Today’s column in the Star is more serious than usual: a call for some civility in our public discourse.  Bickering Congressmen and blustering pundits have nothing on small-town editorial writers when it comes to bad-mouthing neighbors who disagree with them. Can’t we all just get along?

Back in the day, when I was a San Francisco attorney at a large law firm, I was asked by an influential corporate partner to handle a personal legal issue for his family. The matter required a simple unopposed petition, but because of the importance of my client, I briefed it as if it were a landmark civil rights case before the Supreme Court.

The partner and his wife sat next to me in court, and when the judge arrived I stood up. After complimenting me on my brief, he granted the petition. I said: “Thank you, Your Honor” and quickly sat down.

My client was peeved. “You didn’t argue anything,” he noted with irritation, muttering sarcastically: “Great job.”

I took the opportunity to repeat to this partner an important lesson from the trial lawyers who originally trained me:

Once you’ve won your argument, shut up.

You’d be amazed at how often this rule is violated. Lawyers and business negotiators and hobbyist-arguers will make their points brilliantly, then proceed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by piling on unhelpful facts, even arguing the other side’s point of view, before finally running out of hot air.

But the best way to blow an argument is to tack on some random nasty personal dig, immediately lowering the level of the debate while erasing all memory of the convincing analysis that preceded it.

I observed this recently during a Planning Commission hearing regarding modification of a winery permit. The debate was long-winded but civil, until one concerned neighbor stood up and proceeded to excoriate the applicant, painting him a slick snake-oil salesman.

The effect on the audience was palpable: A collective “no” was gasped en masse, and even those opposing the application became sympathetic. The commissioners seemingly agreed, even though the neighbor had scored some good points before he went for the jugular.

Many of the letters to the editor I’ve read lately, and the comments thereto, suffer from the same “Why did they have to add that?” problem.

For example, some folks in our town are urging the city to abolish a loud siren signaling the deployment of the local volunteer fire department. Other residents, including many long-timers, feel strongly about keeping it. I had absolutely no opinion on this one, and looked forward to hearing divergent views of the issue.

Several locals wrote to the paper describing the special meaning the siren holds for them, the nostalgia it conjures, its importance as a safety reminder, and its celebration of volunteerism and of the firefighters’ long history of service. Frankly, they had me at “I care.” Just knowing that this meant so much to them was powerfully persuasive — they had won their argument.

But then, after the bell had rung and the heavyweight champion had been crowned, came some pro-siren low-blows: Those who opposed it were not “real citizens” but rather godless, ungrateful arrivistes.

The anti-siren contingent, after making a strong case touting the advance of technology and denouncing disturbing decibel-levels, inflicted its own jabs, labeling the siren a “fetus-frightening” public nuisance and its proponents provincial noise-polluting dinosaurs.

While everyone is entitled to their subjective opinions, I wonder if advocates realize how their expression sends analytic argument off the rails. It’s as if, in a presidential debate, the challenger delivered a withering indictment of the incumbent’s tax policies, reduced his economic platform to rubble, then added “And you’re ugly, too.”

As distressing as it is to read personal attacks on individuals, it is equally distracting to read disparaging generalizations about groups of citizens, reducing their complex views to clichés.

People who seek to limit the use of gas-powered leaf blowers are not spoiled police-state-pushing spendthrifts seeking to ban all vestiges of modern civilization. Those opposing leaf blower limits are not selfish polluters indifferent to the allergies and impending deafness of their neighbors. People against low-cost housing proposals are not cold-hearted discriminatory elitists, any more than proponents are irresponsible water-wasting lefties.

The platform of local candidates cannot be reduced simply to growth versus no growth; the views of the local citizens group for “responsible growth” cannot be boiled down to five letters (NIMBY); and people do not write passionate letters to the editor just because “they have nothing better to do.” We may disagree with some of these groups or individuals, but we can respect the time and thought that went into the positions they take.

I’m looking forward to an election season during which citizens can vigorously debate the issues and really listen to one another, while remembering that decent people may disagree. A re-read of letters to the editor reveals that the most respectful and nuanced are the most persuasive.

In other words, you can convince others you’re right, without saying something wrong.