by Patrick Gaffney

Civil discourse is on the decline in America.  Well-reasoned policy arguments are largely replaced by mutual insult, and unpopular ideas are shouted down rather than refuted.  Lawyers committed to civility are in a unique position to be a positive influence on the national discourse. We should follow the model of civility espoused in our Rules of Professional Conduct not just at work and in the courtroom, but in all of our interactions with people who disagree with us.  By modeling civil behavior, we can help restore civil discourse to the public square.

This ability to engage in constructive discourse, advocate for your own ideas, and challenge others’ ideas, while treating each other with courtesy and respect, seems to be rapidly disappearing from our culture, especially from politics.

The problem is all too easy to spot.  One need only spend a few moments reviewing the comments on political websites of any stripe to see insult and invective being slung around in place of cogent argument.  Ad hominem and name-calling abound, with insulting monikers like “libtard” and “dumbocrat” becoming so commonplace as to earn entries in the Urban Dictionary. In response, conservatives are “teabaggers” or “repugs.”  During the Obama administration, the kindest reference to the president on many conservative social media outlets was “Obummer.”

Sadly, the name-calling doesn’t just come from private citizens.  President Trump is infamous for tweets calling people who disagree with him “losers,” “dopes,” and “morons.”  His critics hardly seem able to command the rhetorical high ground, with “reply” tweets about the White House being an “adult day care center” and near-endless accusations that the president is not just advocating bad policies, but that he is mentally ill.

What can lawyers do about this?  Lawyers are uniquely equipped to promote civil discourse.  We are professionally trained to make arguments, and the skilled use of logic is essential to our success.  Our ethical obligations demand civil behavior toward each other and the courts we practice in.  By living out these ethical principles beyond our professional role we can go a long way toward improving the tone of conversation in America.

What if the next time you had a visceral, emotional reaction toward someone advocating a political idea you disagreed with, you paused for a moment.  What if, despite the temptation to do otherwise, you treated that person with the same respect and courtesy you would hope for if you were speaking out?  What would happen if you listened carefully to what the person was saying the same way that you listen to an opposing counsel’s argument in court?  Listening carefully and providing a measured response is much more likely to lead to a productive discussion, rather than destructive conflict.

What if the next time someone insulted you, or even just insulted some idea you agree with or candidate you support, you refused to respond in kind?  A snappy comeback directed toward the speaker might feel satisfying, but would it lead to anything?  You are not ethically obligated to hold your tongue in such a situation, but if you avoid reciprocating when someone treats you poorly, you can at least leave the door open for a future conversation.  You might never win the person over to your point of view, but give yourself a chance to at least illustrate what constructive discourse looks like.

Lawyers can lead the way to restoring civil discourse in America just by practicing in our other civic interactions the same principles we are required to follow in our professional lives.  We can lead our fellow citizens by our example or even teach them if they are willing to listen.  So the next time you are commenting in your favorite online forum, chatting at the bar association happy hour, or just talking about the latest local or national issue around the barbecue with your neighbors, commit to being civil even if your audience is not.  Listen.  Be courteous and respectful.  Avoid emotional outbursts.  Resist the temptation to meet insult with insult or ad hominem with ad hominem.  Ensure that your own ideas are supported with evidence and presented in a logically coherent way.  Somebody has to start the long, slow process of restoring civil discourse to our politics.1

1 © 2018 Christopher T. Holinger, Esquire. This abridged article was originally published in the March/April 2018 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.

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