June 12, 2014 by libroshombre
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu noticed in the 1700s that “Civility costs nothing and buys everything,” and that’s worth remembering today. The nastiness known as Congress and the general political scene is doubtless exacerbated by the prevalence of incivility. A quick Google for “decline of civility” produced two articles from last week’s ABAJournal.com. The first was about a new oath to behave “with dignity, courtesy, and integrity” that beginning California lawyers must now take. The American Board of Trial Advocates “is backing the adoption of a civility pledge in the lawyer oath of every state.”
Only new lawyers are required to be civil, however, and in a better world, all lawyers would willingly sign that pledge. Perhaps things should start with the judges. The second article described Florida State Judge John Murphy’s challenging a public defender attorney who “resisted pressure to waive his client’s speedy trial rights to leave the courtroom to settle things.” The attorney “expected to talk with the judge in the hallway” but “was grabbed by the collar and began to be struck.” Judge Murphy “is on a paid leave of absence and has agreed to take anger management classes.”
There’s such a thing as too much civility, as most Southerners can attest. “I have often seen people uncivil by too much civility, and tiresome in their courtesy,” is how Michel Montaigne, the great observer and father of the essay who was also from Southern France, put it. My first suspension from school came from being too polite. My family moved to Vermont in October of my eighth grade year. The first period of the first day at my new school the teacher asked if I liked to go by “Greg,” and I replied “Yes, ma’am.” In Texas not saying “yes, ma’am” meant great retribution followed. In Vermont saying it inspired my classmates to howl with laughter. The embarrassed teacher thought I was being sarcastic and sent me to the principal who summarily suspended me. My dad always relished recalling the ensuing confrontation with shame-faced Yankee school officials.
“Killing with kindness” permeates the South, but our country could use a lot more thoughtfulness, if not kindness. That hope inspires The Village Square movement, which started in Tallahassee, Florida to improve the level of civic discourse. I attended a presentation by one of the founders at UAF last month and learned that the Village Square organization describes itself as “a nervy bunch of conservatives and liberals who believe that disagreement and dialogue make for a good conversation, a good country, and a good time.”
That last aspect is crucial, for the Village Square approach encourages leading proponents of both sides of local issues to speak to their concerns before a mixed group of citizens reflecting differing perspectives, and who are sharing a meal. Americans increasingly live and associate with only those who share their values and views, and this insularity overshadows the many other parts of our lives that we hold in common.
We have many common desires and values, and we share a public library system. Our shared use of the library’s considered a Constitutional right by federal courts, but your rights end when they impact my ability use the library, and the library staff is charged with ensuring our unabated use of the library, as well as everyone’s safety. And that’s why there’s a clearly articulated library patron conduct policy (http://fnsblibrary.org/?page_id=70). OxfordDictionaries.com defines “rule” as “a set of explicit or understood regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere.” The public library staffs strives to enforce the rules evenly, regardless of age, etc. And while some of the rules, like wearing shoes at all times in the library, might seem trifling, it won’t be if it’s -40 when the fire alarms go off, you’re on one side of the library and your shoes on the other.
It begins with common courtesy. Like the American playwright David Mamet said, “I didn’t knowingly meet a conservative until, to my shame, I was 60 years old and sat down and said, ‘Wow, I don’t understand what this guy’s talking about, but he has a great civility about him. Perhaps I better investigate this thing.'”