s a kid, I was a pint-sized political junkie, the kind of dork who collected those matched sets of gas station coins with the prime ministers’ heads on them. In the summer of 1974, when my father was transferred from the air force base outside Summerside, PEI
, to the flight training school in Winnipeg, I lobbied hard for us to visit Ottawa on the way, to see the Parliament Buildings. My two brothers were hostile and indifferent, respectively, but I won the day. We reeled in the long ribbon of the eastern Trans-Canada and headed to the capital so I could experience the little thrill of walking up that small incline to the front steps, of taking in the elegant lineaments of the most beautiful neo-Gothic building in the world.
I still get a bat-squeak echo of that first naive take whenever I walk up those stairs. The last time, in the spring of 2009, was for something called Breakfast on the Hill, a morning lecture series for academics held in the parliamentary dining room, itself a nerdlinger’s dream, with its separate, panelled alcoves for each province. My talk was about leadership and the political virtue of civility. Among other things, I echoed the Great Liberal Leader’s call for a more civil exchange to make our country (and maybe even him) great.
Here’s what Joanne Chianello of the Ottawa Citizen
wrote about it later: “Ignatieff writes that ‘if our politics are good, we can keep our disagreements civil.’ And indeed, the theme of civil dissent ran though Kingwell’s early-morning talk Thursday as well. ‘Incivility,’ he told the audience, ‘doesn’t just threaten the etiquette of interchange, it threatens democracy.’ But while Kingwell was taking comments following his speech, two Liberal parliamentarians began their own conversation at their table — clearly audible to all those around, the speaker, and certainly the woman asking the question. They seemed oblivious to the irony of their incivility.”
Not just audible, actually. They practically shut down one whole side of the room. “That’s why we don’t take our students to visit the Commons anymore,” a high school teacher told me afterwards. “They’re too shocked by the bad behaviour of the MPs.”
Yup. That air of bozo entitlement, coupled with a disregard for anybody else’s views or right to speak: pretty much your basic definition of incivility. If these two, washed up by chance on the silver beach of late-capitalist power and wealth, are even partly indicative of what our elected representatives are like — and they are — then we’re all in a mess of trouble, though not for the reasons you may think.
Only a child could find surprise in the idea that MPs are rude. I mean, really. “Have you ever been in the House of Commons and taken a look at the inmates?” a P.G. Wodehouse character wonders. “As weird a gaggle of freaks and sub-humans as was ever collected in one spot. I wouldn’t mix with them for any money you could offer me.” Some would say that in this context rudeness is, if not quite a job requirement, then at least an occupational hazard. And there may even be a simpler explanation of the MPs’ behaviour. “If people were talking over Kingwell, then that’s not so uncivil,” ran one online comment on Chianello’s story. “They’ve probably heard the speech before and got bored. I’ve heard it, and it’s frigging boring.”
To which the only rational response is fuck you
Just kidding. But it is difficult to make the argument for the value of civility when the immediate response to the argument is Don’t frigging bore me, you long-winded doofus
. (I added the “long-winded doofus” part, but it feels right.) I’ve been defending the political virtue of civility in spaces both academic and popular, public and private, for almost fifteen years. Lots of other people were at it long before that. I don’t think it’s boring; but then, I don’t think I’m a pompous jackass either. Pleas for civility are commonplace even as current discursive practice places a growing premium on rudeness and incivility in everything from opinion-dominated newspapers and unbridled blog posts to the words of groomed television hatchetmen and politicians whose idea of a good riposte is escalating the insult. This is one of those instances, like the NHL
playoffs and prime-time television, where things really have become worse in recent years. Underneath the road rage politics and bratty teenage campaign rhetoric lurks a creeping nihilism, a disregard for the very idea of reason.
Well, who cares? You should, even if you never watch those shouting matches that pass for Sunday-morning political commentary or pay a lick of attention to the duelling reductionists of the op-ed pages. Parliamentary democracy is nothing more nor less than a conversation among citizens, both directly and by way of their elected leaders. Here, and only here, can our interests and desires be made into law. A good conversation is a delicate thing to sustain, as anybody knows who has attended a dinner party where wine was served. We all have a direct personal stake in seeing such discussions thrive, because every time a good citizen checks out, the tactical forces of incivility lower democracy’s value by one more notch.
And so, at the considerable risk of boring you, I am going to make an argument for civility’s central place in political discourse, but in terms I hope will be unfamiliar enough to slow, if not yet reverse, this decline.
he standard argument goes something like this: at least since Aristotle, it has been obvious that a thriving political order — let’s call it a just society — arises only when there is a significant store of fellow feeling among citizens. Lucky for him, Aristotle was an ethical monist; he believed there was just one best way to live, to flourish as the human form of life. That way involved good citizenship and so, among other things, eunoia
, or goodwill toward an other. Strictly speaking, Aristotle had no need of civility insofar as it is understood as a restraint on bad behaviour. Good behaviour is, instead, something that emerges organically from a polity in harmony with its own natural ends.
A nice idea, but under conditions of ethical pluralism — that is, where there is more than one answer to how one should live — we quickly see that conflict, not harmony, is the basic condition of human affairs. You don’t need to be a confirmed Hobbesian to acknowledge that it is not all happy-clappy agreement about the meaning of life on the campaign trail or the debating floor. And so, somewhere in the seventeenth century, civility emerges as a signal virtue of politics, not out of some fetish for etiquette and politeness but precisely because civility allows diverse views to be debated with tolerance and respect — at least sometimes. The basic insight is obvious: if we cannot agree, maybe we can agree to disagree without killing each other. Indeed, this kind of background agreement, the second-order agreement on reason that makes first-order disagreements possible, is a major human achievement. Not only does it allow a minimal cohesion, staving off the anarchy of war between all and everyone, but the conditions of rational disagreement actually indicate a significant upgrade in human intelligence. Even vehement argument, if it replaces outright violence, marks a big step forward in the march of reason and civilization.
Not that it is all about reason. Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments
, persuasively suggested that sympathy, the recognition of shared human vulnerability, is the real glue of social structures. Contractual theories, like the ones popularized a century earlier by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, miss the point. We would not make a contract with another, much less hold to it, unless we already recognized the other as an entity worthy of our consideration. There may be fear woven into the heart of all contracts, but not all of that fear is personal, nor is fear all that is so woven.