Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Disagreement, Civility, and Respect

It’s certainly no secret that we live in very partisan and polarizing times.  But the reasons for such polarization border on the ridiculous.

Indeed, citizens often cannot reasonably and respectfully disagree on matters of public importance, such as abortion, immigration, or education. Additionally, the media, whether it be CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC, has devolved into little more than a partisan enterprise that vilifies anyone with whom it disagrees, and that eschews true intellectual debate (and common sense).  What’s more, the rhetoric of our politicians, both Republican and Democrat, has become so divisive, simplistic, and, quite frankly, dishonest, that any attempt to engage in reasonable discourse is futile. And the United States Supreme Court has contributed to the problem; the meaning of the Constitution seems to depend more on the composition of the Court rather than a reasonable interpretation of its text. In essence, the credibility of many public figures who once inspired trust has vanished as they have unapologetically exposed their personal and political biases.

These factors, among others, have compromised citizens’ confidence in our institutions, in the political and electoral process, and in the ability to disagree on issues of law and policy while maintaining civility and respect. And such factors, not Donald Trump or Joe Biden, is the true threat to a viable and sustainable democracy.

Why is this happening? Below are a few reasons – and suggestions to restore a minimal level of maturity and common sense to public discourse.

1.    The prevalence of groupthink

Groupthink is one of the biggest impediments to a meaningful exchange of truly diverse perspectives. In academia, for example, particularly at law schools, the faculty are overwhelmingly liberal. This is not to say that the views of these professors – or liberals generally – lack merit. It is to say, however, that when you surround yourself with and continually hire people who mostly think like you, opposing perspectives seem so foreign and ‘wrong’ that it precludes meaningful discourse and discourages people from offering diverse viewpoints. Anyone who is a law professor that admires Justice Antonin Scalia – and originalism – will certainly relate. And anyone who has been on the receiving end of students trying to shout you down because you are offering a perspective with which they disagree will likewise relate

2.    A lack of humility – and the failure to admit that you might be wrong

Not everything is about you.

If you’re so self-absorbed that you cannot see past yourself and empathize with others, you cannot form true human connections, make an impact on others’ lives, or make meaningful improvements in your own life. Sadly, inflated egos and narcissistic personalities are prevalent in society, and such people – and personalities – are incredibly toxic. These people almost always think that they are ‘right’ on every issue. They ignore inconvenient facts. They cherry-pick data and evidence to suit their narratives. They hurl insults at those with whom they disagree.  Put simply, they cannot fathom the possibility that maybe, just maybe, their views are inaccurate, incomplete, or incorrect. When a person thinks like that, reasonable discourse is impossible. And the truth is that no one is necessarily right about everything – or anything. It takes humility to listen more and talk less, and to realize that we all have much to learn about life and the law.

3.    Immaturity and weak mindsets

It’s amazing how many adults behave like children.

People have different experiences. They come from different backgrounds. They were raised in different environments. They have often suffered unique traumas and disadvantages. These and other experiences shape a person’s values and worldview which, while invariably different from others, are no less worthy of respect. In other words, not everyone thinks like you. And if you had grown up in their shoes, you probably wouldn’t think the way you do now.

So, grow up. The fact that others have different opinions does not make them wrong. It does not make them bad people. It does not make them immoral or invidious. It just makes them different.  And difference is the essence of diversity.

For example, if someone is pro-life, it doesn’t automatically mean that they have no respect for a woman’s bodily autonomy or liberty. If someone is pro-choice, it doesn’t mean that they sanction the killing of human life. It just means that they have different perspectives, which are informed by their personal experiences, including family upbringing and the overcoming of adversity. If someone voted for Donald Trump, it does not mean that the person is racist or unintelligent. It just means that they are different from you and those differences resulted substantially from, among other things, the environment in which they evolved. As stated above, if you grew up in their shoes, your opinions and worldview might be far different from the ones you have now.

If you take offense to or discriminate against those who have different opinions, then it is you who is the enemy of diversity.

4.    Hypersensitivity

Life is difficult. It is unfair. It is unjust. People can be terribly critical and judgmental, and they are often the ones who espouse the very virtues (e.g., tolerance and acceptance) that they lack.  But not every criticism is undeserved, and not every experience of unfairness or injustice is unbearable.

Successful people have strong mindsets. They have a positive thought process. They are mentally tough. They know how to respond to adversity. They realize that your choices, not your circumstances, determine your destiny. They don’t make excuses. They focus on what they can control, and they do not get distracted by external ‘noise.’ In short, they have thick skin while simultaneously treating others with kindness and empathy.

5.    The inability to listen and the unwillingness to learn

So many people just cannot shut up.

These folks often cringe or come quite close to a nervous breakdown when they confront opinions, facts, or evidence that undermine their subjective policy predilections or expose their personal biases. The inability to listen, however, only ensures the impossibility of engaging in respectful and meaningful discourse. Having listening skills is critical to building successful professional and personal relationships, and to creating an environment of mutual respect.

So, start listening more. You might learn something.

6.    Vilifying people personally because you disagree with them politically

It’s shocking how people resort frequently to personal attacks to demean and degrade those with whom they disagree. And it’s alarming how many people embrace simplistic narratives and dichotomies such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ Reality is far more complex and often resides in a gray area where no one can claim a monopoly on truth. If you have even the semblance of self-awareness, a modicum of maturity, and an ounce of humility, you know that attacking someone personally based on differences in opinion reflects insensitivity and intellectual dishonesty.

For example, people who supported Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination are not necessarily vile sexists. People who supported Donald Trump are not necessarily ignorant racists. People who support Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are not necessarily socialists. Likewise, people who support affirmative action do not necessarily believe in ‘reverse discrimination,’ and people who oppose affirmative action are not necessarily racist or privileged. They are just people who think differently than you. They are no better – and no worse.

In the end, our similarities and shared values far outweigh our differences, and the failure to embrace those similarities and respect those differences is corrosive to any society that values liberty and equality.

So, the next time you’re in a faculty meeting, a board meeting, a debate at a bar, or a discussion in a classroom, be open to new perspectives. Choose to truly embrace diversity.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2022/11/disagreement-civility-and-respect.html

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