One of my favorite memories of freshman year in college took place in a literature seminar: the students in the class got our English professor to admit that “Moby Dick” was a poorly written book. When I was in rabbinical school, I learned that the Herman Melville novel was the favorite book of one of my friends. He thought it was funny that I hated a book he loved, which taught me that you don’t have to agree on everything to be good friends. You just have to respect your friend enough to allow them to have their own beliefs. Or to summarize what a college friend told me after we had a disagreement: she always gave me the benefit of the doubt, assuming that her smart friend had a good reason for having such a stupid opinion.
Unfortunately, far too few people are currently giving others that benefit of the doubt. I’m not just talking about politics – although that has played a major role in disagreements the last few years – but everything from people’s right to disagree about religion, sexuality, Israel, politics, etc. I want to be clear that I’m not talking about harmful acts: no one has the right to hurt anyone else except in clear self-defense (which, by the way, is allowed in Judaism). But with so many societal changes happening, there are going to be differences of opinion and we need to respect them.
Now, I find most of those societal changes a positive thing: I support the idea that Black Lives Matter, even if I don’t always agree with what the leaders say or do. I am a firm supporter of Israel’s right to exist even if I don’t agree with everything its government does. I am also a patriotic American, even when I thought one of our presidents was encouraging people to break the law. I believe everyone has a right to their own sexuality, even when I find there are many types of sexuality of which I was unaware. I believe that people have a right to feel safe in every environment, although the definition of what that means is in flux.
But not everyone agrees on what changes need to be made. One debate is about the use of pronouns. For example, some non-binary individuals want to get rid of all gender-based pronouns and have one gender neutral pronoun for everyone. However, some transgendered individuals feel they’ve had to fight for their new pronoun – whether that pronoun is he or she – and want to own that gendered pronoun. Plus, some cisgender individuals (those whose gender matches their assigned birth gender) feel they have a right to pick their own pronoun, whether it’s male, female or gender neutral. Does everyone have to agree on the same option, or should people be allowed to pick the one option they feel most comfortable with?
When I think of my own life, I think of two friends with whom I greatly disagree. The first is a political disagreement: she voted for Donald Trump, at least in the first election. I have not asked why, nor have I asked if she voted for him in the second one. This is someone who has not only stood by me for decades, but whom I know to be a good person. She is too important to me to let political differences drive us apart. My other friend has become a fervent Christian. She lives in a different state so most of our communication is by e-mail. The majority of her letters end with the hope that I will find Jesus and be saved. I just ignore that part because I know she means well and, for her, that is the greatest hope she can offer me.
One author I love has recently been pilloried for her comments on... Well, it doesn’t really matter, does it? I don’t expect the writers, artists, musicians, etc., whose work I like to agree with me on every issue. I can still enjoy their work. OK, I admit that sometimes a person goes too far and makes comments I find offensive. Then I won’t support them, but they still have a right to that opinion, even if I find it offensive. Let’s be honest: all of us have an opinion that someone in the world finds offensive. Supporters of Israel are discovering just how true that is.
Speaking of offensive and problematic statements: do we have the right to censor what other people say or write? Yes, if it calls for violence: we have the right to protect our citizens against that. But what if it’s just a crass remark? You might not want to be friends with that person and I agree that you can complain to your supervisor in a work situation, but the question of whether that is a firing offense is being argued about right now. In a perfect world, no one would make that kind of comment, but unfortunately we don’t live a perfect world.
What I find is that I keep debating and rethinking these issues and sometimes come up with different answers. That’s because new discussions keeping appearing and offer insights on both sides. What we do need to remember is that we are all a product of our times: when I think about how my opinions have changed over the years as I’ve learned and grown, it surprises me. Not everyone wants to change, though. Should we punish them if they don’t? Our answers may say as much about us as it does about them.