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We Must Be Models of Civility
And do as adversaries do in law, Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.
— The Taming of the Shrew
I frequently hear lawyers lamenting the loss of civility in our profession. For the most part, I disagree. I think lawyers are generally a very “civil” group. We are used to politely disagreeing about things in the courtroom or conference room and putting those differences aside once we leave the courthouse. Most of us learned to do this in law school, and it is a lesson that has served us well. However, many of us are concerned about the loss of civility in general in our society. No one seems to know what has caused such a loss. Perhaps it is the relative anonymity of the internet and all those ways people have found to say ugly things in cyberspace.
In a recent AARP publication, Sara Hacala, an etiquette and protocol consultant, authored an article titled “Why Civility Matters.” She noted that escalating vulgarity, lax standards, sensational media and polarized politics reign in society today. This loss of civility has left some of us wondering whether civility can co-exist with free speech in today’s world. We as lawyers can and should continue to be models for civility, and not only in our professional relationships.
Last spring I taught a government class at McGavock High School. The topic was the Bill of Rights. After offering a lesson on the history of the Bill of Rights, I invited the class to divide into small groups to create their own Bill of Rights for today’s society. The groups of students went through a very thoughtful and deliberative process. At the end of the class, each group reported their conclusions. One large, athletic-looking young man served as the reporter for his group. Although he made a point of politely stating that the views he was about to express were not his but those of his group, he then very respectfully articulated his group’s Bill of Rights, which included a provision legalizing gay marriage. Despite what has been reported in the press about the decline of civility about young people, that student’s polite and civil way of discussing a topic he obviously felt differently about made me feel hopeful for civility in future generations. Unfortunately, for every story like this, there is one about uncivil behavior by students often involving bullying of others they perceive as different.
Jim Leach, of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has said, “At its core, civility requires respectful engagement: a willingness to consider other views and place them in the framework of history, philosophy and life experiences.” Unfortunately, many in our society do not realize this, and the current election season has made the problem even more acute.
With funding from a grant from the American Bar Association, the TBA is reaching out to the public on civility and presenting forums on balancing civility and free expression in partnership with the Baker Center in Knoxville, Lipscomb University and the First Amendment Center in Nashville, and the University of Memphis. The first program took place in September in Memphis and used the effort to consolidate the school systems there as a case study in how to bring civility into a divisive debate. Nashville’s Oct. 16 program will focus on civility in interacting with the courts, as well as in issues affecting the access to, and delivery of, justice. The series will conclude on Feb. 21, 2013, in Knoxville with a program on civility and effective governance. These programs are designed and marketed to attract older students and other members of the public to engage in a public conversation about the tensions between civility and free speech and the challenges of maintaining civil discourse in a democracy. Learn more about the Civility Initiative in News.
What else can we do to promote civility? In Sara Hacala’s article, she noted that civility is more than polite courtesies but is what enables us to live respectfully in communities. She called it the glue that binds our society. She called on us to seize “teachable moments” with children, as child development experts say that many children are no longer being taught manners or respect or empathy for others. She indicated that a major study reported that social skills are a more accurate predictor of future success than test scores.
She then called on us to enlighten children about the importance of developing interpersonal skills and relationships by engaging them in conversations without “small screens and buttons.” That may be easier said than done! But, perhaps with a cookie bribe, you might get a child distracted from his or her “small screens and buttons.”
TBA President JACKIE DIXON is a partner with Weatherly McNally & Dixon PLC in Nashville.