Nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker recently asked whether civility can be saved. Parker noted that Americans have always been “a bunch of rowdies and rascals,” citing as a “perennial favorite,” the “caning administered by South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks upon the person of Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner over a disagreement about slavery and a question of honor.” Parker defined civility as “courtesy in behavior and speech, otherwise known as manners. In the context of the public square, civility is manners for democracy.” Parker then argued that our manners have deteriorated, particularly in recent years. “Manners have become quaint, while behaviors once associated with rougher segments of society have become mainstream.”
How did Parker suggest we fix the civility problem? She said that change “has to come from within, each according to his own conscience.” The media must strive to be “honest, accurate and fair, and reward the coarsest among us with scant attention.” Parker claimed that the greatest threat to civility is not the random outburst but “the elevation of nonsense, and the distribution of false information.” She concluded by reminding us that the Golden Rule works well. “Best taught in the home, it could use some burnishing.”
Parker’s column was published in my local newspaper, The Greenville News, on February 19. Just two days later, that same newspaper published a column by another nationally syndicated columnist, Cal Thomas, titled “Learning a Civility Lesson.” Thomas recently spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, and in his own words, “failed to live up to one of my highest principles.” The story of the day was the Obama administration’s recent move to require faith-based institutions to provide contraception as a part of health care coverage. A video clip was played from Rachel Maddow’s program on MSNBC in which she commented on the subject. After the clip was played, Thomas told the audience, “I think she’s the best argument in favor of her parents using contraception, and all the rest of the crowd at MSNBC, too, for that matter.” In his column, Thomas admitted that he spoke before thinking: “I am not supposed to behave like that.” The morning after the speech, Thomas called Maddow to apologize. Maddow graciously accepted the apology and commented on her show that she believed Thomas’ apology.
Thomas concluded his column by reminding his readers that he has had many liberal friends over the years. “They became my friends because I stopped seeing them as labels and began seeing them as persons with innate worth. That is what I failed to do in my first response to Maddow.” Parker referred to “the food-fight formula that attracts viewers to cable TV” and would surely be pleased with Thomas’ apology.
Our friends at Legal Blog Watch noticed that the Fourth Circuit recently called out the U.S. Attorney’s Office for uncivil language in an appellate brief. The court felt “compelled to note that advocates, including government lawyers, do themselves a disservice when their briefs contain disrespectful or uncivil language directed against the district court, the reviewing court, opposing counsel, parties, or witnesses.”
In South Carolina, lawyers are required to sign an oath, pledging “fairness, integrity and civility, not only in court, but also in all written and oral communications” to opposing parties and their counsel. In striving to remain faithful to this oath, lawyers would do well to remember Parker’s reference to George Washington’s writings on this subject: “Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for ‘tis a Sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature: And in all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern.” Finally, we would also do well to remember Thomas’ civility lesson, including the willingness to admit we are wrong and apologize for our behavior.