When we fight with respect and insist that others do the same, we'll all, in the long run, end up as winners.
So who did you vote for? The failed incumbent, or the 47 percent guy? The demonizer of the poor, or the defender of a cop killer? The tea-party fanatic, or the reckless spender?
Whoever it was, chances are that your candidate’s opponents portrayed him or her as a losing proposition, even if your candidate did end up winning the election.
Yes, you, like most of us, voted for a “loser.”
Let’s face it: We Americans could stand to learn a thing or two about how to argue. As the recent election smackdown reminds us, we’re often quick to hit our opponents below the belt. We argue for power rather than principle; we magnify tiny skeletons from our opponents’ pasts and project them as terrifying monsters of the future; we savor our opponents’ flaws like vultures on carrion.
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And it’s not just the politicians who fight dirty — most of us do. We, too, hit before we listen. We exploit people’s previous mistakes — even when they are people we love. When arguing with spouses or siblings, friends or acquaintances, co-workers or colleagues, we look for weakness and we lunge.
Of course, these difficulties are hardly new. The literature of every generation bursts with tawdry tweets and salacious slurs. Sadly, human history provides ample evidence that when we conflict, we humans are far quicker to attack than we are to discuss.
This was of great concern to the rabbis of antiquity. Discussing the art of discussion, the sages distinguished between two types of dispute — arguments for the sake of heaven, and arguments not for the sake of heaven.
An argument not for the sake of heaven, they suggested, is like that of Korach, a biblical bad-boy if there ever was one. As the Israelites wandered through the wilderness, Korach gathered supporters and tried to overthrow the leadership of Moses and Aaron. He lied; he connived; he pretended to be pious when he was really just power hungry.
In the end, there was a big showdown, during which the land beneath Korach and his followers opened up and devoured them all — a pretty clear message as to what God thought of them and their arguments.
An argument for the sake of heaven, on the other hand, is like those that the House of Hillel offered against the House of Shammai. Hillel and Shammai were two of the leading sages of first-century Israel, and they never seemed to agree with one another. The Talmud records hundreds of disagreements between the two camps.
Worse, there was also a power imbalance between the groups. When Hillel and Shammai conflicted over questions of Jewish law, Hillel’s view usually prevailed, which must have riled the Shammaites to no end.
But the Talmud tells us that the two schools actually got along with one another quite well. Hillel and Shammai, we learn, argued not over power but over truth, and the respect they shared allowed them to love one another despite, and because of, their differences.
Hillel’s views prevailed because he and his people were kind and modest. They studied not only their own words but the words of their opponents. And they always reviewed their opponents’ positions before stating their own.
Hillel can teach us that, even when we argue, there is strength in humility, and there is strength in respect.
Chances are that you’ve engaged in both kinds of arguments, and can distinguish between the two without the help of the ancients.
Some conflicts, as you know, drain and deplete us, while others are somehow ennobling. Some leave us feeling dirty and small; others uplift us. Some confuse power with principle; others are deeply rooted in respect, compassion and honesty.
To paraphrase the words of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, in an argument over principles and values, even when you lose, you win.
In an argument over power, even when you win, you lose.
Arguing for the sake of heaven doesn’t mean caving in, it means arguing well and nobly. It means really listening. It means being respectful and kind. And it means staunchly defending the truths you know and never sacrificing your humanity as you do.
The reason you voted for a “loser” is that we allow and encourage our leaders and potential leaders to fight dirty, and it brings us all down.
But when we fight with respect and insist that others do the same, we’ll all, in the long run, end up as winners — even our candidates.
Rabbi Mark S. Glickman leads Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island and Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville.
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