Politics, decency, and finding common ground: the restoration of civility | #TOpoli #cdnpoli

So I was listening to Matt Galloway talking to Karen Stintz on Metro Morning Friday. The interview isn’t up on the CBC web site yet, but as you might imagine, the topic was the future of public transit in Toronto in the wake of Thursday’s decision by council to opt for LRT on Sheppard East. 

It wasn’t long before the conversation turned to the extent to which the debate had been polarized. And what struck me more than anything else at the time was the care Councillor Stintz was taking not to apportion any blame for that:

As some of the subsequent Twitter talk shows, it’s not as if Ms. Stintz has undergone a wholesale conversion and been born again as a progressive. That’s not really the point. It’s not about where she or anyone else falls on the political spectrum. Nor is it about transit any more. No, the lesson here was about civility.

As someone much smarter than me remarked subsequently, so what? She’s conducting herself and and dealing with civic affairs the way it’s supposed to be done. That’s a baseline. Team Ford is below that. And in an ideal world, it should be a matter of course rather than something to be remarked upon. Unfortunately, in today’s world, where mud is flung and insults are a regular part of political discourse and everything is venomous and nasty and personal, a resolve to rise above it is something worthy of celebration, regardless of politics. Pour encourager les autres.

I’m lingering on this because it touches upon some of my favourite themes: public discourse, citizenship, and civic engagement. In the long term, those are all enhanced by a collective effort to restore a measure of civility and goodwill to the way we do things. It benefits us all, individually and as a community and a society, no matter who we are or what we think.

That brief reference to genuine conservatism reflects a much wider concern: the long-term project of reclaiming and reinvesting the conservative tradition with its honourable and time-proven roots. It’s what I like to think of as the Tory sensibility: decency, camaraderie, and a willingness to reach out to one’s opponents, set partisanship aside, and recognize that at the end of the day, we’re all committed to the same things. Our differences needn’t set us at each other’s throats.

So how did we get here? From a spirit of community, bipartisanship and the occasional beer with the other side to an era of dirty tricks, robocalls, electoral fraud and handbooks for disrupting the work of parliamentary committees?

It wasn’t by accident, and as with many things, it starts with words, their connotations, and their rhetorical effect. More than two decades ago, Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz worked with a group of U.S. Republican operatives to craft a linguistic strategy for controlling conversation and framing discourse; the idea was to demonize and smear opponents as much as possible by using loaded words like “sick,” “pathetic,” “traitor,” “grotesque,” and other verbal hand grenades. We’ve seen the effect that’s had on politics and popular culture down there. Public discourse has been poisoned and the body politic has been damaged to a point from which it may never recover.

Fast forward to Canada today, where we’re hearing words like “turncoat,” “backstabber,” “stand with the child pornographers,” and so on. This is born of a desire not just to defeat one’s opponents, but to destroy them. Win at any cost. No substitute for victory. 

Is it hyperbole to suggest that the Gingrich/Luntz disease has infected us up here?

And then let’s go back even farther, to a contrast between realpolitik and “amateurism” set in the 1930s. (Yes, it’s from a work of fiction but we can still learn from it …)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLHNvbw38NI]

Idealism? Nostalgia? Naivete? All of the above? Perhaps. But surely we’re all better off when we can acknowledge legitimacy in viewpoints with which we disagree. 

(And let’s acknowledge, of course, that there’s an element of classism in this. When you discuss values like decency, honour, and gentility, you’re betraying a certain way of looking at the world. Notions like noblesse oblige stem from a privileged background. I have to keep reminding myself that the lens through which I look at things is a product of that. It’s a luxury not everyone has.)

Yes, it’s nostalgia for a gentler time. There’s no shortage of people willing to remind us that the world isn’t like that any more, and that things have changed. 

And this is where the need to push back gets thrown into stark relief. The events of the last few decades — the growing inequality gap, the hollowing-out effects of “free trade,” the vapid coarsening of popular culture, and the continuing assault upon the social safety net, for starters — should demonstrate the moral vacuum at the heart of the agenda to which we’ve all been subjected. Now more than ever, it’s time to push the goalposts back, reclaim public discourse, redefine genuine principled conservatism, re-Occupy the public sphere and win back the words. 

We can start with a commitment to civility. Listening to your neighbours and giving your opponents the benefit of the doubt isn’t a sign of weakness, and it isn’t a class thing either. And by the same token, demonizing, misrepresenting, name-calling and smearing isn’t a civic virtue. It contaminates public discourse and lowers us all, and it needs to be called out for what it is.

Ultimately, we can have whatever kind of conversation we want. Do we want something that reflects well upon us, or do we want to sound like isolated mayors and tabloid columnists? I know which way I’d go.

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