Lawyers do not often get credit for good behavior, but few businesses or professions have a detailed code of conduct. Believe it or not, lawyers do have written “Standards for Civility in Professional Conduct” and are expected by judges and licensing authorities to act civilly towards each other and all other participants in the legal process. Having been involved in the legal system for nearly 55 years, both as a courtroom advocate and judge, I can attest that civility really does work.
When lawyers argue their case in court, they must directly address the merits, identify the evidence and law supporting their argument and make their presentation in a respectful and civil manner. Calling their opposing attorney or party names will not score any points with the judge. In fact, it will detract from their case and may draw a reprimand from the judge. I can recall cases where a lawyer lost credibility with me and harmed his or her client’s case by failing to make an honest, civil and supportable argument.
These same considerations apply in today’s political and social arena where practically anyone can express an opinion online or in a comment to a news outlet. If the objective is to convince someone that you are right or they are wrong, the best way to turn off the other person and lose the argument is to insult them. No matter how good your argument is, you will fail. If you address the person with respect and present actual facts to support your position, you might succeed in bringing them around, or at least convincing them that your position has merit.
While I would not claim to be perfect, I do try to keep from personally attacking someone who disagrees with me on an issue. It is fair game to show how their position is wrong–to go after the issue– but it does no good to personally attack them. If someone launches a personal attack against me, rather than trying to show why I might be wrong on an issue, I feel I’ve won the argument in the eyes of readers.
For instance, on occasion, someone responds to an argument I make on an issue by calling me a Communist, instead of focusing on the issue. Some readers may wonder if the responder even has a counter argument. Others may wonder what evidence there is of my Communist leanings. Some readers who know that I volunteered to fight Communists in Vietnam in the late 1960s will know the claim is not true.
The point is that civil debate on contested issues provides significantly better results than launching personal attacks. It keeps the temperature of the argument from getting out of hand, cuts down on the hateful back and forth and will certainly have a better chance of convincing readers who may not have a strong opinion one way or the other. If you respond to a thoughtful argument with a heated attack, just as in the judicial arena, you will lose credibility with the audience right out of the chute.
Besides, we are all part of the same country–the United States– and must try to get along if we hope to continue coexisting as a successful nation. President Lyndon Johnson put it succinctly, although rather crudely, “Don’t spit in the soup, we all gotta eat.” As we move into the New Year, it would be appropriate to resolve to tune down the hateful, counterproductive rhetoric and to treat fellow Americans with civility and respect.