This year’s Presidential Election in the United States has produced much angst about the current lack of civility in politics. It is almost impossible to avoid the increasing barrage of revelations, mudslinging and attack ads from both sides. As Canadians, we may observe this political slugfest with bemusement or horror, but we should not be too sanctimonious, as our own political discourse at times does not rise much higher. This is not just an American phenomenon, nor is it new, but with the growing influence of social media as a political tool we risk becoming desensitised and normalised to this increasing lack of civility. This is also not just a problem at the higher levels of government. Our own provincial and local politicians – and their supporters – are not immune.
So, what does civility mean and why should we care in this anti-politically correct era of “telling it like it is”? One description of civility that I like is the ability to disagree productively while respecting the sincerity and decency of the other person. It means defending your point of view without degrading someone else’s in the process. An important point is that civility does not mean agreement. Many important issues may be win or lose propositions, unamenable to compromise or consensus. The point of civility is not so much the outcome of the battle but the rules of engagement. It is, I believe, quite possible to adamantly disagree in a way that does not demean or disrespect the opposing person.
Unfortunately, it is far too easy to attack and snipe. We see it all the time, particularly on social media, which has become a free and instant bully pulpit. Here in British Columbia, witness the increasing bitterness related to the recent firing of the Vancouver Board of Education. This is an important issue that is creating a high level of social media traffic with claims of collusion, defamation and threats of legal action. I raise this not to take sides on the issue but as a recent case in point and because it brings to the usually more civil discourse of local governance a whiff of the genre of politics we are seeing in the American Presidential Election – and to me, that is disheartening and unnecessary.
Forgive me one last American political reference, that of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who liked to use the biblical quote, “Come, let us reason together”. No one would describe Lyndon Johnson as a subtle persuader, but he was a strong believer in consensus government, even across party lines. He realised that the only real power of a leader in a democracy is the power of persuasion. While persuasion may take several forms, it is most legitimate and lasting when it is done with civility and respect. So, for those engaged in the very real and important issues of politics – at any level – let’s endeavour to reason together and to do so in a way that lifts up, rather than degrades democracy.