It’s no secret that civic dialogue is becoming a rare practice today, if not disappearing altogether.
Anyone who doubts the severity of the problem need only talk to Joe Santoliquito. He’s the Philly Voice reporter who, after having the temerity to question the godlike status — and saintly image — of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, found himself the target of death threats and his door the target of a razor-blade attack.
Adding insult to what could have been very real injury — thankfully, no one physically attacked Santoliquito, according to reports in The Philadelphia Inquirer — is the fact that his original reporting was more or less true. Wentz himself admitted this week to having human frailties beyond being injury-prone.
“I can be selfish,” he said, apparently coming to grips with that volatile combination of athletic prowess and a certain emotional immaturity. “Maybe wasn’t the greatest teammate at times.”
Santoliquito told sports columnist Marcus Hayes that he felt vindicated, but the entire saga serves another useful purpose: The story of the “real Wentz” illustrates both the danger of the unthinking mob and the idea that anyone among us, even No. 11 himself, is perfect.
This was the idea I was trying articulate in the closing minutes of Christine Flowers’ radio show on 1210 WPHT the evening of Feb. 3. I had graciously been invited by the host to appear for a debate on New York’s Reproductive Health Act occasioned by my own column last week criticizing Flowers’ objections to the law’s allowance for abortions at any point to protect the health or life of the mother.
Invoking the biblical story of Job, in which the Almighty essentially asks Job where he was when He was creating the universe, I said that it’s very easy for us as human beings to use terms like “always” or “never” to define our worldview. (Journalists try not to do this.) The Jewish tradition, however, injects nuance into the picture, subjecting questions such as the propriety of abortion to a facts-and-circumstances type of analysis.
It’s because we, like Wentz, are imperfect that we must grapple with thorny issues using the powers of logic and reason. To be certain about something is to, in effect, usurp the divine as the all-knowing power that makes the world exist.
To be sure, there is much on which Flowers and I disagree when it comes to abortion. My own view, informed by classic Jewish teachings, is that a woman’s life must always take precedence over that of an unborn fetus. I also believe that from the standpoint of politics and the legislative process, neither my religion nor anyone else’s should dictate the outcome of the law. In the political and social policy realms, equity must be the operative value.
But the hour-long conversation we shared on air was noteworthy. Not because we convinced each other of the rightness of our views — I venture that we walked out of that studio unswayed by the other’s arguments — but because we were able to converse in a rational, mutually respectful way.
Far too often in today’s climate, debate either means shouting down your opposition, or not even inviting them onto your show. And gaining in popularity is the use of social media as a cudgel, tweeting and Facebooking insults aimed at the other side or stoking fires where none exist and whipping likeminded supporters into a frenzy.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
Just as an abortion opponent and a pro-choice rabbi were able to not only agree to disagree, but to do so after an hour of reasoned dialogue on the radio, I believe that it’s possible for all of us to behave the same way online. It’s much harder, of course, but those of us with Twitter feeds, Facebook accounts and email lists have a responsibility to do our part to guide whatever conversations we take part in to the paths of reasonableness and respect.
That social media is an engine of divisiveness is not news. But social media, like radio, is a tool, free to be used in either a creative or destructive way by he or she who wields it. It is, I’m sorry to say, very easy to take advantage of the negative qualities of the platform, but that doesn’t mean that one should.
There are far too many doors, both real and proverbial, being attacked by razor blades. l
Joshua Runyan is the editor- in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]