Civil Disagreement

Martin-Luther-King-JrWhen I tell people that promoting civility is the seminal idea behind the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, I often get a response like, “You know, ‘playing nice’ just isn’t a real option when we have to zealously advocate for our clients!”  The truth is, civility is not incompatible with advocacy.  In fact, in honor of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose life we celebrate this month, let’s explore and embrace the idea of civil disagreement.

The concept of “civility” is broad.  The French and Latin roots of the word “civility” mean roughly “relating to citizens.”  In its earliest use, the term referred to being a good citizen, i.e., exhibiting the good behavior for the good of a community.  The early Greeks thought that civility was both a private virtue and a public necessity which functioned to hold the state together.  The etymology is the same for the word “civil,” as in the Civil Rights Act or the civil rights movement.  In these contexts, the connection to citizens or the state of the citizenry seems more obvious.

Many writers describe the concept of civility as inter-woven with the notion of respect.  According to William Ury who wrote Getting Past No, we respect others not so much because of who they are but because of who we are—respect is an expression of yourself and your values.  Respect itself has interesting etymology.  The word comes from Latin “re–” meaning again and spectare meaning “to look.”   We look again, giving ourselves the opportunity to observe people as they really are, to listen to their needs, to look for what is really going on with them.   We give respect to the other, posits Professor Stephen Carter of Yale Law School who has written extensively on the topic of civility, based on the assumption that other people matter and that treating other people well is a moral duty we owe to one another.  He goes on to say in Civility, Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy, that rules of civility are thus also rules of morality, or a “code of decency to be applied in everyday life.”  Applying these concepts refutes the notion advanced by civility naysayers that zealous advocacy requires aggression or incivility.

The notion that advocacy requires aggression or incivility also is soundly refuted by considering the advocacy of civil dissent inspired by Rev. King.  Although King had an ability to articulate the pain of an oppressed people, so did many other preachers of his time.  Prof. Carter observed that the distinguishing characteristic of King was his genius in inspiring those people to be loving and civil in their dissent.  The nonviolent protests were not passive—quite the opposite.  The protests were designed to bring to the surface tensions that the system was designed to obscure.  Thus, King’s zealous (and effective) advocacy was not at all premised on incivility.  Here are some other myths about civility that need to be debunked:

  1. Civility means agreement.  Just as disagreement does not equate to incivility, the presence of civility does not mean the absence of disagreement. Civility assumes we will disagree.  Our democratic process thrives on dialogue and true dialogue requires disagreement.
  2. Civility is more possible in small communities where everyone knows each other.  Civility is not the same as liking the other person.  Our duty to be civil towards others does not depend on our liking the other person, because we may not. Civility requires that we show respect even for strangers who may be sharing our space, whether in the office, on the earth or in cyberspace.
  3. Incivility results from criticism.  Civility does not mean the lack of criticism; respect for the other may in fact call for criticism.
  4. Civility requires that we do what the other person wants or tell them what they want to hear.  Again, not so. Civility involves the discipline of our passions for the sake of living a common life with others.
  5. Civility is equated with politeness or manners alone.  No; although impoliteness is almost always uncivil, good manners alone are not a mark of civility.  A polite refusal to serve someone at a lunch counter based on the color of their skin is not a civil behavior.

When civility is considered a code of decency binding us together as a civilization, the obligation of lawyers to model civil behavior becomes even more important.  Equating incivility with advocacy destroys a lawyer’s role as the protector of civil rights.  It also undermines general trust in the democratic process that is premised on a dialogue of different ideas producing an acceptable code for living in civilization.   Let’s remember the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: civil disagreement brings us closer to justice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *