Bill's Blog


Posted on October 12th, 2018

We live in contentious and uncivil times. It seems like almost everyone these days is spring-loaded in the angry position. 

The President of the United States starts and ends each day with a series of tweets casting insults at everybody except Vladimir Putin. 

Ironically, at the same time, the First Lady, Melania Trump, gives speeches about the dangers of cyber-bullying. This is a little like Hillary Clinton giving a speech about the importance of marital fidelity. 

President Trump is not the only “leader” who fails to practice civility. His opponent in the 2016 Presidential election, the aforementioned Hillary Clinton, dismissed her opponents as a “basket of deplorables,” calling them racist, homophobic, and zenophobic. In an interview earlier this week with CNN, she said there would be no place for civility until her political opponents are defeated. 

Our politicians simply reflect our culture of incivility, as the prevailing view these days is that civility is a sign of weakness.  Many, if not most Americans subscribe to the theory of the late philosopher Leo Durocher that “nice guys finish last.” 

But I do not share that cynical view. I believe civility is strength, not weakness.  And while I often fail, I try to practice civility each day. 

I am lucky that I once took a four-year course on civility. I took the course in high school. It was called high school debate. 

For four years I was a member of the Frayser High School Varsity Debate Team. In all immodesty, we were pretty darn good. We won a state championship as well as a national regional championship and competed in speech tournaments all around the country, twice qualifying for the Rose Bowl of high school debate, the National Championship Tournament. 

Under the tutelage of a great high school debate coach and speech teacher, John Hester, I learned how to research a topic, come up with an argument, and then stand on my feet and deliver it. It was the perfect training for my future career as a trial lawyer. 

But I learned something else in the process. I learned about civility.

First I learned that there are two sides to every issue. In each debate tournament in which I participated, I had to argue both sides of the debate topic. For example, one year we debated the topic, “Resolved: America should have a system of comprehensive national healthcare.” 

That’s right. Over 50 years ago, I was debating Obama Care. I had to learn to argue both sides of the issue, and many other issues as well. 

In your typical high school speech tournament in my era, each team would engage in four rounds of debate. In two of the rounds, your team would argue the affirmative side, (for the proposition). In the other two rounds, you would argue the negative side (against the proposition). 

In this process, you came to respect different points of view for the very simple reason that you had to speak alternatively both for and against each view. 

When one goes through such an exercise, you do not tend to become self-righteous and condemn other viewpoints. 

Second, I learned to practice civility in advocacy. Any debater who would hurl insults at his opponents would invariably lose the debate. Believe me, high school debate judges were not impressed by invective and sarcasm. With all due respect, President Trump could have never won a Tennessee high school debate championship. 

Finally, in high school debate I learned the art of strategic civility. I learned that the most effective advocates advance their arguments with strength and sincerity, but also with respect for their opponents. The weak advocates were those who tended to pound on the podium as well as their opponents. 

My years of high school debate led to college debate and then to law school, and eventually to a career as a “professional debater” as a trial lawyer. 

Over the past 40 years, I have been in over 100 jury trials. I have debated outstanding lawyers in front of judges and juries. In the process I have always tried to remember what I was taught in high school debate, that civility is one of the greatest strengths of an effective advocate. 

Maybe we should require the President and all members of Congress to attend a high school debate tournament and take notes!


Sam Blair: The Other Fellow May Be Right: The Civility of Howard Baker

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