. We memorized those speeches in school. Think of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, John F. Kennedy and Marin Luther King. They inspired us to build community, made us willing to sacrifice and dream; to want to be better and nobler than we were.

Now political speeches are tearing us apart, pitting one group against another, targeting the most vulnerable, blaming and humiliating others.

If words are mirrors that reflect upon ourselves, we should ashamed. Recall those often repeated words spoken during this presidential campaign by a presumptive nominee — “moron,” “loser,” “imbecile,” “crooked.”

Remember in contrast these words: “Give me liberty or give me death.”(Patrick Henry) “Give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” (George Washington) “They that give up essential liberty to obtain temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security.” (Benjamin Franklin) “Ask not what my country can do for me but what I can do for my country.” (John F. Kennedy) “I have a dream.” (Martin Luther King) What has become of our grand tradition of oratory? What has happened to choosing our words carefully, to gracious, inspiring and thoughtful speech? Among other things, we need to measure our candidates by what they choose to say and decide what speech reflects the worst, and which, the best of who we are.

Sasso is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University.