Civility, Disagreement, and Respect

When 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.

Read More Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, Published January 21, 2013 Volume 159, No 14



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