Angry Words

An epidemic of uncivil discourse is taking over our national dialogue. Can we break the cycle?

by David M. Rosenberg (member of JWI's Clergy Task Force to End Domestic Abuse)

President Obama’s recent call “to temper our words and open our hearts” resonates personally as well as nationally. We must, he says, “focus on words and actions that can unite this country rather than divide it.”

Today, civil discourse seems to be a rarity. Granted, during a presidential election cycle, we expect to hear public figures speak intemperately. This year, however, the degree of rudeness, incivility and intemperance is particularly noticeable. 

Some strive to disregard or discount what they hear:  They didn’t mean it; they were quoted out of context; I’m sure they didn’t say it that way. Others cannot discount what they hear and are embarrassed by it, but insist that it is not of serious concern. However, uncivil words can make a lasting, negative impact. The old children’s rhyme has it partly wrong:  While it’s true that words alone cannot break one’s bones, it’s also true that they can inspire people to wield sticks and stones.

The danger of incivility is incalculable, nationally and internationally as well as in our communities, workplaces, families, friendships, associations. Watching what we say and considering carefully how we respond to what we hear are tasks that need to become as regular to us as grabbing a morning cuppa or checking for messages.

Examples of how our discourse has worsened are hard to miss. On the national level, insults have become a regular feature of political speech. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has frequently characterized his opponents as “pathetic,” “a loser,” “disgraceful,” and “crazy,” and has gained popularity and public standing in the process. He has directed similar disrespect to immigrant groups entering the U.S. In one northern Virginia school, reported Bruce Leshan on WUSA 9, white elementary schoolchildren ostensibly told darker-skinned classmates, “When Trump is president, you’ll be deported.” And in Indiana, according to a statement issued by the Diocese of Gary, white students at one Catholic high school reportedly taunted the Hispanic students on the basketball team of another Catholic school with the chant, “Build that wall!” According to a report on CNN, even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg abandoned her judicial reserve and called presidential candidate Donald Trump a “faker,” perhaps reflecting the state of discourse in the country.

And this increase in uncivil discourse has crept into the workplace. Christine Porath of Georgetown University and Christine Pearson of Thunderbird School of Global Management wrote about “The Price of Incivility” in an article of the same name that appeared in the January-February 2013 issue of the Harvard Business Review. They point to their research finding that “Rudeness at work is rampant, and it’s on the rise.” Porath and Pearson found that “targets of incivility often punish their offenders and the organization,” including by taking their frustration out on customers. When rudeness or bullying continues unaddressed, creativity suffers, performance and team spirit deteriorate, and customers turn away.  

Whether on the national stage or in our workplaces, we seem to be experiencing, wrote Alexander Heffner in a piece on (January 14, 2016), a generalized “trickle-down discourse” and a “spiral of incivility.” Rudeness begets rudeness, and sometimes leads to other behaviors. This dynamic can affect our friendships, romantic relations, and families. Dorothy Espelage of the department of educational psychology at the University of Illinois and Erin Reiney of the Health Resources and Services Administration, writing on, described the connections between bullying and family violence, sexual harassment, and dating violence.

How can individuals resist the temptation to join this wave of incivility? The rabbinic sages of the Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) counseled, “be careful with your words,” for ill-chosen words can lead to lies, exile, and death. We should avoid words that belittle and divide. When we encounter such words, we should express our opposition to them in ways that don’t contribute to further division. The sages further encouraged their students to imitate the biblical Aaron, “loving peace and pursuing peace.” We further peace when we express positive words that elicit human goodness and bring people together.

When surrounded by negative discourse, it is tempting to succumb. But we need to remind ourselves that the price of incivility for society – and our own souls – is too steep.

Rabbi David M. Rosenberg is the coordinator of Jewish educational services at the Jewish Child and Family Services in Chicago, Ill.