Legal Learning: What happened to civility?
I was shocked last week to read that a restaurant owner in Lexington, Va., asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave the cafe. The owner said she knew that Sanders worked for an “inhumane and unethical” president, and “I explained that the restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold.”
A few days earlier, protesters chanted “shame” at Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen while she was eating at a Mexican restaurant a couple of blocks from the White House. And White House policy adviser Stephen Miller was called a fascist while he has eating at a different Mexican restaurant.
Then I read about what happened to Jennifer Carnahan. She is the chairwoman of the Minnesota Republican Party and was born in South Korea. She says she has been receiving hate-filled emails and social media messages every day from members of her own party saying she is “disgusting,” “not worth a penny,” “a stupid Asian not even born in America” and she should “crawl back into a hole and stay there.”
Last year, a Republican official called Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., a “raving, Louis Farrakhan supporting, anti-Semite, anti-white, racist and fascist American” and a “lunatic.”
Our president, of course, has led the way with this loss of civility. He doesn’t just disagree with his opponents, he calls them nasty names: “Crooked Hillary” Clinton, “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer” and “Sloppy Steve Bannon.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. Ronald Reagan, for example, had a civil relationship with Tip O’Neill, the Democratic speaker of the House. They were ideological opposites, but always sat down, communicated and worked out their differences with civility.
Judges Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were friends, although they almost always disagreed in their Supreme Court opinions. (By the way, be sure to see the movie “RBG” if you get a chance.)
It turns out that Americans want more civility. A recent poll by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate found that 93 percent of us — Republicans and Democrats alike — feel that our country has a civility problem.
Sixty percent say incivility has led them to stop paying attention to political debates, and is deterring people from entering public service.
And 84 percent of those polled say they have personally experienced incivility — from road rage to impoliteness when shopping.
Twenty-five percent of Americans reported they have experienced online cruelty or cyberbullying, compared to only 9 percent in 2011.
It seems to me that civility is an essential component of our American system of democracy. Lawmakers must work together and find common ground in order to make progress.
Civility doesn’t mean that we should avoid vigorous debate, but personal attacks are counterproductive and poison the debate. People with whom we disagree are probably decent human beings even if they are “wrong” on issues we feel strongly about.
It’s time to listen to one another, work together and use our words to persuade rather than to divide.
James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate. He handles family law, wills and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and are not to be attributed to his employer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.