Thursday, December 19, 2013

On Shunning

This morning, it suddenly struck me that shunning seems to play a very large (too large) and seemingly increasing role in modern disagreement. No, I'm not talking about garden variety disagreement and/or criticism, even the vociferous kind; for an example of heated disagreement, see RI's Catholic Bishop's criticism of Nelson Mandela's stance on abortion, and the ensuing uproar.  For an example of shunning, see Bishop Tobin's refusal to sit with interfaith leaders who approve of civil same-sex marriage. Instead of merely disagreeing, shunning and posturing seem to be on the rise.

Just recently, Swarthmore Hillel entered the fray with Hillel International, launching the Open Hillel movement in protest against Hillel's policy proscribing speakers in favor of boycott or divestment from Israel; Hillel's policy, rightly or wrongly, had been to shun such speakers.  Presumably, this was a method of laying down the law and constructing firm lines on the limits of acceptable debate.  On the question of divestment, it's abundantly clear that Hillel is in the right; as to whether it's prudent to forbid such speakers from speaking at Hillel, I'm not sure.

In other headlines, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's eloquent Prime Minister, failed to attend the memorial service for Nelson Mandela.  Though the official reason given related to the cost and expense of attending, it's fairly clear that Netanyahu's distaste for Mandela's support of the Palestinians and criticism of Israel must actually have been the decisive factor.

At the installation for the new President of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a new Rabbinic seminary devoted to modern Orthodoxy, there was an over-discussed and scandalized panel involving Rabbis of multiple Jewish denominations.  Having this kind of panel prompted immediate condemnations, with many boycotting the installation.  Oh, the topic that prompted a public storm - "Training New Rabbis for a New Generation."

It doesn't come close to stopping there.  In a recent high profile move, the American Studies Association endorsed an academic boycott of Israel.  In response, many are suggesting a counter "boycott of the boycotters" through new legislation in the knesset, Israel's legislative body.  Last year, I myself even briefly joined into the craze, publishing my reasons for boycotting a dinner sponsored by RIETS, my own esteemed and beloved rabbinic seminary.

So what are we to make of all of the shunning?  Clearly, each of us has lines of support whereby even associating with a particular event, person, institution, whatever it might be, compromises our integrity and makes us complicit in a way which we naturally abhor.  In some ways, it is a healthy sign of conscience, integrity, and an affirmation that life is valuable, important, and yes, worth the fight.

On the other hand, the inability and unwillingness to hear or discuss positions with which we strongly disagree is troubling.  For one, it fits into a larger trend of polarization.  For a plethora of demographic, psychological, technological, and other reasons, humans increasingly tend to read, listen to, and speak with those who espouse like-minded thinking.  This creates an affirmation bias, distorts our understanding of the range and depth of views held, and stifles our own growth.  In my own life, I can recall many occasions where my thinking has gradually evolved, often due to being challenged by those with a different perspective. Ultimately, willing to listen, think, entertain, and even disagree represents a certain humility of the individual. It is in this spirit that our sages declared: Do not separate yourself from the community, and do not be sure of yourself until the day of your death (Pirkei Avot, 2:5).

At its core, shunning represents a declaration of moral certitude (sometimes necessary and required).  In normal civil discourse, it is understood that well-intentioned intelligent individuals may, in a good faith, come to different conclusions.  We respect and honor each person's right to think, reason, and act, embodying the best of the Divine image in man.  Civil disagreement is predicated on individuals truly valuing each other's autonomy and individuality.  Shunning represents a temporary change in the rules, and is predicated not on respect but a paternalistic assertion of relative moral certitude.

Of course, we're all going to have different red-lines, and disagree as to which particular situations require taking a stronger stand.  Still, it seems that on the whole, it's better to err on the side of civil discourse, and act with a strong preference to shun shunning.      


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