Maria, Irma, Harvey and Rule 108
“Catastrophic”, “Extraordinary”, “Disastrous”, and unfortunately “Fatal” aptly have been used to describe the monumental hurricanes of 2017. As the lives of those impacted are slowly placed back together, we must not lose our spirit of involvement to assist as possible. Even with this utter devastation, I am constantly (pleasantly) amazed by the images of help when most needed. In a word, these chaotic, life threatening situations bring out civility. Do we need Harvey, Irma and Maria to remind us to be civil toward each other?
You know the videos: a man trudging through chest deep water pulling a row boat rescuing a 75 year old grandmother and her cat; ten strangers locked arm in arm to reach passengers in a car stuck in three feet of water; and the tenant from a second story apartment opening her place to all displaced, former strangers who live on the flooded first floor apartments. These people took absolutely no time to think about their actions. The comments are always along the lines of: “Gee, they needed some help and I was there.”
Those in the videos are of all races, religions, socio-economics and walks of life. Hurricanes do not discriminate. Those affected are all “people” in need of help. Period.
If civility comes through at the most dire moments, why does civility appear to be absent (or extinct) in matters of public discourse? Lives are not threatened. Property is not about to be washed away. Yet, points of view almost have to be “left” or “right”. The more extreme and louder the voice, the more it appears to gain coverage — to the exclusion of rational, genuine debate.
I get it. The more outrageous the view, the better for ratings. The 24 hour news cycle monster must be constantly fueled. In fact, ratings for all categories on television are in decline except the 24 hour news stations where everyone on any panel interrupts for air time so that they can yell at another panelist. It should not be lost on us that so many of these “expert” panelists are attorneys.
Do not misunderstand. We need public discourse in our democracy. We need opposing views for consideration. We also need civility. As attorneys, do we need Harvey, Irma and Maria to remind us to be civil.
Actually, even without hurricanes, we have obligations to be leaders in society when it comes to civility. We can point to many rules of court mandating civility in litigation. In addition, as lawyers, we have obligations of civility beyond the mere confines of litigation and legal dealings. The 2011 ABA House of Delegates Rule 108 (“Rule 108”) directs lawyers “to set a high standard for civil discourse as an example for others in resolving differences constructively and without disparagement of others.” The ABA Section of Dispute Resolution proposed Rule 108 which passed unanimously (who would vote against civility?). Rule 108 further urges all lawyers “to take meaningful steps to enhance the constructive role of lawyers in promoting a more civil and deliberative public discourse.”
Rule 108 acknowledged that in 2011, public discourse had become “increasingly sour and contentious” while it was “getting worse”. The 2016 election cycle proved the ABA correct about that trend. However, Rule 108 further noted that lawyers are uniquely situated to change this direction. We hold leadership roles in politics, the legislative process, businesses, and the media. Rule 108 recognizes that we have “the gravitas, and often the platform, to be heard.”
Candidly, prior to conducting research for this article, I was not aware of Rule 108 and its mandates. I canvassed a number of attorneys in an exceedingly informal and less than scientific poll finding no one else with knowledge of Rule 108 or the general obligations to lead society in matters of civility.
Rule 108 goes well beyond relationships between and among lawyers. The obligations flow to how we conduct ourselves in society and provide leadership in our communities. We should carefully review Rule 108 and give serious thought to the “meaningful steps” we must take to enhance civility in public discourse. We should not await the next Maria, Irma or Harvey to provide examples of civility under conditions of duress when the obligation of civility rests with us daily with Rule 108.