Off the Bench | Restoring civility in our society

Off the Bench | Restoring civility in our society

Despite growing up in an era in which one read a newspaper that was delivered to the residence, I am still a little surprised when someone outside the delivery area sends me a comment on a column.

Such was the case with regard to last month's column dealing with civility and the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. I received comments from two judges in the Circuit Court of Cook County and one from Dr. Steve Ambrose, co-founder of Walk The Ridge, which he described as "a growing movement and learning organization for civility at work, in the home, within our communities and in online environments."

He encouraged me to visit the website, I did and was enlightened and encouraged by what I found. That experience and what I have heard in the aftermath of the death of Sen. John McCain motivated me to write a second column dealing with civility. This one will go beyond the efforts of the legal profession and address some approaches that should help restore civility in our society.

According to Ambrose, the mission of the movement was chosen "... because civility, which has been around since the days of George Washington, has become too much of a buzzword — and less of a shared and sustained behavior."

All of this matters only if we determine that we have a problem that needs to be dealt with. If so, we have to want to change things. If one is content with our collective behavior, the desire to improve will be lacking. I am a person who is not content. Much of what I see and hear bothers me. Lest anyone think I am preaching at the reader, be assured that my comments are self directed as well.

Sadly, I do not think we can wait for our governmental and political leaders to turn things around. We need to make this a movement of the people starting with our own behavior.

The list of ideas and approaches far exceeds the space available for this column. I would like to submit for consideration a few thoughts.

When interviewed following the death of McCain, his fellow Arizona senator, Jeff Flake, noted that the greatest lesson he had learned from his colleague was to forgive. In his military and political careers, McCain had many a battle and was known to have a temper. According to Flake, he was quick to forgive and move on.

Seeing the good in one's opponents was another point made in the interview. Just because someone sees the world or a particular issue differently than we do, does not make them worthy of contempt and hostility.

The third observation by Flake is to realize there is something more important than ourselves. That is easier to say than to practice, but it is worth trying.

The Walk The Ridge website contains a section with 10 tips. They are easily found and worth reading. A couple of them are consistent with what has been mentioned above, and I cannot resist commenting on a few more.

Tip No. 3 is "Be Open To Learning." After reading the tip and accompanying commentary, I thought of panel discussions on certain television programs. Frequently, all participants are speaking at once to the point where they cannot hear each other, and the viewer hears incomprehensible noise. Actually listening is a great way to learn what another person is thinking and why they think it.

That understanding will not always lead to agreement but should help us appreciate the other person and remove the temptation to demonize those with whom we disagree.

In fact, tip No. 6 is captioned "Disagree Respectfully." This is music to the ears of a mediator and sound advice for our society.

Tip No. 9 is captioned "Grow Beyond Your Tribe." I was intrigued to read the commentary associated with this one. It posits that "We also created a 'tribal' mentality with increased or new divisions among issues including race, religion, lifestyle, gender, political ideology and socio-economic — to name a few."

If we isolate ourselves from people whose attitudes and beliefs differ from our own, divisions are likely to become wider and civil communication more difficult. As observed in the commentary "Civil discourse is one thing, but name-calling, shaming, cursing, online bullying and incivility, even from our top leaders, is something quite different."

If we make the effort, perhaps we can stop being so angry with each other and more fully enjoy all that this great country offers us.

David Bernthal of Mahomet is a retired 21-year federal magistrate. He is a counsel with the Webber & Thies PC law firm and serves as senior mediator and arbitrator with ADR Systems. His email is

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion