The American Uncivil Wars
How crude, rude and obnoxious behavior has replaced good manners and why that hurts our politics and culture
Five minutes a day at Robert E. Lee is devoted to character education, a program popular around the country and put into place last year by the Alabama Legislature. As students gather in their homerooms in the morning, someone reads a poem or a story or an edifying thought over the intercom, an effort that has about as much attention-grabbing power as a sermon at a rock concert. Seniors say character education is widely regarded as a joke. By and large, no one listens, and teachers don't have much say in the matter. They get only as much respect as they show to the students, and that is precious little in some classes.
State Rep. Bill Fuller, who helped to push through the legislation, now believes high school is too late to teach values like respect and courtesy. He says the work has to begin much earlier--at home, for instance, or elementary school. And that is where Walcott concentrates the efforts he has launched under the auspices of the American Foundation for Courtesy Inc. The Guyanese native wonders at the breakdown of manners here, and one aspect of his schooling seems particularly lacking in his adopted country now: "The teacher always remained in charge and was always respected," he remembers. "Even if you didn't have respect for the person, you still had respect for the office. I believe America could learn something from that."
LAW One area in which this kind of respect for institutions has eroded dramatically in recent years is the law. Outside of their profession, lawyers have become symbols of everything crass and dishonorable in American public life; within it, they have become increasingly combative and uncivil toward each other. One survey of lawyers and judges by federal court officials in the upper Midwest found that 41 percent believe the lack of civility is a problem and, of those, a large majority think problems exist when lawyers deal with each other. The respondents blamed economic competition among law firms, the rise of "Rambo" litigators who battle opponents ruthlessly, lying, cheating and threats of malpractice from angry clients for their colleagues' unmannerly behavior. Of course, it is also true that while Americans revile lawyers, they have a hand in this mess because they have turned virtually every kind of unhappiness into a legal claim.
Since the late 1980s, state bar associations around the country have attempted to clean up their acts, asking lawyers to treat clients, judges and each other with "courtesy, candor, cooperation and scrupulous observance," as the Texas Lawyer's Creed reads. "There were more than a few stories about physical altercations in depositions, between lawyers, sometimes involving clients, more than a few stories about lawyers on the verge of physical altercation in courthouse hallways," says Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht. "We felt like we needed to do something to turn down the fire."
The value of those codes is now being debated at the national level. Next month, a panel at the American Bar Association Center for Professional Responsibility will look at the impact and value of the codes. There has been nothing but improvement in Texas, says Justice Hecht, but any deep-seated change in behavior will take at least half a generation.