Calgary·Opinion

In the new year, what we need isn't more histrionics, it's civility

“Those who argue their fundamental freedoms of belief, expression, association and assembly take precedence over civility create a toxic cycle,” says Susan Wright on public debate. “We need to resist the urge to be petty.”

Respect does not mean that a person must agree with you

Protesters take to the streets. (Helen Pike/CBC-Ben Nelms/Reuters )

It's a new year. And a time for Albertans to turn a new leaf in the way we talk to, and about, each other.

I know, I know. It's all getting to be too much. 

You're just an average person, trying to keep your head above water and make a decent life for your family while those blankety blank politicians and their brain dead supporters throw roadblocks at you every chance they get. 

What's a person to do? Talking sense to them hasn't helped. 

Maybe it's time to take your anger to the streets, shouting and yelling and waving placards demanding (depending on your political persuasion) that the Prime Minister be tried for treason, or Jason Kenney be run out of town on a rail, right? 

Wrong.

Look at Trump's America? Or the UK's Brexit blowup. Look at the rage and the fear.

Now take at look at ourselves, right here in Alberta. There's a sense of something on the verge of going terribly wrong. Something deeply dangerous. But we can make a choice. Each of us has agency in how we talk, write, and yes, protest in public and private debate.

What we need now isn't more histrionics, it's civility.  

The angry mob

Histrionics drives us apart, civility gives us a chance to come together, or at the very least, default to the time-honoured Canadian solution — compromise. You remember civility, the state of being polite, courteous and respectful in one's speech and behaviour? It still exists, but it's hiding under the bed to avoid being trampled by the angry mob.

But wait, the Right says, look what civility got us. A bunch of bleeding heart liberals tearing down our religious freedoms and parental rights, and messing with the economy. 

But wait, the Left says, look what civility got us. A bunch of reactionary haters. We went high and they went low and now they're attacking the rights, freedoms and environment we fought so hard for.

With that, both sides snarl at each other and head for the barricades.

Police walk past furniture set on fire by protesters during a demonstration in Quebec City on June 8, 2018, during the G7 Summit. (Alice Chiche/AFP/Getty Images)

Let's pause for a moment to remember when, over the course of Canadian history, a rabid mob succeeded in getting what it wanted. That's right, never. Rage is at best an incoherent articulation of frustration. It is not a plan, a proposal, a negotiation, a way forward.

Now consider Martin Luther King, who led the American civil rights movement through nonviolent civil disobedience, and Mahatma Gandhi who led India to independence through nonviolent civil disobedience. 

Do we seriously believe we're going to accomplish more than MLK and Gandhi by converging on Calgary City Hall yelling, 'I don't want your piddly $1.6 billion, give me a pipeline?' Or converging on social media to speculate about a politician's sex life, or labelling people with values different from our own as hatemongers?   

The lesson we learned from MLK and Gandhi, and one we must now remember here in Alberta, is that a focus on civility, even in extremely trying times, can bring about lasting political change. And the converse — driving wedges between ourselves and others — leads to long lasting political and social discord.

Civility and respect

We live in a society governed by the rule of law. 

Laws protect us from those who would violate our bodies and our property. Unfortunately, the law does a poor job of protecting us from attacks on our dignity. Sure, we have laws prohibiting hate speech and discrimination, but the emotional and financial cost to bring a boor to justice is high. So, we have to rely on civility to keep the boors in line. 

Civility is based on respect. A lack of civility indicates a lack of respect. That's why incivility makes us crazy. 

Sadly, incivility is on the rise. Just look around. Sports fans attack each other when their team loses. Shoppers rip items out of each others' hands on Black Friday. Motorists are run off the road because they didn't let the other guy pass.

Here, in our province, we are hurling invective through social media and on the streets. We denigrate those who disagree with us. We ridicule in public and private.

Yes, our economic situation is precarious. Yes, we have conflicting notions of what to do about it. Yes, we hold social values that are at odds with each other. That's life in a democracy. We're free to debate our ideas. But how we debate those ideas, the language we use toward those who oppose our values and expectations, well, that is key.

This lack of civility is bad enough in our day to day lives, it's downright dangerous in the political realm.

Polarization of the population

Incivility coarsens political discourse and polarizes the population just when it needs to come together to solve complex social, economic and environmental problems.  

People who feel disrespected elect politicians who enflame their sense of victimhood and give them a convenient scapegoat on which to pin their misery. They inundate their political "foes" with hate mail and attack those they mistakenly blame for their lack of economic and social mobility.  

In 2017, a Facebook user created a Justin Trudeau event page timed to the prime minister's visit to the University of Calgary and later changed the event to include Nazi-themes. (Left: Facebook screenshot / Right: CBC)

Political discourse in Alberta has been reduced to a Pavlovian exercise — politicians aren't expected to share their policies anymore, all they have to do is wave an orange card or a blue card and they have our votes. And now, deep in the age of social media, discourse has given way to inarticulate partisan memes.

The self indulgent

Civility is founded on respect. 

Respect demands we treat each other with dignity because we're all human beings and, as such, deserve it. Respect does not mean that a person must agree with you. It does not mean that someone respects you when they sign on to your social values or political theories and disrespects you when they don't.

The rules for treating others with dignity have been around for centuries. We knew them before we became self-indulgent and wandered off "doing our own thing" and "speaking our own truth" — which was usually the "truth" about you, not about me.  

These rules involve choices. Ones each of us can make. Is it a cure for what ails us? No. But it's a start. It's what used to be called good manners.

Mind your own business. Be sensitive. Don't insult others in public forums (that includes social media). Don't insult them at all; debate their ideas. Don't try to run someone else's life because you know better than they do what's best for them. And most importantly, listen more, talk less. 

We have an election looming on the political horizon in this province. So let's test these rules in the political context.

Civility does not impair integrity

What if someone wants to debate with you about a woman's abortion rights, or same-sex marriage, or a parent's right to know if his kids join a gay straight alliance at school, or, god forbid, a carbon tax? 

We know that debates about issues rooted in divergent belief systems are not easily resolved. Supreme Court of Canada Justice Rosalie Abella said as much when she pointed out the toughest decisions facing the Court are Charter challenges involving competing rights and freedoms. 

Supreme Court Justice Abella. (Philippe Landreville, Supreme Court of Canada Collection)

If the smartest legal minds in the country struggle with these issues, there's a good chance you won't be able to settle it by wrestling a co-worker to the ground and holding him down until he agrees with you. So, apply the rules of good manners: mind your own business and don't try to tell someone how to run their life.    

But, there is an important caveat to this rule. Civility does not impair integrity. 

Integrity requires us to respectfully disagree with someone who holds opinions we can't support on moral grounds. Most importantly, integrity demands that we press politicians to set out their positions on moral issues so we know where they stand before we elect them.  

The lack of civility has short-circuited political debate which is now reduced to: "I hate Trudeau. Oh yeah, well I hate Scheer."    

In this case, civility requires both parties to walk back from the ledge and listen more. Of course, in order to have a meaningful discussion both parties need to be aware of Trudeau and Scheer's positions on specific issues because talking in memes will get them nowhere.

We need to resist the urge to be petty. Correcting factual errors does not include jumping on a typo on Twitter or a slip of the tongue in order to embarrass someone. That's disrespectful. That should not be confused with political debate. That's performance.

Civility requires us to pay attention to context.

Anger is toxic

Those who argue their fundamental freedoms of belief, expression, association and assembly take precedence over civility create a toxic cycle. Ramping up toward an election cycle, we in Alberta must pay careful attention to how we articulate our views.

Being loud, proud and angry is great when you're the one dishing it out. It's not so great when it comes back at you in the form of counter-protests, violence and lawsuits, or, frankly, just having your views ignored.

We have all succumbed to the snappy put down, the nasty label, the mean-spirited insult — myself included. Anger begets anger. Retaliation sets off counter-retaliation, and things get much worse.    

Rifts are created that never heal no matter how much the new leader promises to represent all the people, not just those who voted for them.

We live in complicated times, reasonable people can disagree, but let's not make it harder for ourselves by viciously attacking each other.

This time of year is a time for reflection. A year from now we will still be trying to make this Alberta our Alberta. And we will still have to put up with each other.

So. A little more civility please. 


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca


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About the Author

Susan Wright

Lawyer / Political Commentator

Susan Wright is a lawyer who has worked for more than 26 years in the petrochemical, pipeline, oil and natural gas industries. She ran for the Alberta Liberal Party in the 2014 byelection in Calgary-Elbow. She maintains a blog and comments in various forums on political and cultural issues.

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