More than 120 people gathered Thursday evening at Temple Rodef Shalom in Shadyside to hear two national leaders conduct a civil discussion about uncivil behavior.
NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., took turns addressing the deterioration of decorum in the country's political discourse.
"Something has changed, and not in a good way," said local TV and radio commentator Lynn Cullen, who served as moderator for the session, organized by the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee. "What once was unthinkable behavior in a civilized society has become the norm. What the heck is going on?"
For the most part, Mr. Jealous and Rabbi Saperstein each focused on positive things that could be accomplished and avoided criticizing those that disagree with them.
"There is more of a coarseness in our culture, in general. In music and movies and on television," Rabbi Saperstein said. "There was a time when elected officials revered the institutions they served." Today, he said, the candidates disparage the government while running for office, then often fail to live up to expectations once elected.
Mr. Jealous said the Internet, talk radio and cable television's 24-hour news cycles have changed the way people interact and get their information.
"People aren't held accountable for what they say," he said. "We have to find ways to channel these developments in more constructive ways. ... We have more chapters, more members than these groups. We have so much power that we just leave on the table. We have to invest more energy."
Mr. Jealous said organizers of tea party events have a responsibility for elements of racism and outrageous behavior that occasionally have been exhibited by those attending their rallies or claiming to be part of the movement.
"And the NAACP has called them out on it," he said. "We have to be vigilant and hold them accountable. But we can't condemn the whole forest because of a few big bad trees.
"At these tea party events, most people there are just regular people. The majority of them are there because they love their country, just as the majority of people here love this country."
One of the things that progressives and people on the left must do, he said, is reclaim elements of the debate, such as religion and patriotism.
"The Bible is the most powerful lexicon in politics in this country. And we have ceded it entirely to the right, and they have proceeded to beat us over the head with it for 30 years," Mr. Jealous said. "Similarly, somewhere along the way, we've become afraid of our own patriotism. We have to own the Bible and flag, because we do."
Rabbi Saperstein said Thursday's session was beneficial because Jewish Americans and black Americans have more in common than most ethnic groups in this country, pointing out the history of common causes they have championed.
"We've always been together," he said. "We are bound together at the hip. If we are going to succeed, it requires us to be together. Only the enemies of social justice rejoice when we are at loggerheads with each other."
Dan Majors: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1456.