Monday, January 30, 2006

The Decline in Civility

If you promise not to tell anybody, I am going to post the entire introduction to today's newsletter (subscribe here). THIS IS NOT MY WORK AND I AM NOT REPRESENTING IT AS SUCH!:

*****In a thoughtful speech to a Law Society dinner in Sydney last night, NSW Chief Justice Jim Spigelman reflected on "the decline in the level of civility in our society." Referring to a "growing concern with personal conduct in many areas of discourse," he cited examples like "the emergence of road-rage; the behaviour of parents at school sporting events, referred to as the 'ugly parent syndrome'; the prevalence of offensive language in many spheres of social interaction and popular culture; the sensationalism of a media driven by declining circulations and audiences; the indifference to the tranquillity of others by the infliction of noise, whether from boorish conduct or mobile phones; the vulgarity and rudeness of reality TV shows; the selfishness of littering; the virtual disappearance in common discourse of words such as 'please', 'thank you' and 'sorry'."

So what should be done about the decline in civility? Well, according to the Chief Justice, relationships of civility, tolerance and trust can't be left to individuals – "they must be institutionalised." Evidence of "civil conduct" in the law can be seen in the "language of advocacy," he said – "it would never cross the mind of a barrister to address me in court, and generally outside court, by my first name. That is a privilege reserved for 18 year olds in telephone call centres." All too often, says Justice Spigelman, "rudeness is justified as a form of egalitarianism," and he hopes that "others learn from the ability of this profession to resist the decline in civility apparent elsewhere in society."

While most people of a certain age would probably agree with the Chief Justice's assessment of the current state of civility, his plea for effectively legislating civil behaviour could be seen as a judicial solution to a societal problem. While the formality of the legal system is important to maintain its role as the guardian of the law, the idea of applying the same kind of institutionalised "civility" to other places in society is quaint, even if the failure to adopt such a standard means risking being called by your first name by "18 year olds in telephone call centres." *****

Hear, hear, Your Honour. I agree with his sentiments wholeheartedly. However, whether we can really institutionalise civil behaviour is difficult to tell now. Obviously, we have and can in the more formal legal institutions, but there are plenty of very informal and uncivil solicitors and barristers going around as well. Interesting question and we have already discussed something similar on this blog.


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