One Word: Civility
“Civility costs nothing, and buys everything.”
These words, written in the 18th century by poet Mary Wortley Montagu, provide a valuable reminder as we move forward in 2017.
We have become more polarized, politically, socially, geographically and economically. We have become less understanding and less tolerant of different points of view and the people who hold them.
New communication technologies have allowed us to surround ourselves with those who reinforce our beliefs and lash out anonymously at those who disagree. Civility seems to have faded from modern society, an archaic relic of a bygone era. But given all we face together, it is more necessary.
As the calendar turns to February, we would do well to remember two of our country’s most influential figures, both with birthdays we celebrate this month: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Washington wrote the book on civility—literally. Actually, it was a list created by 16th century Jesuit priests that Washington copied for a penmanship exercise as a schoolboy. The list stuck with Washington. He lived by the 110 maxims published in the book George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation.
The first rule—“Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present”—if followed faithfully, would go a long way toward improving the discourse in our country.
Following the last rule—“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience”—would help us do the right thing more often.
In between, there is wisdom about keeping promises, not believing rumors without facts, not bragging about yourself and not taking pleasure in the misery of others.
Lincoln, an accomplished lawyer, presided over our country’s most fractured period. On the eve of the Civil War, Lincoln continued reaching for common ground saying, “We are not enemies, but friends. Though passions may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
Near the war’s end, at his second inauguration after four years of bloody carnage, Lincoln pleaded for the nation to heal and restore civility. He told a divided America, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.“
Civility allows us to deal with conflict through mutual respect without damaging relationships. It involves connecting with others, developing a sense of empathy, encouraging communication and manners.
The ABA recognizes this. In 2011, it passed a resolution affirming the principle of civility as a foundation for democracy and the rule of law. It urged lawyers to set a high standard for civil discourse as an example for others in resolving differences constructively and without disparagement of others. It encouraged political parties, government officials, advocacy groups and media to take meaningful steps toward promoting a more civil and deliberative public dialogue. The resolution can be read at bit.ly/ABARes108.
As leaders in society, lawyers must ensure that civility once again becomes a quality that defines us. We need to set the tone for constructive communication and rational decision-making. It starts with us and every individual committing to a more civil manner, insisting that civility be a part of meetings and interactions. Indeed, we need to hold ourselves and our leaders to a higher standard.
In his farewell address 220 years ago, Washington recognized that differences of opinion were a necessity to democracy and a by-product of a free society but warned us about them. He described debate as “a fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”
It is up to us to make sure we are not consumed. As lawyers, we are the perfect role models to act with civility and compromise to achieve the goals of our great nation.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of the
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of theABA Journal with this headline: “One Word: Civility: We need to heed lessons of the past and lead efforts to promote civil discourse.”