By Lana D. Benatovich and Gary D. Quenneville

The National Federation for Just Communities of Western New York (NFJC) is a human relations organization dedicated to overcoming racism, bias and discrimination by building understanding, respect and trust in our community. Founded as a chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the NFJC has worked for more than 60 years to bring people together through education, advocacy and outreach to help them resolve their differences peacefully and with respect.

American society has become increasingly polarized over the last decade. Political parties and action groups seem less interested in working together for the common good than adopting and projecting an “us versus them” mentality. Rhetoric in debate and in protests has become more and more negative, and the NFJC is concerned with the declining levels of civil discourse within our nation and our community.

There are many important issues that must be debated in our country, from health care to gun control, but these issues, and the arguments of the respective sides, are being obscured by the inflammatory imagery and language being used. At recent rallies related to New York State’s SAFE Act, there were placards depicting Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo as Adolf Hitler, as there were of President Obama as Hitler during the health care debate, and as there were of President George W. Bush during the Iraq War.

These images are shocking and offensive, regardless of whom they depict, and they have no place in the public square. Not only, obviously, are they wildly inaccurate and insulting, they serve only to enrage and provoke. Such inappropriate displays do not lead to healthy debate, much less understanding and resolution on issues that speak directly to who we are, who we want to be and what kind of a world we are leaving to our children. Rather, they diminish both the meaning of the discussion and the stature of the debaters, shifting focus away from their positions to simply who can manufacture the more insulting signage.

The NFJC, therefore, calls on civic and political leaders, media figures and protesters to tone down their language and eliminate the use of derogatory imagery that ultimately sours, not enriches, debate. All sides must re-examine both what it is they are trying to say and how best to make their case.

Debate and dialogue are necessary in American politics, which is the main reason freedom of speech is enshrined in our Constitution. However, with that freedom comes responsibility – to argue passionately, to listen attentively and to work diligently to improve a world that so desperately needs it.

Lana D. Benatovich is president of the National Federation for Just Communities of Western New York. Gary D. Quenneville is the board’s co-chairman.