The Call for Civil Discourse

For better or for worse, the tragic Tucson shooting of January 8, 2011, has changed the way Americans think about civil discourse. The coarsening national political dialogue which preceded the event may have had no relationship to the attempted assassination of U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords. Nevertheless, the image of the popular Blue Dog Democrat between the crosshairs of Governor Sarah Palin’s political website may now be permanently etched into America’s collective political consciousness. The intense scrutiny of this event – which appears to have been the action of a deranged lone gunman, Jared Lee Loughner – will likely have a significant impact on the way that we think about political communication. For the effort to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism in American education systems, there are three lessons that we may take away from this horrific tragedy.

To begin with, public attention is now properly focused on the quality and civility of political discourse. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, announced a major initiative to “restore civility,” promising to “join the call for a more respectful political debate.” Similarly, President Barack Obama highlighted this issue in his address at the Tucson memorial service. To be sure, some have argued that such calls are opportunistic efforts by the party in power to suppress the vigorous dissent which new political initiatives have provoked. (President Obama arguably toned down the “civil discourse” language in his State of the Union address, perhaps in response to precisely this criticism.) Whether such jibes are justified or not, the new calls for civility echo one of The Anti-Semitism Initiative’s signature contributions. When Gary Tobin and Aryeh Weinberg wrote The UnCivil University (2006, rev. ed. 2009), their fundamental insight was that the significant fact of contemporary campus anti-Semitism is not the volume or severity of recent problematic incidents, but the erosion of civility norms which had served as a bulwark against such abuses from the Second World War until the Second Intifada. If we want to prevent the abuses, we must repair the norms which had previously prevented them.

More specifically, Loughner’s deranged action reminds us of the dangerous power that hate speech can have. In the aftermath of the tragedy, University of California at Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau issued a public statement which announced in part that “[a] climate in which demonization of others goes unchallenged and hateful speech is tolerated can lead to such a tragedy.” Birgenau’s statement was immediately criticized by some conservative commentators, because the Chancellor went on to attack political opponents in language which his critics have argued demonstrates precisely the kind of demonization which he appears to denounce. For example, Birgeneau’s statement accused members of Congress who voted against the Dream Act of “mean-spirited xenophobia” and accused Arizonans of legislating “discrimination against undocumented persons.” Nevertheless, Birgeneau’s denunciation of demonization, whether apt in this context or not, is surely a beneficial view for the Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley to hold. In light of the BDS movement’s recent inroads on that campus, it would be helpful for the Chancellor to understand that “demonization” is not only a prong of Natan Sharansky’s “3-D Test,” but also an especially troublesome facet of political discourse on Birgeneau’s campus and elsewhere. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen documents in his recent opus, Worse Than War, that demonization has frequently preceded some of the worst forms of mass-tragedy, including the Holocaust and other anti-Jewish massacres.

Finally, the Tucscon tragedy has awakened some observers to the variety of virulence that can now be found on some college campuses. Birgeneau’s controversial statement, whatever its other faults, contains another extremely important insight. “We must work to support dialogue about our differences and eschew expressions of demonization of others,” Birgeneau wrote, “including virulent attacks on Israel, anti-Muslim graffiti, racism towards African-Americans, Chicano/Latinos and other underrepresented minority groups, and homophobic acts” (emphasis added). Given the current climate on California’s public university campuses, Birgeneau’s statement represents a kind of watershed moment, insofar as he recognizes that “virulent attacks on Israel” must be viewed in the same light as other forms of bigotry. Sadly, Birgeneau’s colleagues at other University of California campuses have failed to recognize this fundamental point. The fundamental point of IJCR’s successful Title VI reform advocacy has been to convince the federal government to treat anti-Semitic animus on a par with other forms of bias. It is no less important to convince university administrators to do the same. In this context, it will be very important to monitor University of California campuses to ensure that they comply with Birgeneau’s dictum. As Birgeneau admonished in the preceding sentence, “We must be vigilant to condemn hate speech and acts of vandalism on our campuses by those wanting to promote enmity.” The question now is whether Birgeneau and other campus leaders are finally willing to “condemn hate speech and acts of vandalism” with the same vigor when they take the form of “virulent attacks on Israel” as when they take other equally loathsome forms.