Who Is To Say When It’s Okay To Cry ‘Fire’?

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published April 27, 2011, issue of May 06, 2011.
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Lately there’s been a lot of talk about the importance of restoring civility in community discourse. Here’s what I think: It totally sucks.

It’s not that I’m against civility as such. Treating others with the same respect and kindness one wishes to receive in return is a nifty rule of thumb for any civilization. It was an iron law in my home growing up, and my mother used to whup me good when I broke it, which always struck me as an odd way to teach kindness, but that’s for another day.

No, my problem isn’t with civil behavior. My problem is with the notion of trying to get others to act civilly. Civility basically means treating other people with the respect they deserve. But that only works if everyone agrees that the other side deserves respect. This is not always the case. Urging civility implies asking folks to stick to substance. But sometimes the incivility is the substance.

It’s a fact that much of public debate these days consists not of polite exchanges by people trying to understand each other’s views, but of people trying to shut each other up.

If you have access to the Internet — or you happen to be, say, a retired South African judge volunteering to lead a U.N. investigation — then you’re familiar with the sort of vitriol that passes for debate these days. Why, just the other week a reader responded to my latest Forward column by informing me that I am an enemy of God. (Enemy?! Really?! And here I figured my Shanah Tovah card had just gotten lost in the mail.)

The way democratic society is supposed to operate is through a robust exchange of ideas, so everybody has a chance to sort out the facts and form their own opinions on the affairs of the day. Participants must listen to each other’s ideas and respond on the merits (“I disagree, because history shows…”) as opposed to mockery (“That’s idiotic!”) or name-calling (“You’re an idiot.”).

It’s not just that the name-calling is unenlightening. It’s also extremely unpleasant, and tends to discourage others from trying to speak up. In short, it’s a form of intimidation, which stifles the robust exchange of views. You could say folks ought to man up and speak their minds regardless. But they don’t. They stay home and watch TV, and democracy is diminished.

What happens, though, when one side doesn’t concede that the other side’s ideas have any legitimacy at all? Take it a step further: What if the other guy’s statements really are so off-base that their mere utterance is dangerous? Wouldn’t it then be my duty to try and shut him up?

You scoff, but such red lines do exist. It was Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. who coined the classic yardstick, that free speech doesn’t protect someone shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater. Unless there is a fire, of course. But it’s not always clear how and when that standard applies, unless you actually happen to be in a crowded theater when somebody shouts “fire!”

To see how the crowded-theater rule applies in real life, we would have to imagine a hypothetical debate that turns unruly, and try to see whether any talk sounds dangerous enough to justify the uncivil retorts. So let’s pick a topic out of a hat and try it out. Something like — oh, I don’t know: the Middle East?

We know how this plays out. It seems like any place Israel and the Palestinians get discussed is a crowded theater, and everything that’s said on the topic sounds like “fire!” to somebody. Israeli diplomats come to speak on campus and can’t finish their speeches because protesters won’t stop shouting bad things about Israel. Some people just don’t want to let anyone discuss Israel’s good side. Occasionally the diplomats have to be hustled off by security because things are getting ugly. I think we can agree this isn’t civil.

Then you have Israeli film festivals at Jewish community centers that prompt boycott campaigns by people who object to films showing bad things about Israel. Some people don’t want anyone discussing Israel’s bad side. In fact, we’ve got a whole network of organizations these days to monitor public discourse and let us know when somebody says the wrong things about Israel: JCC Watch to monitor the movies, Campus Watch to monitor the professors, Palestinian Media Watch, U.N. Watch, NGO (for non-governmental organization) Monitor and a whole potpourri of Watches and Watchamacallits checking up on newspapers, TV reporters and anybody else who might be saying bad things about Israel, including Israelis in their own country.

The monitors say they’re merely disclosing the facts so the public can decide, but we all know what happens next: People hear the monitors’ reports as a call to arms and promptly hit the phones and e-mail with threats and imprecations. Ordinary folks are intimidated. Which was exactly the plan, frankly.

The monitors believe that bad-mouthing of Israel encourages terrorists and worsens Israel’s diplomatic isolation, thereby endangering Israeli lives and threatening Israel’s very survival. In effect, they’re invoking the crowded-theater rule. If they’re right, then by stifling other voices they’re doing God’s work.

Indeed, some of their targets are people who do want Israel and Israelis dead. And very possibly their robust speech does endanger Israel. But other targets are self-proclaimed lovers of Israel, or even Israelis, who say bad things about Israel so as to change Israeli behavior that they believe threatens the state’s future. You might say they’re shouting “fire,” but they believe the fire is real.

If the critics are right that Israeli policies are threatening the Jewish state’s future, then it would be irresponsible of them to keep silent. On the other hand, if the monitors are right that it’s the critics themselves who endanger Israel’s survival, then they have a moral duty to try and silence them. Asking them to do it politely is beside the point; from their point of view, respecting the critics’ right to speak amounts to sitting by while Israel is bombarded. Which would hardly be a civil thing to do.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and follow his blog at www.forward.com


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