Bring Back the Salons

Salon culture
Today if someone mentions a “salon” you probably think about a haircut or manicure. But in the 18th century, prior to the French Revolution, salons were the focus of civil debate, intellectual curiosity, and culture. They were  centres of discussion on everything from manners to literature to philosophy to science. And they were run by women. Salons were the bright stars of the Enlightenment; cauldrons of intellectual, cultural, and social development.

More than ever, we need a salon culture today. Social media is driving us to ignorance, stupidity, rigidly polarized views, and a culture of confrontation and abuse.

Guests to salons were invited to attend by the salonnières who ran them, and meetings were held in the host’s home, often in her bedroom. Should a guest engage too loudly, exhibit bad manners while there, express themselves too foolishly or show ignorance of the topics under discussion, they were not invited back. And in a highly social society like 18th-century France, to be exiled from participation was a humiliating loss of face. To be well-regarded, one needed to be an active and engaging participant in the salon culture: you gained more points for being amusing, witty, well-read, well-spoken, and polite.

Participants weren’t selected simply for their charm or wit: hosts wanted challenge, lively discussion, and even controversy. They chose people who could offer contrast; those who could speak to opposing views and raise difficult questions for proponents to wrestle with. Salons were even places for musicians, composers, painters, and poets to show off their work and have them critiqued by the guests.

Salons were egalitarian: men and women both participated and engaged in the discussions, breaking away from the male-dominated society of the time, and providing both an informal education for women and an opportunity for them to develop their own views. Women could engage in political discussion in salons while they were barred from them outside. But they also allowed the aristocracy and the bourgeoise to mix and mingle; to engage in ways they could not do outside the salon, breaking down the social barriers.

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Manners? Civility? What happened to them?

Robert CrumbI was sitting in my car on main street, recently, waiting for a break in the traffic so I could back out and drive on. My backup lights were lit, my turn signal flashing, so drivers knew I was trying to exit. The parking downtown is nose-first, angled to the sidewalk, so you need to back into the oncoming traffic lane to leave. All I needed was a single driver to stop and allow me out. A few seconds of someone’s time. But even though the traffic light stopped the cars, drivers still came up right behind me to block my exit. Where, I wondered, had people’s manners gone, how had people become so uncivil that they could not even commit a simple act of courtesy?

In his book, Walden, in fact in the very first chapter, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I would offer that today — at least based on the noisome detritus posted on social media — this is more like “lives of loud, rude selfishness and self-inflicted ignorance.” Thoreau never had the opportunity to spend an hour observing people in a grocery store or big box outlet during a pandemic, or during a Black Friday sale, but if he had I suspect his view would be closer to mine.*

Pandemic rules like wearing a mask, social distancing, one-way aisles, and using hand sanitizer serve two functions:  the first and most obvious is to reduce the opportunities to spread the coronavirus, but the second is an ethical test: are you or your fellow humans even aware of or give a shit about others, or just think about yourself? If you do consider the welfare of others as equally important to your own, and you obey the rules, then you at least have some manners.

Some of these rules or policies had to be passed into law, rather than being left as a preferred code of behaviour. Leaving it up to individuals to behave maturely and responsibly, with consideration to others during a pandemic, and expecting people to exhibit a basic understanding of simple hygiene and health failed miserably early on: far too many people quickly proved too selfish, or too stupid, or both to care about others. The utter failure of many adults to act in a mature, civilized, responsible, and non-selfish manner was made evident in the anti-mask demonstrations. Rudeness and selfishness came to the fore too often to leave it up to individuals.

We have laws against littering, jaywalking, parking on sidewalks, defecating and urinating in public, disobeying traffic lights, letting your lawn grow too high, letting your dog run loose, driving while drunk, smoking in public places. All sorts of laws to maintain social order have been passed to enforce what should be automatic, considerate, responsible behaviour (aka manners). But clearly we are not collectively mature or responsible enough for manners alone; to remain even passably civilized, laws are necessary. ***

Manners are a moral imperative, even a virtue. They measure whether people can behave well towards one another without any incentive or motivation to do so. Laws are what we get when we can’t, but manners are equally important as a sign of our ability to govern ourselves as a democracy. Behaving well, behaving mannerly, may not be profitable, but it’s a powerful motivator for anyone not obsessed with mere glitter and material goods. As Edmund Burke wrote in 1796, in his Letters on a Regicide,

Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, but a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and color to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.

That’s worth repeating: manners are more important than laws. Why? Because they are self-administered and thus show us for who we are, not who others determine we must be. Manners take our measure. In her book, Why Manners Matter (Random House Australia, 2007)**, Lucinda Holdforth explained:

Destroy manners — sweep aside all of a society’s habits, conventions, and patterns of behaviour — and you may well find you have nothing left but chaos. And because human beings cannot live for long in a state of anarchy, sooner or later some form of oppressive authority will step in to restore order on new, more punitive premises.

Which is clearly what is happening in the USA today. President Trump (aka Putin’s Puppet) has behaved abysmally, lacking manners in and out of office: he has insulted, lied, cheated, stolen, squandered taxpayers’ money, given his unqualified children and campaign contributors positions of power, and then bragged about his mannerless and petty behaviour. And he has encouraged his followers to behave similarly: without manners or civility or consideration for others (which they have done). He has done so in order to be able to implement a more repressive state to manage the very chaos he himself created. It’s a subtle, but effective coup.

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Dandelions and civilization

Whenever I see a lawn with dandelions, I think, “This is the home of civilized people. This is the home of people who care about the environment and their community. This is where bees are welcome.”

When I see a monoculture lawn, bereft of weeds or dandelions, I think, “Here is the home of an anti-social family; a place where life is restricted, wildlife discouraged; where community and the environment don’t matter.”

I feel the same when I see a lawn sign advertising that an anti-“weed” toxin has been applied: “Here is the house of someone who dislikes their neighbours, the local wildlife, and pets.” It’s the home of someone who doesn’t care about their and their neighbours’ drinking water, either, because everyone knows that those poisons drain off into our local water supplies and eventually poison everyone.

Bland lawns bereft of texture and colour, bereft of even a single dandelion just seem so artificial, so hostile, so arrogant. So anti-bee, so anti-life, so impoverished.

Dandelions, on the other hand, are a bright icon of civilization and conscience. After all, who doesn’t know that bees and other pollinators are in trouble, are suffering from the excesses of toxins sprayed egregiously on lawns and fields? Who really believes a drab, one-colour lawn is more attractive, let alone beneficial than a flower garden?

Dandelions have a long, storied history in human company: brought over from Europe in the 17th century for their healing properties, they have spread across the continent. 

Weeds get a bad rap, says Dan Kraus, national conservation biologist at the Nature Conservancy of Canada:

Weed is a very subjective term. There is no scientific definition that says: this is a weed, this is not a weed. They’re basically plants that are in a place where people don’t want them. People consider dandelions to be a weed, but if you just change your mind about dandelions, and you don’t mind them on your lawn, then they’re no longer a weed.

Just google lawns and weeds and up pop a horde of commercial sites offering to cleanse your lawn of weeds, mostly by spraying some toxic concoction on them that will also poison wildlife and your drinking water. And they do it for money, of course.  But that’s modern life and the culture of me-me-me: as long as your lawn is perfect, who cares the consequences?

Lawns have a long history, mostly as status symbols rather than anything useful. The word itself comes to us from the Old Enligh launde, meaning a communal grazing space. It devolved into laune by 1540. Back in Henry III ‘s time it meant a private area exquisitely and laboriously manicured (first by livestock, then by peasants’ hands, and later by paid workers) to show off your wealth and status. Nothing communal about them.

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The Responsibility of Free Speech

The stages of argumentIn January, 2015, Marie Snyder, on her blog, A Puff of Absurdity, raised the question of how free should speech be. I share her concerns about the apparent limitlessness of our rights: our right to free speech is not matched to any inherent responsibilities, civic or moral, to behave in a mature manner, nor does it require anyone to speak the truth. And we are not taught in our educational system either the basics of argument (in the classical sense), rhetoric or even manners and civility.

I don’t always agree with her positions (although I did like her take on Montaigne), but this one I agree wholeheartedly with:

People say some truly cruel things, and I’m not convinced we should have a right to be publicly malicious.

Many people feel they have that right. And they willingly and eagerly trespass well beyond basic civility into libel and slander – often telling outright lies (as we know from the local blogosphere) and engaging in vulgar insults and name calling.

Snyder is also concerned about the venomous nature of those attacks and the very personal nature of some of the comments, well outside the forum for civic debate. Those attacks erode the credibility of the attacker, but they also fuel an online hatefest as others pile into the virtual mosh pit to contribute their venom to the mob frenzy.

As the newspaper’s editor, I always believed that a politician’s stand, speeches, votes and ideologies are open territory for criticism. And that criticism should be fair, any claims based on documented facts, and disagreement always made respectfully and civilly. It should never descend into a personal, ad hominem attack. And to resort to vulgarity and name calling is the lowest of the low in the ladder of civic engagement. Snyder writes:

Venting and criticizing are two different things with a different purpose and, as such, deserve a different forum. Venting is what we do with a close friend listening privately; it has no place in a public debate. This distinction is all the more important when openly criticizing people in positions of power further down the line – like MPs that you’re likely to see in your grocery story, or local journalists, or even teachers who didn’t sign up to be in the public eye in the same way politicians and journalists do. With open access to an online forum seen by millions, it has become far more important to teach argumentation skills at a young age, and to offer reminders everywhere. But if we can’t teach people to stop venting in public places, to actually control their own outrage like a theoretical grown-up might do, then I think (big breath) we need to have some legislation in place to prevent or punish this action.

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Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

Fiarport Convention, 1969I was thinking of the lines from that Fairport Convention song this week as we walked through Toronto on our three-day mini-holiday.

I can still hear Sandy Denny’s wonderful, haunting voice singing the chorus of that dreamy, sad song, as vibrantly as the day I first played the album, back in the late 1960s:

For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

That song has stuck with me all these years, an anthem of the era, but strangely prescient. Who would have thought it would resonate in an entirely different way, 45 years later?

Denny died in 1978, a great talent whose life was marred by tragedy and addiction. Fairport Convention, an eclectic, always-changing and highly innovative group, seems to still be together with some of the original members. Denny herself was with them for only about two years in a time of great musical creativity and exploration for so many people, 1968-69.

What made me think of these lines was walking through Queen Street West last week, past the hip and the cool fashion stores; stopping at Steve’s Music store to browse – and being at least twice as old as everyone else on the street or in the shops, often old enough to be everyone’s grandfather.

It’s a young part of town, but in the 80s, it was a part we frequented a lot. Everyone seemed to be our age, back then.

I don’t remember growing this old. (When did they?*)

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The Erosion of Civil Debate

Uncivil debateI’ve been dismayed by the tone of the recent debate over the town’s proposed and new recreational facilities. Not by the debate itself – I love the engagement and interaction, even arguing because it’s intellectually stimulating – but rather by what has become an increasingly strident, angry, confrontational and personal tone in many of the comments council has received, or which have been directed towards council.

I’m disappointed because I know we, as Canadians, can have rational, calm, thoughtful debate without rancour, without resorting to insults and name-calling, without raising our voices in anger, without resorting to gossip and rumour or trying to misdirect the argument with personal attacks and innuendo.

In his book, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy,, Prof. Stephen Carter writes that, “Civility involves the discipline of our passions for the sake of living a common life with others.” Among the reasons he gives for why civility is important in a democracy:

Civility reminds us that in a democracy all our actions must meet the test of morality, and that our ability to discipline ourselves to do what is right rather than what we desire is what distinguishes us from animals;
Our adherence to standards of civil behavior serves as our “letter of introduction” to our fellow citizens, thus helping to build community;
By treating each other with respectful civility, we help make bearable the many indignities and frictions of everyday life.

Constantly attacking, criticizing, verbally assaulting, haranguing and hectoring some person or group only increases that friction. Worse: it builds barriers that become insurmountable rather quickly.

In several places, Carter reminds us that civility is a discipline, something that has to be learned and practiced, a conscious act of engagement with our fellow humans, one that makes a daily statement about not only how we value community and society, but what we give to maintain them in working order.

I’ve followed Canadian politics for more than 40 years. As I recall, debate in Canada used to be much more civil. Canadians are, for the most part, polite, civil, respectful and dignified people. However, that seems to be changing as our cultural, political and social interactions become more American in tone.

Canadians used to be known for respecting differing views and accepting that differences not only exist, but contribute to the complex makeup of any diverse, democratic nation. But as the American political debates became more and more angry and confrontational, and American society became more violent, litigious and polarized, so did ours.

Ad hominem argument
The Conservative “attack ads” of the last two federal campaigns showed that incivility, personal and ad hominem attacks were the new norm for federal interaction, creating nothing but friction between parties. The NDP and Liberals responded to the vitriol with similar attack ads against the Conservatives. Tit for tat does not make it right, merely increases the volume of the argument. Debate should always be about the issues, about the decision, or about the process: never about the person or people.

As one man wrote in a letter to the Toronto Star:

Surely it is not delusional to think that healthy democracy depends more on civil discourse and quality debate than “a complex set of circumstances” that leads to political forms and practices.

An editorial in the Chilliwack Times opined about a local issue that had become angry and divisive thanks to its lack of civility,

We shouldn’t accept these types of tactics as simply part of the usual political rhetoric. Using loaded language and unfair comparisons muddies the truth and makes the public even more cynical. It can also create bitter divisions among different groups and demographics, which does nothing to foster meaningful and progressive change.
We’re not naive, we know that political rhetoric is often bitter and almost always self-serving. But hopefully, more of our leaders will realize the value of appealing to people’s common sense and decency rather than their outrage and fear.

Anyone who has seen the often puerile behaviour of our federal representatives in the House of Commons knows that our government behaves more like a pack of squabbling, potty-mouthed school children than reasonable adults when debating issues in the House. But that tone seems to be spreading to all levels of government.

The late Jack Layton attempted to keep his party above that morass of bad manners; to engage in civil debate, and to return some respectability to the House. Sadly, he died before he could achieve much in this goal He knew that a lot of people look to our government as their role model for political interaction. Well, they used to, as I recall from my upbringing. But even if we have lost respect for parties and leaders because of their attack tactics, we mimic them, consciously or subconsciously, at many other levels.

In Ontario, NDP leader Andrea Horwath told a university audience that Ontarians are tired of the adversarial trend provincial politics have taken:

Ontarians are tired of “attack politics,” says New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath, who called upon her two main political opponents Thursday to stop the name calling.
People are “tired of the dirty sand-box fighting and I think people deserve a true debate on the real issues and a true look at where the leaders stand on some of the (solutions) to the problems facing Ontarians,” Horwath told a crowd at Laurentian University.
Horwath said she’s challenging Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty and Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak to “stop the hiding behind our war rooms and the missives of nastiness that get launched across our bows.
“And let’s start actually having a real serious conversation in front of the voters about how we’re going to fix some of the problems facing them and their families.”

Unfortunately, her call for civility has fallen on deaf ears. In a recent column in the Enterprise-Bulletin, Brian Macleod wrote about the parallels between Ontarian and American presidential politics:

Ontario politics are moving from partisan to polarized, and the only one that’s standing aside from an ugly debate during the next election is a re-emerging Premier Dad.
And despite the polls, don’t count out Dalton McGuinty just yet.
(snip)
The polarized battle is shaping up between Tory Leader Tim Hudak’s anti-union policies and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, whose party has always had labour at its base.
(snip)
When Hudak’s party lost the Kitchener-Waterloo byelection earlier this month to the NDP — a riding his party held for 22 years — we got a hint of what is to come. He blamed the loss on “union bosses,” especially teachers unions who supported the NDP.
(snip)
Voters found Hudak’s unfocused policies wanting in the fall election and they don’t seem to be warming up to his fiery anti-union posture either.
In a sense, he’s doing a Mitt Romney, writing off an entire portion of the electorate in pursuit of votes from those who see unions as Ontario’s economic problem.

There’s a new political pejorative: doing a “Mitt Romney.”

Municipal politics, especially in a small town like Collingwood, are for the most part, individual, intimate and above the quagmire of party politics (our last term being somewhat of an exception). We have always been able to engage one another in mature, calm discussion because there was no ostensible difference between politician and ratepayer. Unlike federal and provincial tiers, we don’t get a full-time salary with a big office, gold-plated pensions, exceptional perks and can stand aloof from our electorate in a distant city.

How to leave commentsMembers of our council are your neighbours, friends, family. We are employed here, or retired here. You will run into us in the grocery store, downtown, in the mall, in the beer store, at the arena with kids and grandkids, at a restaurant or pub. We share the same concerns, pay the same taxes, drive the same roads, stroll the same parks as everyone else here. We don’t get a pension for our effort, and we are paid a rather small stipend to shoulder the responsibility we carry. The reward is not in money, or power, or glory, but rather in the giving of service to the community.

We are all here at the council table because we all care about this community.

Whether you agree or not with an council member’s vote on any matter, you really should respect them for taking on the responsibility of making that decision publicly, under the watchful eyes of the media and the community. None of us would knowingly do our home town harm – we vote for what we believe in our hearts is the best for everyone.

I owned and operated a retail business here for 11 years. People used to come into my shop weekly, often daily, to discuss local issues, local politics. No one screamed, no one lost his or her temper, even when we disagreed (and quite a few did). It was all very civilized and mature. We could talk one on one and act like adults who agreed to disagree. Sometimes having these one-on-one conversations helped to clear up misinformation or misunderstanding about process and decisions. I enjoyed those discussions. I enjoyed their tone, I enjoyed sharing ideas.

Angry emailCouncillors get a lot of letters, although today we get more email than written letters. People agree with us, people complain about us. Both are expected, both are welcome. But for the most part, written letters have been more genteel and civilized. Email is often more accusatory, more hectoring. Some people recently demanded we do what they want us to – no please, no thank you, no calm laying out of the logical value of their preference: the writers belittled our decision, then demanded we rescind it an implement their choice. That tactic will not encourage cooperation or compromise.

Few letter writers in the past used words like fraudulent, underhanded, retarded, or accused us of twisting the facts to suit our own goals. Email, however, has grown more strident than old-fashioned letter writing, possibly because it’s easier, faster, and done with less consideration than handwriting a letter. The act of penning a letter on paper gives people more time to think through their response. And letter writing is personal: you write a a person, to someone you know or have knowledge of – a person, not a thing or a machine. You have to fold the paper, put it in an envelope, walk it to the post office or town hall.

Email is a message typed onto a screen and sent to an impersonal URL with a click of a button; no emotion, no engagement, no personalities involved. And certainly not much respect for the feelings of the recipient. Facebook, forums, Twitter – they’re the same. We respond to a machine, not to the person. Anger is a common reaction on Facebook, especially when the other person has attempted humour or irony, neither of which are conveyed well through simple text.

Stephen Carter wisely admonishes us that, “Civility requires resistance to the dominance of social life by the values of the marketplace.” Within his concept of marketplace, I would add the influence of social media on our interpersonal interactions.

No one ever agrees with every government decision. That’s democracy, and we all have the right to disagree and say so.

Some people, however, believe that, when a government doesn’t do what they expected them to do, or what they demanded from them, it was a personal attack against them. They believe the politicians who didn’t obey must be dishonest, on the take, pursing private agendas, or looking to reap some personal benefit from the decision. They believe the politicians were ill-informed, uneducated, ignorant of the facts, simply because a different course was chosen. This leads to angry and unfounded accusations of malfeasance and underhanded acts. We’ve seen that sort of attack on Facebook and in other online posts about council’s rec facility decision.

Punch faceOnline debate is generally uncivil because it’s a solitary act, not a dialogue. It lacks the indicators and signs we get from face-to-face discussion and meetings: tone of voice, inflection, gestures, eye contact, touch… without those, internet arguments almost invariably deteriorate into angry, self-righteous confrontation, and verbal abuse. They often become an exchange of vitriolic hyperbole and escalating accusations.

It’s hard to believe anyone accepts the notion that eight of nine council members conspired in secret with numerous staff for 45 days to have a report make a predetermined recommendation, without a word being leaked during that time; that eight of nine council members could so blithely violate their oath of office, code of conduct, our procedural bylaw, our procurement policy, the Municipal Act and the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act, without the clerk or her staff or any department head challenging them (or calling in the police). But that rather wild notion seems to be going around the coffee shops and online.

It’s even harder to believe that eight of nine members of council would collectively and illegally conspire for some as-yet-undefined “personal gain” that would benefit only one or two of them, when there is clearly nothing to be personally garnered by any of them. It doesn’t make any sense.

The debate has also been marred by some malicious gossip, innuendo, disinformation, unfounded claims, misinformation, and a few angry but fallacious accusations that implicate people outside council in the result, but who have nothing to do with council’s decision. It has, in a sense, become one of those angry conspiracy theories that build like a storm feeding on its own energy looking for a place to explode. This is not from the majority; I believe it is just a small, disgruntled group taking advantage of the contentious rec facility issue to hurt the reputations or credibility of some council and staff. Their interest in the actual argument about rec facilities is likely remote. But they have managed to flavour the debate with an acrid, sour tone. This has, in turn, polarized the two sides.

Like I said earlier: it’s not the debate that worries me, nor any disagreement: it’s the confrontational, personal-attack tone some of it has taken on. Fortunately, the debate is moot now, since the contracts have been signed and we’re moving forward. Perhaps the tone of future debates will move forward, too, and we can restore some of that old-fashioned Canadian civility to local political discussions.
Sticks and Stones