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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Does Our Future Depend On More Dialogue?

Oct 27, 2017
Originally published on October 31, 2017 1:45 pm

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Dialogue And Exchange.

About Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' TED Talk

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says we glorify the individual at the expense of the group. Sacks believes our future depends on returning to our communities — and the key to getting there is dialogue.

About Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is a prominent religious leader and the author of more than 30 books. He served as the Chief Rabbi of the U.K. and Commonwealth for 22 years — he stepped down in 2013. He also serves in the British House of Lords and was the winner of the 2016 Templeton Prize.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Do you find yourself, like, actively seeking out people who disagree with you?

JONATHAN SACKS: Of course. I'm a rabbi.

RAZ: This is Jonathan Sacks. He was the chief rabbi of the U.K. for 22 years.

SACKS: Some of my best conversations were with Richard Dawkins, who's probably one of the world's better-known atheists. I've had a wonderful conversation with Steven Pinker, the neuroscientist, and also with his wife, Rebecca Goldstein, who wrote a novel called "36 Arguments For The Existence Of God" subtitled "A Work Of Fiction." So I have lots of public conversations with people who totally disagree with everything I stand for.

RAZ: Rabbi Sacks has been thinking a lot about how we talk to each other, and more and more, he's seeing people sorting themselves into like-minded groups, people focusing more on themselves as individuals. And he argues, just like Celeste Headlee does, that without dialogue, it's only going to get worse. Here's Jonathan Sacks on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SACKS: This is a fateful moment in the history of the West. We've seen divisive elections and divided societies. We've seen a growth of extremism, all of it fueled by anxiety, uncertainty and fear. And one way into it is to see that perhaps the most simple way into a culture and into an age is to ask, what do people worship? People worship so many different things - the sun, the stars, the storm. Some people worship many gods, some one, some none. What do we worship?

I think future anthropologists will take a look at the books we read on self-help, self-realization. They'll look at the way we talk about morality as being true to oneself, the way we talk about politics as a matter of individual rights. And I think they'll conclude that what we worship in our time is the self, the me, the I. But when we have too much of the I and too little of the we, we can find ourselves vulnerable, fearful and alone.

The trouble with Google filters, Facebook friends and reading the news by narrowcasting rather than broadcasting means that we're surrounded almost entirely by people like us whose views, whose opinions, whose prejudices even, are just like ours. I think we need to renew those face-to-face encounters with the people not like us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's much easier today, Rabbi Sacks, to sort ourselves - right? - to find the people who we agree with and who agree with us. And it's not just easier. It's actually happening.

SACKS: Exactly so. And there's a terrible impoverishment in that as well as a great enrichment because it's the people not like us who make us grow. It's the people like us who just make us more and more fixed in our beliefs. And I see this happening in universities. You know, universities are creating these so-called safe spaces, which says universities should be a place where you never hear somebody say something that might offend you.

Now, I think that's an absolute abdication of what a university should be about. University should be a place where the universe comes. I mean, where you meet every different kind of person with every different kind of belief. And for me, a safe space is a space in which people listen respectfully to those whose views are completely different from their own.

RAZ: What are the - what are the consequences for our societies, for civilization, if we continue to sort in that way?

SACKS: Well, the beauty of a nation state is it says that a whole bunch of people who happen to be living in the same territory are united by a common and collective responsibility, each of us responsible for the welfare of all insofar as it lies within our power. It's like one big enormous palace that we live in. And I'm afraid what has happened in the West is that we've turned societies into a series of hotels.

You pay your bills, which are your taxes, and in return, you get a room in which you can do whatever you like so long as you don't disturb the people to the left or right of you. The trouble is nobody ever belongs to a hotel. So I'm afraid we're losing this concept of society as a place where all sorts of different people come together in the common aim of pursuing the common good.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SACKS: My favorite phrase in all of politics - a very American phrase - is we the people. Why we the people? Because it says that we all share collective responsibility for our collective future, and that's how things really are and should be. Have you noticed how magical thinking has taken over our politics? So we say, all you got to do is elect this strong leader and he or she will solve all our problems for us. Believe me, that is magical thinking.

And then we get the extremes - the far right, the far left, the extreme religious and the extreme anti-religious, the far right dreaming of a golden age that never was, the far left dreaming of a Utopia that never will be and the religious and anti-religious equally convinced that all it takes is God or the absence of God to save us from ourselves. That, too, is magical thinking because the only people who will save us from ourselves is we the people, all of us together.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: OK, so you look at where we are, this moment in our history, and the increasing absence of dialogue and exchange and of understanding among people who don't agree, so are you optimistic? I mean, do you think there's hope?

SACKS: Guy, I'm going to make a distinction that I think is absolutely essential because very often we confuse the word hope and the word optimism when we think they mean the same thing. Actually, they don't at all. Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that if we work hard enough together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue. Hope is an active one. It needs no courage, only a certain naivety. And I say no Jew who knows our people's history can be an optimist. What we do do is hope. So, of course, I have hope, and I really seek out these opportunities for talking across divides because what none of us can achieve alone all of us can achieve together.

RAZ: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. You can watch his entire talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TALK TO ME")

AL GREEN: (Singing) Talk to me. Talk to me. I love the things you said. Talk to me...

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on dialogue and exchange this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, you can go to ted.npr.org. To see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.

Our production staff here at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Janae West, Neva Grant, Rund Abdelfatah, Casey Herman and Rachel Faulkner with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Benjamin Klempay. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee.

If you want to let us know what you think about the show, please go to Apple Podcasts and write a review and you can also write us directly. That's tedradiohour@npr.org. And you can tweet us, it's @tedradiohour. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TALK TO ME")

GREEN: (Singing) Talk to me... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.