The inherent nature of courtesy is that it’s voluntary; otherwise, it’s a rule (and Americans hate rules). Whether you call it courtesy, civility, or manners, these acts are society’s method of establishing a baseline of acceptable behavior. These are the things that we do for each other as we interact with other people in our world. I do not use the term “baseline” to mean the minimum allowed behavior, but, instead, I am referring to the expectations that we have when engaging with other people. Each of us, as individuals, expects certain things from other people as we go about our day (and other people expect the same from us). While every culture has its own nuances, we expect and hope for an appropriate “thank you” or a “gesundheit” after a sneeze. We’ve all been in the position of holding a door for someone and not getting the customary appreciation. We expect these actions because basic manners are often the first thing our parents teach us as we are growing up, and, sometimes, it’s the last thing.
In some respects, the core of civility relies on manners. Treating the people around us with a core level of respect is not something that should be taken for granted. It should be lauded and revered as the cornerstone of our culture, as it used to be. The current state of discourse, at least in the United States, is a perfect example of what happens when dis-carding that foundation and ignoring the essence of civility, the importance of civics, and the need to collaborate with each other to achieve goals larger than our individual selves. The most concerning aspect is that people are not merely choosing to ignore these tenets; they actively repudiate the notions and go so far as to attack them as signs of weakness or a showing of a lack of will. To a large extent, as a culture, we are losing the importance that being civil to one another is voluntary. Each time we exhibit some manner of courtesy or civility to another, there is an implicit acknowledgment that it was by choice. A person chooses to show another person a courtesy not because it’s required, and that choice is important to the person giving the courtesy and the person receiving it. No matter what our differences or similarities are, we regularly give one another that level of respect. Or we used to. Judge W. Kearse McGill discusses his 18 years of experience as a judge who has adjudicated cases in a variety of forums in the state of California. His efforts to make conscious and conscientious choices as a jurist bring into focus the effort that is required to consistently bring a measure of civility into the world that you control.
The legal profession is once again in the position of leadership when it comes to demonstrating the power of civility and compromise. As an institution devoted to the nonviolent resolution of conflict, lawyers and judges must continue to exhibit the discipline and resoluteness required to demonstrate to the world that true strength comes from the thoughtful, respectful presentation of ideals, positions, and solutions. Karlise Y. Grier, the executive director for Georgia’s Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism, discusses the establishment and impact of the first-of-its-kind Commission intended to address and encourage legal professionalism. While the legal profession, as a whole, must assert its leadership, it is the judiciary that maintains control in a courtroom and must make the most of its ability to foster and encourage civility in the profession and among the laypeople who utilize the court system. Retired Judge Benes Z. Aldana serves as the president and CEO of the National Judicial College, based in Reno, NV. His article and sidebar discuss the need for continued, high-level civility and some methods to maintain the environment that is necessary for the proper administration of justice in a transparent society.
I do not have the historical pedigree to opine on whether the current cultural climate is the worst it’s ever been; however, I am old enough to know that things have been much better and that, as a culture, we’ve taken some significant steps backward. In large part, we have learned that there is no consequence for rudeness. That total anonymity while communicating to large audiences has empowered brash actions and ignorant statements. However, that is not and cannot be the entire story. Clearly, a large part of the emotion and hostility in public controversies revolves around a fundamental misunderstanding of how our system of government works or is supposed to work. Professor David E. Campbell presents an enlightening piece about the importance of a civics education and its importance in maintaining our republic. Jason L. S. Raia presents the issue from an educational point of view and shows how historical decisions to focus on core subjects to the exclusion of social studies and civics have resulted in profound civic illiteracy in our culture, which just exacerbates an already unpleasant divide with people of different demographics.
The pandemic did not help at all. As the articles discuss, our inability to engage in civil discourse is now a new problem and stems from years of decision-making that diminished the value of civics, civility, and collaboration. However, the pandemic just made it all worse—not because of the deadly nature of the disease or the controversy over how to best control the outbreak, but for the purpose of knowing how to be around each other, the total and absolute sequestration of people resulted in the abandonment of almost every-thing our parents taught us as children. What made it worse was our parents forgot those lessons too. ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross spoke to the ABA House of Delegates during the 2022 Annual Meeting in Chicago, Illinois, in August. During those remarks, she articulated her theme for the year of Civics, Civility, and Collaboration. The Honorable Adrienne C. Nelson explores that charge and provides insight into the role that attorneys and judges play in the quest to restore or maintain confidence in our system of government and the philosophical underpinnings of democracy.
That sounds dramatic and more than a bit heady; however, these concepts are important. The central theme that runs through all these articles is that the diminished attention given to these concepts has resulted in a society that has contempt for its government and all things that don’t fit into an individual’s narrow worldview. Often courtesy is mistaken for weakness and compromise is mistaken for capitulation. Civility or manners are viewed as capitulating to someone else. This issue of The Judges’ Journal hopes to reinforce the notion that these concepts are strengths. They are positive ideals that we, as jurists, should strive to uphold and encourage. They are not to be “enforced” because enforcement invites resistance. Treating people with respect and courtesy, having fluid knowledge of our system of government, and being willing to work with people to resolve conflicts despite individual differences is a choice of selflessness and strength. And it is a choice that we must make several times a day.