How to Argue

I’ve never heard college students listen as closely as they did on the two occasions I brought groups to visit Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ears and hearts opened wide, thirsty to learn, curious on a strong Jewish woman’s wisdom on the intersection of her life’s work with Jewish values. It was the moment a Hillel Director dreams of.

I’ve given these memories much thought over these last days, and heard from so many about what Justice Ginsburg’s legacy will be in their own lives. But mostly I’ve thought about what it means to argue towards true and lasting change.

I love my students; they inspire me in their pursuit of justice, their belief that they will be the ones to change the world. And I know they will. And – not but – I also know when I’ll walk away from this work.

I am sad at the state of campus life some days, at the loud few who co-opt the conversation for the many. I am sad for all that get cancelled, before empathy might be extended. I am sad we scream more than listen, think before we speak. I’m sad to see a student using his Instagram feed to focus on RBG’s imperfections within 48 hours of her death (and of course there were some imperfections, as there are for all of us) instead of taking a moment to hear what she meant to others. I’m sad that young women I learned with this week noticed it isn’t mentioned enough that RBG was a Jew, when for them this identity is so vital to their appreciation of the role she has played in history. They fear that if a Supreme Court justice cannot be held up as a proud progressive AND a proud Jew, what hope is left for them?

But I have paused this week, to try to see the long game. And I think of RBG, the great dissenter.

How did Justice Ginsburg argue and fight fiercely for justice? Slowly. Intentionally. Over the course of years, not social media posts. RBG argued with so many, so respectfully, for so long, that few would even QUESTION the need for equality for women. We have come to assume it is standard operating procedure. OF COURSE my daughter can be President. OF COURSE I can get my own credit card, without my husband’s stamp of approval. OF COURSE I can work full-time and nurture incredible children all at once.

The change making process for a younger generation looks different these days. Not all of us have the power of a Supreme Court seat, the influence of a cultural icon. So we scream a little louder and we say change is needed yesterday. And I often agree – particularly after our summer of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor – that much change is long overdue. But I am thirsty for long and lasting change, the change that is so ingrained in our nation’s consciousness that we do not question its existence. I’m thirsty for a change not brought by the temporary satisfaction that cancel culture provides.

This is what I’ll take from RBG: Argue patiently. Argue with respect for the person you are in conversation with. Argue with intention, over many years, with a spirit of betterment for all in your heart – not just for those on the same side of your argument. Argue armed with truths, not dogmas. Argue with so many, so impactfully, that by the end of the argument no one even remembers what there was to argue about in the first place.

May her memory be for a blessing.

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