I’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Members 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.
Councillors 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.
Online 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.