Making discourse civil again
By Ilan Preskovsky
In an age of social media, instant-communication, and toxic political discourse, the way we talk to each other has taken on levels of significance and complexity that previous generations could never have so much as imagined. As political correctness and freedom of expression battle it out in our universities and the most evil and pernicious ideologies find new life in the deepest nooks and crannies of the internet, our very day-to-day existence has been upended by telecommunication technologies that have as much power to unite the world as they do to tear it apart.
We have never been better informed, but the same tools we use to bring worlds of information to our doorsteps can inundate us with enough cynicism, despair, and hopelessness to have even the most gregarious of us afraid to leave the relative safety of our own four walls. Social media, meanwhile, connects us to friends and family across the globe, but can just as easily create extreme loneliness and isolation as virtual communication constantly threatens to turn real, face-to-face interaction into some kind of lost art form. And then there’s cyber-bullying. If the old-fashioned modes of school yard bullying weren’t destructive enough, social media has given bullies the ability to utterly destroy their targets in ways unimaginable even fifteen years ago, with nothing more than a well-placed keystroke.
This is, to be clear, no screed against the tech that has, in so many ways, enriched our lives over the past century-plus and it’s not even a rant against the state of the world, which may appear to be teetering on the edge of the apocalypse every time you turn on the news, but is, in many respects, better than it has ever been in human history. What is clear, though, is that, like all inventions, the miracles of technology and increased connectivity are double-edged swords that become all the more cutting when they are used to amplify the trend of people become increasingly unable to have real conversations about politics, economics, religion, race, and any number of other vitally important questions of our times without descending into vitriolic shouting matches.
Into this arena enters Rabbi Zev Kahn, a former Port Elizabeth native now living in Chicago, who aims to, quite literally, change the conversation with his Positive Speech Project (PSP).
Getting the conversation back on track
Rabbi Kahn’s PSP is, he fully admits, very much a work in progress that has been evolving almost from its very conception – which occurred shortly after the 2016 presidential election, when Rabbi Kahn heard from a number of students at the University of Illinois how “angry” and “depressed” they were, and he urged them to try and find a way to keep politics out of their daily discourse. With a desperate need to address the almost unparalleled levels of bitterness, ugliness, and hatred that spread like cancer out of that most contentious election period, Rabbi Kahn started to craft a more formalised programme that would address the massive breakdown in communication that had been plaguing American society for years, but had finally reached its ultimate breaking point.
Operating in conjunction with JET (Jewish Education Team – Rabbi Kahn’s org dedicated to providing young professionals and college students meaningful Jewish education) and the Chofetz Chaim Foundation and receiving much of its funding from its close partnership with Olami (a global community made up of 320 organizations in 28 countries that are dedicated to ensuring Jewish continuity and inspiring Jewish youth to make a positive impact on the world), the PSP was set up to be “a peer-to-peer workshop for college students and young professionals that aims to change the culture of communication between young adults to a more positive one”. Implemented initially by having five student leaders take a course based on “Positive Word Power for Teens” – a book published by the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation that specifically deals with matters like conflict resolution and fostering healthy and positive conversation skills – who would then adapt that course into something that they thought would appeal to their own peers. These student leaders then went on to recruit more students and created discussion groups that would mix what they had learned with examples from media – including clips from movies and late-night comedy shows – that might highlight and bring extra resonance to the subjects being discussed.
Rabbi Kahn sees the programme as being something that would work on a grassroots level; something that would constantly grow and change to meet the realities of the young people it was created to serve; young people facing a turbulent present and an uncertain future. Bob Dylan’s warning that the Times They Are a-Changin’ may have been timely in 1963, but it has taken on an almost prophetic quality some fifty-five years on. To wit, when I asked Rabbi Kahn what “positive speech” actually means, he was quick to admit that modern communication is such an unpredictable and volatile beast that the very idea of positivity in this area is something that is constantly redefining itself. Just take a look at any discussion about Israel to see how quickly political sides criss-cross one another and how the lines between political correctness and hate speech blur and vanish as quickly as legitimate criticisms of the Israeli government give way to blatant anti-Semitism.
What does “positive speech” mean in such an environment? Does it mean shouting down bigotry? Does it mean creating more constructive debates between opposing, even warring sides? Does it simply mean not even entering into such inevitably negative conversations in the first place? These are tough questions with no easy answers, but that’s precisely the advantage of creating something that is specifically designed to adapt and evolve according to the feedback of those actually living square in the midst of the biggest and most contentious conversations of our time.
Still, this is no wishy-washy programme with no basic tenets or central philosophy on which to build such a grassroots movement. At its heart, the PSP is steeped in ideas that are grounded in Torah but have truly universal appeal. It’s about turning sinas chinam (baseless hatred) into ahavas chinam (baseless love) through core practices like arguing about opposing ideas and beliefs without devolving into personal, ad hominem attacks; actually listening to what other people have to say; curbing arrogance and a lack of personal responsibility; and crafting respectful messages in texts and on social media. At the same time, it’s about fostering the importance of actual human interaction on the one hand, and a more responsible use of communication technologies on the other.
Jewish in Values but Universal in Scope
The divide between the Jewish aspects of the PSP and its more inclusive, universal aspects is clearly a source of both great interest to Rabbi Kahn and of some uncertainty – in this area, too, it is a work very much in progress. The programme itself is aimed at young Jews who, under the guidance of a rabbi or other Jewish religious leader, go out and implement it on college campuses and in the workplace. It is also based on specifically Jewish laws, traditions, and beliefs drawn from millennia of Torah writings, but perhaps most especially the musar movement. The concept of positive speech and improved communication, however, clearly transcends any single religion. Indeed, so universal are these themes of basic respect, human dignity, and empathy that when Rabbi Kahn taught the course to his first group of students, they had no idea that what he was teaching them was even rooted in the Jewish tradition!
Along with being a programme that Rabbi Kahn believes can be used to create far better relationships between those of different religions, races, political affiliations, and socio-economic classes, it’s also something that can be of great religious significance to Jews too. On the one hand, it gives Jewish students who are, perhaps not what one might consider traditionally observant, an opportunity to see Torah Judaism from a perspective that may well resonate with them far more than the ritualistic, often quite esoteric view that is often most visible to those looking in from the outside.
On the other hand, it’s also a programme that can be enormously beneficial to Orthodox Judaism, both in the way it creates real engagement with those “outside the fold” and in the way it restores oft-neglected concepts like “being a light unto the nations” to the very heart of Torah Judaism. Rabbi Kahn admits that the specific details of how this all works are, understandably, still being ironed out, but it’s impossible not to see the tremendous religious value of the PSP, even as its appeal and implementation take it far out of just the purely Jewish realm.
Bringing it to South Africa
Rabbi Kahn admits that, in these early days, the PSP hasn’t had the reach of something like the Shabbos Project and that he’s working with very limited resources and a small staff, but he still very much hopes that it can reach far beyond the borders of Illinois, let alone the United States, and become something truly universal. He has already had much success in both the US and Canada and has even won a couple of prestigious awards in the US and Israel for his innovative approach to a truly widespread issue, but he admits that, as the programme continues to grow, he would love to engage communities throughout the world.
Bringing it to the South African community, in particular, hardly seems impossible – especially with Rabbi Kahn’s close personal ties to the country – but it obviously would come with its own challenges. Though the grassroots nature of the programme certainly enables it to travel anywhere in the world where there are young Jews looking to make a real impact on the world, the size of the South African Jewish community and its different relationship with the greater South African population than America’s Jews have to their host country means that some adaptation would be needed. Further, while Rabbi Kahn stresses the student-driven, grassroots nature of the Project, he also emphasises that it is based on a carefully calibrated group of courses and would need to be overseen by a rabbi, Jewish leader, or educator.
Still, none of this is exactly out of the realm of possibility and anyone looking to bring the PSP here would do well to check out its beautifully designed website at https://positivespeechproject.com and get in contact with Rabbi Kahn and his team. We South Africans, after all, are hardly less susceptible to the effects of negativity, crumbling personal relationships, and ineffectual communication than our brothers and sisters on the other side of the pond. Some might even suggest quite the contrary…