Hank Greenberg: On Being Agreeably Disagreeable

Oct 31, 2019

There is an ancient saying: "May you live in interesting times." This expression is intended to be ironic. It reflects anxiety and fear about current events or perhaps even the future. 

I think we can all agree that the times in which we live are indeed interesting. Extraordinary things are happening all around us. 

On the plus side: We are pushing the boundaries of science and research, curing plagues that once wiped out entire civilizations. We are moving to replace fossil fuels with renewables, building smarter homes, and breaking down the boundaries of class, race, gender and sexual orientation. 

But there are also disturbing trends in our society, culture and politics about which we should all be concerned. 

Whatever your beliefs, we should all be concerned about the polarization and tribalization that is dividing our nation.

We should all be concerned about the anger and incivility that has turned public discourse into a blood sport. We should all be concerned when public officials mock the principles our nation's founders held to be self-evident or use racially charged rhetoric that tears apart the fabric of society.

Some say we live in a "post-truth" world, where facts and experts are no longer trusted. I don’t believe it, but many do. Despite the challenges that we face, our foundation is strong. And that foundation is the Rule of Law. When all is chaos and we cannot see a way forward, we should look to the law to guide us.  

Take the current impeachment debate in Washington. Contrary to the point reiterated endlessly – and incorrectly – by the TV talking heads, this process was not intended to be purely political. Rather, it is a legal and constitutionally prescribed undertaking for which there is an applicable history, as well as analysis and past precedents.  

Notwithstanding all the current political noise, there’s a clear blueprint federal lawmakers must follow. It is not hyperbole to estimate that untold millions of Americans are unaware of our country’s constitutional history, or its traditions and norms. This is where lawyers come in. 

The current state of affairs in which the country finds itself imposes a special duty on the legal profession. It also provides an opportunity to perform an important public service. 

We have not only the ability, but also an obligation to explain to our fellow citizens why the Rule of Law has kept us free for over two centuries.

We have training. We have wisdom. We have the ability to see both sides of an issue, find common ground and bring people together.

Lawyers know how to debate without dividing, though many Americans likely don’t see us that way. 

But sit in any courtroom across this country, and you will see attorneys who engage – day in and day out – in spirited debate without name calling or using words that wound. That is more than one can say for many cable news shows these days, and even, at times, what occurs in the Halls of Congress.

The practice of law is about knowing how to disagree without being disagreeable. That is a lesson we all could stand to learn – or re-learn, as the case may be. 

As attorneys, the time is now for us to model that behavior and put the best of our profession on display. 

Henry ‘Hank’ Greenberg is president of the New York State Bar Association.

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