Don’t squander opportunities for real debate by heckling

It is uncomfortable being booed off of a stage for merely voicing an opinion or articulating an idea.

Jacob Lew (photo credit: screenshot)
Jacob Lew
(photo credit: screenshot)
It is uncomfortable being booed off of a stage for merely voicing an opinion or articulating an idea. It can even be uncomfortable to watch someone else get booed off a stage. All other things being equal, common decency and decorum would seem to demand that anyone invited to speak at a diplomatic conference who politely voices a democratically elected administration’s policy deserves at least respectful silence while speaking.
However, US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was not accorded that courtesy this week at the annual Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference – and that has some people feeling very uncomfortable.
Political correctness and civility have their roots in basic empathy, if not the notion that what goes around ultimately comes around. In civilized society, we tend to treat others who possess integrity as we would like to be treated. Sometimes we do that because it’s just the right thing to do; other times we do it because of an unwritten expectation of quid pro quo when it is our turn to articulate unpopular – perhaps justifiably unpopular – notions.
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Decorum and patience, though, took a back seat to visceral fury at the conference, as Mr. Lew played the unfortunate role of an Obama administration symbol, overshadowing his status as real, live human being, deserving of empathy or civility.
Angry and frightened people are rarely paragons of patience – or any other positive characteristic. People who feel – whether rightly or wrongly – that they are being lied to, or talked down to regularly, often exhibit uncivil behavior.
When people are alarmed that they are consistently not being heard on topics they deem essential to their core values, or their survival – they tend to shout.
When folks think they are simultaneously being unheard on vital issues and lied to by perceived outsiders who claim to know better than they what is in their own best interest, they become absolutely incensed. Lew was addressing some folks who had just reached the end of their rope; so they booed the statements emblematic of the attitudes they considered an insult to their intelligence – and for which they had no more patience.
Lew was behaving with integrity, but he was positioned as representing a leader perceived by not a few – however uncharitably – as a peevish, selfie-taking dabbler who is far out his depth in the international arena, but thoroughly insistent on imposing ivory-tower understandings on an volatile region which his policies and pronouncements have made infinitely more dangerous.
Now, jeering is well-established custom in some parliamentary settings. Cat-calling is practically de rigueur in the Knesset.
Indeed, booing is sometimes warranted.
However, when heckling rises to a level where an invited guest – engaged in a sincere attempt to clarify a policy position – is effectively shouted down, an important opportunity to effectually question the speaker is squandered.
The writer has served in leadership roles for a variety of US Jewish communal organizations and is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Foundation. A member of the Massachusetts Bar and the Israeli Bar, the writer provides advice on US-based insurance and lives in Efrat.