On August 8, 2011 Resolution 108, which reaffirms the principle of civility as a foundation for democracy and the rule of law, was unanimously adopted at the American Bar Association’s Annual Meeting. Although directed towards lawyers, it summarizes much of what is needed to turn our civic conversations toward productive dialogue and away from rancorous partisan contests. In the words of the supporting text,
“Words matter. How we treat each other matters. In our public discourse, it is time to begin talking to each other with mutual respect.”
The resolution urges all those involved in government, as well as citizens,
“to strive toward a more civil public discourse in the conduct of political activities and in the administration of the affairs of government.”
The supporting text sets forth some concrete steps that will be familiar to most dialogue proponents — tone down the rhetoric; demonstrate respect for opposing views; listen to the needs, interests and concerns that underlie those views; try to identify common ground on which a mutually acceptable solution might be built; and try to actually engage on issues rather than merely score political points (p. 7). “To actually engage on issues”, we believe, includes a willingness to work with data (and to fairly report the context, assumptions and methods behind that data), to analyze consequences and results, and to acknowledge what is working or has worked.
As the text supporting the resolution notes (pp. 2-3), “acrimony and venom” in public discourse endangers the quality of decision-making on complex issues, limits the potential for problem-solving, and undermines the trust needed for effective governance. In the long term, holding each other accountable for how decisions are made can improve our quality of governance.