A Religious Philosopher and a Journalist Offer Insights on Civility

The GW Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership hosts conversation on the limits of civil discourse.

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Mayberg Center Director Erica Brown (l), Professor Moshe Halbertal (c) and Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of The Atlantic, discuss the limits of civil discourse. (Harrison Jones/GW Today)
March 07, 2018

By B.L. Wilson

The limits of civil discourse, particularly in the political democracies of the United States and Israel, were examined through the lens of philosophy and journalism in a conversation hosted by the George Washington University Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.

In opening remarks, Michael Feuer, the dean of the GW Graduate School of Education and Human Development, which houses the Mayberg Center, said that civil discourse transcends politics.

“It is central to our survival as a modern democratic society,“ Dr. Feuer said.

He thanked Louis Mayberg, B.B.A.’83 and his wife, Mannette, for support that enables the graduate school to expand and enrich a commitment to pluralism, diversity and mutual understanding and the great values of teaching and learning.

The evening at the Jack Morton Auditorium brought together Moshe Halbertal, professor of Jewish thought and philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and New York University, and Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic magazine. Erica Brown, the director of the Mayberg Center, moderated a discussion in which, she said, “The ancient world bumps up against the up-to-the-minute universe of politics and interesting aspects of our culture.”

Dr. Halbertal began by saying that “democracies are ruled by argument.” He added that the weakness of political discourse by argument is that there is a fine distinction between argument and manipulation.

“How do you establish a culture that understands that distinction,” Dr. Halbertal said, “in an age where elections are run by advertising companies” and “where politics is like selling a product.”

Reflecting on Dr. Halbertal’s observations, Mr. Goldberg said the challenge for journalism “is fighting for values we already thought were fixed…that there is such a thing as observable truth, empirical truth” that everybody can agree upon.

Mr. Goldberg said that he was at a good place at The Atlantic to wage that fight, working with younger journalists to modulate the tendencies toward hyper-tribalism and partisanship of the current era.

“I try to teach a group of journalists… that the test of whether you are real journalists is not whether you anger your enemies,” he said, “it’s whether you anger your friends.”


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Louis and Manette Mayberg founded the Mayberg Foundation, which funded the creation of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. (Harrison Jones/GW Today)


Dr. Brown asked the two whether the way language is used has changed.

“The new media I would say is really language on an anorectic level,” Dr. Halbertal said. “Argument needs space. Let’s see if you can make an argument rather than an emotional appeal, a sound bite.”

Mr. Goldberg countered that he wasn’t sure that there was a golden period of language. “We sometimes mistake the degradation of language for velocity,” he said. “Things that society would stop, pause and say, ‘You can’t say that,’ all goes by in such a rush there is no sanction anymore.”

The “monster” unleashed by social media may have been subdued, he said, and could have strengthened mainstream media. “There’s a new appreciation for slower discourse,” noting The Atlantic added 70,000 subscribers last year.

In the Torah, Dr. Brown noted, there is the concept of argument for the sake of heaven. She asked, “What argument is worth having?”

The argument between Moses and Korach in the Torah, Dr. Halbertal said, is the argument over principles, over truth versus arguments, over sectorial interests and winning at all costs.  “Can you generalize it across all citizens or is it just a defense of a certain interest group?” he said.

Mr. Goldberg said most people on Capitol Hill would choose Moses--who represents truth--if asked, though no one models that behavior. As a journalist, he said, he would like a debate about the acute challenges the technological age poses to democracy.

“How far we have moved from the vision of the founders, their understanding of human nature and the dangers of direct democracy,” Mr. Goldberg said.  

In media and in politics, not just in Israel and the United States, Dr. Halbertal added, there needs to be an examination of “the negative selection process of leadership… with the scrutiny, the viciousness, the way in which someone can be destroyed very easily. That makes good people say, ‘I don’t want to be there.’”

Asked for a hopeful perspective, Dr. Halbertal said, “I think it is not so much hope but a refusal to surrender.

“Young people, young Israelis in what they do, what they care about, there is something about that that is very hopeful,” he said. “That is why you want them not to shy away from politics.”

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Gift from foundation will establish the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.