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On (Mark’s essay on) Civility

Mark Kingwell’s latest essay says Canadian civility is in decline


 

1. Cripes, Mark is a beautiful writer. This is the best-written and best-argued essay of his that I’ve read in ages.

2. As it happens, I was at the table, sitting beside Joanne Chianello, as he was giving his talk on civility and political discourse on Parliament Hill. I can attest that Mark (and Joanne) are not exaggerating, that the behaviour of the two Liberals (one of whom is a former cabinet minister and now big shot Senator) was fantastically rude. People were actually shushing them, not that they cared, or even noticed.

3. Here is Mark’s argument as I understand it:

P1. Civility is a necessary condition for healthy liberal politics in a  a pluralistic society, like Canada, where the citizens have deep disagreement about the good life. (Or, as Mark puts it, civility is “the political air we must breathe to negotiate our differences.”)

P2. Civility is in decline in Canada.

C. Healthy liberal politics is becoming increasingly impossible in Canada

Does the conclusion seem obvious to you? Our politics certainly isn’t in the best of shape, you’ll get no argument from me there.  But I’m more interested in the stronger set of claims: that it is in bad shape, is getting worse all the time, and that we are on the verge of ceasing to become a self-governing people. About these claims, I’m a bit more skeptical.

I think either of the two premises in Mark’s argument can be challenged. If I were still in the biz, and had the time and the philosophical chops, I’d focus on the first premise. While I agree that a certain sort of civility is necessary for a certain type of democracy, and while I agree that the civility that Mark is talking about is probably a necessary condition for the type of democracy Mark wants us to have, I think there are other forms of democracy worth having that have less stringent needs for this kind of civility.

To be more direct: Mark would like us to have a more pragamatic, consensual, participatory, and dialogical democratic culture. We don’t really have that, and I don’t see any prospects for it any time soon. But there are effective forms of democracy, such as the Schumpeterian form, that has much less need for a vibrant public sphere where the citizenry debates and argues and generally treats politics on the model of the graduate seminar.

But I’ll set that aside, because I’m actually interested in, and sympathetic to, Mark’s ongoing project of  linking civility with liberal politics. So let’s take a look at the second premise, that civility is in decline in Canada.

Mark’s insight that civility is a public good  is the key point of the essay: like all public goods it is subject to free riding, races to the bottom, and, ultimately, the tragedy of the commons. In the absence of an external enforcement agency or mechanism, the only thing keeping the public conversation civil is a willingness to be civil. That is, we have to want to be so, and hope, trust, that our interlocutors share that willingness, despite our disagreements.

(If you are interested in a treatment of things like civility, neighbourliness, good manners, and so on as public goods, a great place to start is the book The Social Limits to Growth, by Fred Hirsch. Especially relevant is the section “The economics of good neighbours”. I borrow his arguments for a good chunk of chapter seven of The Authenticity Hoax).

But, Mark argues, civility is rapidly disappearing. We are locked into the familiar tragedy of the commons pattern, where each defector from the civil space makes those who remain in the game feel increasingly like suckers. More and more of us defect, with “bad talk driving out good” in an increasingly vicious cycle. The upshot, he writes, is that “the goal we sought, carrying the discursive day by force of reason, has been obliterated.” Instead of trying to keep the conversation going, we seek to win it, in the zero-sum pursuit of positional advantage.

What are some signs that we are in an increasingly uncivil society? Mark lists a few: a) The focus on winning the argument over getting at the truth; b) the  increasing prevalence of attack ads;  c) the rise of political self-interest and the cynical flouting of parliamentary conventions e.g. by Stephen Harper.

***

Again, I don’t disagree that these are all unpleasant features of our democracy. But I think that in some cases they have causes that go beyond the simple dynamic of the tragedy of the civil commons. In the first case a) I think it stems from a relatively insuperable fact of democracy. In the second, b) I think it partly stems from a feature of public life we all currently endorse. And finally, c) while I find Harper’s behaviour odious, I’m not sure it is exceptionally odious from the historical perspective of prime ministerial behaviour in Canada.

a) Mark writes:

Indeed, winning the argument — or, rather, being seen to win it — is the essence of many discursive exchanges, especially political ones. If politics is reduced to elections or debates, it goes from being a shared undertaking of articulating ends and means and becomes a game of status and one-upmanship.

Put this way, it sounds like politics ought to be a “shared undertaking of articulating ends and means,” and a politics devoted instead to winning is an unwelcome deviation from that norm. But it is a mistake, I think to treat the ideal speech situation of the graduate seminar as the ideal form of democracy. The reason is that while philosophy is about the search for truth (in which all can partake), politics is about the search for power. And unlike truth, power is a zero sum game. Politics is always going to be about winning, that’s the nature of the beast. There are relatively clean or dirty ways of winning, but the idea that it should be a “shared undertaking” strikes me as a misunderstanding of what politics is, and what we can reasonably expect it to be like. (I’ve made this argument at more length here.)

b) Mark is mostly right about attack ads:

Once the last resort of dying election campaigns, such ads are now the norm even for the party in power, launched pre-emptively in place of the former convention of messages that outlined competing platforms.

If you want a full defense of attack ads, definitely read Warren Kinsella’s The War Room (or my shorter defense).  Here, I’ll just talk about the fact that they have become increasingly prevalent over the past three decades. (And they definitely have – the majority of political ads, in the US anyway, are now negative, a percentage that has increased steadily since the seventies).

One reason is, as Mark suggests, that it is part of the race to the bottom that he has identified as the central affliction of civil discourse. But here’s another possibility: negative ads are more prevalent because we increasingly care more about a candidate’s character than we do about their policies. And the reason we care more about their character is because what we want most in a politician is authenticity. (See Andrew Coyne’s recent essay on Ignatieff for a classic statement of this desire).  But once we identify authenticity as a requirement in a leader, their character matters. Which, in turn, makes negative ads obligatory.

c) I’m not going to even try to defend Harper’s contemptuous attitude towards parliament. It’s astonishingly cynical from the perspective of political tactics, but I am not convinced that it hits the low-water point in our politics from the perspective of civility.  In a telling section, Mark contrasts Harper’s “dismantling of legitimacy” through opportunism and rank self-interest with the relatively benign behaviour of Pierre Trudeau.

Trudeau, Mark reminds us, once mouthed “fuck off” in the House, and later claimed to have said “fuddle duddle”. Very droll. And it didn’t generate a race to the bottom because, Mark says, “it was not deployed for discursive advantage.” Perhaps not. But what about Trudeau’s other behaviour – like giving the finger to protesters in Salmon Arm? Or asking of other prairie protesters, “why should I sell your wheat?” Or the high-stakes confrontations with the premiers?  More than any other prime minister before Harper, Trudeau was a committed to playing to win; when he felt like it he ran as divisive a government as it was possible to run while keeping the country (barely) together.

I don’t know if parliament functions worse today than it did under Chretien, or Mulroney, or Trudeau. Yes, it is bad, but it’s been bad for a very long time. And if it is getting worse, I suspect that it has more to do with the sorts of trends identified by Donald Savoie than it does with the tragedy of the civil commons.

Does this make civility irrelevant to political discourse, mere epiphenomena on the operations of our parliamentary machinery? No. But I do think it means that the problems we do have are less a consequence of declining civility, more the result of other aspects of political life that we either can’t get rid of, or wouldn’t  want to eliminate even if we could.

Besides, shouldn’t civility be considered valuable for its own sake.  Instead of the instrumental defense of  civility that is the focus of this essay, why not go back to defending it on the grounds that Aristotle offered: civility is essential to good citizenship, and therefore, to the good life.


 
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On (Mark’s essay on) Civility

  1. I used to be involved in party politics. I would often attend party conventions where delegates would debate policy resolutions and take care of other party business. Inevitably while this was taking place there would be a large group of ex-officio people (MPs, former MPs, party officials, etc.) who would gather near the back of the hall, not outside the hall mind you just near the back. They'd be keeping half an eye on what was going on on the floor but mostly they were preoccupied with talking to each other, talking on their cell phones, puttering away on their blackberries, etc.

    Periodically the moderator would ask them to shush as they were noisy and were rudely interrupting the comments from delegates speaking at microphones. I always felt this was a perfect symbol of what is wrong with our politics these days. It was clear that the most important people in the party didn't really care what the ordinary members were saying. It was almost like they were telling us all to f**k off.

    I suppose that's just a small incident but when I think back on what I found most distasteful about party politics I always recall those moments.

  2. Whatever Let's just get rid of the Harpies and then we'll all promise to behave better.

    Agreed? Agreed.

  3. It consistently amazes me how relevant Aristotle's thought remains, 2300 years later. Not only relevant, but head and shoulders above the contributions of most other thinkers in the intervening millennia.

  4. This whole discourse echoes perfectly the debate about head shots in the NHL. Many (most?) hockey purists agree that such behaviour diminishes a great game, but none of the participants, least of all those in positions of control/authority, seems willing or able to do anything about it.

    We need a triple H movement in Canada: to Hell with head shots and heckling.

  5. I got about three paragraphs into the post-fluff before I gave up. It's stylistically unreadable. That Mr. Potter should call it "beautiful" is very hard to understand. Perhaps there are certain high-pitched notes in essays of professional moral philosophy that can only be heard by professionals, or by dogs.

    "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. "

    So much jargon. "Thriving political order." Is that a translation from the Greek? τεθαλυίας πολιτείας? Arises whence? What precedes it? Also sprach Kingwell? What is a significant store? Is it more than an insignificant store? What on earth is "fellow feeling"? Is this an allusion to Edmund Spenser? Is this the first sentence of the four-page argument? Shall I stop reading?

    • "Shall I stop reading? "

      Please don't. You're demystifying both posts, which I also found unreadable.

  6. I'm not sure which way the civility dynamic flows: do citizens' behaviour reflect the behaviour of our "leaders", or are our "leaders" generally representative of our citizens?

    We've probably all experienced "incivility" in the workplace when there are conflicts over what direction an organization should take, we've experienced "incivility" expressed as varying degrees of "road rage" as we drive, we've all experienced "incivility" in the form of rude patrons or staff at retail outlets, we see "incivility" expressed in our culture on TV shows like Jerry Springer (I know, I'm dating myself!) or in movies like "Glengarry Glen Ross", etc., etc.

    Yes, the bar has been lowered…but by whom?

  7. I must admit I never understood the disillusionment many of the Liberal commenters here have had with Iggy until I read the last 4 paragraphs of page 3 of Kingwell`s essay. It perfectly describes the twisted, overly-managed, humourless, enigma Iggy has become.

    If Jack Mitchell is still with us, he might want to continue to page 3. Hopefully there is something of use to his discerning eye.

    • Yes, it's nice and brutal. On your advice, I skipped to the end. The end is well written indeed, worthy of Mr. Potter's praise. And while I think he could have been far harsher and more satirical about Ignatieff, who has mistaken civility for sushi, it's rhetorically powerful. Would that the author, or his editor, had enforced Kingwell's own advice to Ignatieff: make the abstract concrete and say what you really mean. This essay would be half as long, and Habermas never name-dropped.

      • "Make the abstract concrete and say what you really mean". Would that Mr. Potter followed the same advice, as not all of us are as up on our political philosophy as he is. The Shumpeterian form of democracy? What Donald Savoie said with regards to civility in politics?

        • Ok, you don't need to know Shumpeter, but we should all know Savoie, he's a cool dude. To the textbooks!

          • Before I posted that I did a little googling and I watched an interview with Donald Savoie on the Agenda. It was pretty cool stuff, and I know I've heard some of what he's said before. I agree, what he says is worth knowing and worth repeating.

            However, that just makes me more confused. If it's worth knowing and worth repeating, why didn't Mr. Potter give it anything more than the most minimal reference?

  8. Before I continue, a tip of the hat to "at least since Aristotle, it has been obvious . . ." So it wasn't obvious before Aristotle, or only barely, like maybe obvious to the Old Oligarch, if that, but anyone since Aristotle who didn't get the blaringly obvious fact that a thriving political etc. has, at any given point over the last 2300 years, been quite simply a moron. Hear that, Epicureans? A moron!

  9. When Kingwell was writing about the rude Liberal parliamentarians talking above him as he was speaking about civility, I thought of an incident in today`s Question Period. Wayne Easter, who should be the poster-child of incivility, since John Baird seems to have found his indoors voice, was asking that Harper fire Blackburn because of his inappropriate behavior at the airport. But the rough appearance of Easter along with the shrill voice, and crude language only emphasized the irony that he would be the appointed critic of incivil behavior. He would be better to stick to his assignment as the Opposition Critic in charge of Door Knobs.

    • He would be better to stick to his assignment as the Opposition Critic in charge of Door Knobs.

      Unfortunately, that didn't work out too well for him. Turns out he's more useful when he demands the resignation of his fellow parliamentarians for the most trivial things. I'd say Easter's ideas about civility have a lot to do with why Kinsella chose him for the role of "henchman".

  10. I'm still on page 1. Is this a parody?

    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.

    Somewhere? Like where? At the Battle of Marston Moor? In print? Was the State pre-Civil War notably uncivil? Apart from the Wars of the Roses, of course. Well, they were civil — chivalrous, even. But they liked to murder each other. Ah, he must mean in our constitutional tradition. Is this an "insight"? Is it not more that the Whigs of 1691 were not strong enough to wipe out the Tories, who constituted almost the whole of the country gentry? It does not seem that the Jacobies agreed to disagree, however. But the rest of the page makes some sense if you figure that he is ignoring everything outside of Britain for the next two hundred years. But, yikes, the style —

    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.

    Get me rewrite:

    There can be no contracts without mutual esteem — esteem rooted in fear, perhaps, but not only in fear, and not only in fear of the other.

    • Really, Andrew. Is the condescension that you and Kingwell like to sport the way to be civil? His prose and yours is so prickled by finger-wagging it chases me from the classroom. Some discourse!

  11. Well, sorry, but do you find these little curlicues of self-congratulation beautiful? To me they smell strongly of Introduction to Political Philosophy. "At least since Chapter 2, it has been obvious . . ."

  12. LRC moves to the Macleans comment board.

    • Appropriately, we discuss the Walrus.

      It would be great if Maclean's, or the LRC, or Maclean's and the LRC together, could set up something that allowed extended comments on abstract questions. I always relish Mr. Potter's philosophical posts, but he is just one man; and we need to attract some of his fellow philosophers hither. The "paper" form is what undid (IMO) Kingwell's argument — thesis, proof, etc.: here in the comments, he and his fellow ῥήτορες would have to drop the gloves.

      • Well, the way you framed Mark, in being more prone to flowery prose, it seems like he would be more a ῥαπςοδος?

        • LOL, maybe poor old Ion; but whoever re-co-created the Homeric poems, we traduce them with our modern equation of rhapsody with floweriness — the Iliad is lean and mean.

  13. Hm. It seems to me that choosing to do a critique of the essay really detracts from the main point: that civility in our public discourse should be improved. Yeah, I do see the general endorsement of it that's in there, yeah, I do see the last paragraph, but the vast majority of it is dedicated to picking apart the premises.

    I'm probably on the wrong blog. Sucks that Wherry hasn't actually posted up his thoughts on this yet.

  14. I think Mark's argument is hidden somewhere within the many, many anacdotal examples he inserts. I think he should never have used any political names, for instance, or have referred to specific times in history or even specific occurences happening today. One can never come to a philosophical understanding if the multitude of examples and anacdotes clutters the attempt of setting down the main frame.

    There is nothing much wrong with his writing style, but he tries to insert too much all at once.

  15. I will take out one or two of the sentences which jumped out at me:

    "Underneath the road rage politics and bratty teenage campaign rhetoric lurks a creeping nihilism, a disregard for the very idea of reason "

    Personally I think nihilism is more a result of too much static reasoning, a reasoning whereby the theoretical always must win out over the practical and thereby the human element ongoing is so readily dismissed. If everything is to be controlled by "proven" theories, then why bother be involved, mentally, at all. Let them have it, the whole lot of them!

  16. I'd like to mention to the parties interested in Plato and Aristotle, that the difference between the two men is in the way their philosophies were presented. Plato's philosophy is by and through dialogue, whereas Aristotle's main claim to fame would be the certainty to be found within his rigid standarised methodology. Perhaps Plato's approach lends itself to automatic rule adherence because it is found within the process, rather than being posed donw upon by Aristotle.

    Just saying.

    • there is indeed a lot of dishonesty around, but I must say, I've rarely seen drawn conclusions come about so clumsily as I have read about within that Columbia, edu write-up. What a simplistic understanding of how the human mind is considered. It could just as easily be said that powerfull people have less of a stress hormone onset, and therefore they've been able to become the poweful people they are, to begin with.

      • "Power was experimentally manipulated using a naturalistic role-playing exercise.

        Think about that.

        • Yes, I thought about that when reading the experiment. It's really just an exercise in controlled settings. The one's seting up the experiment are just as much role playing as are the players participating within it. My opinion is that human life and human interactions aren't as such. A controlled exercise is being bound right from the onset.

  17. "Discourse, no less than consumption, has positional and hence competitive aspects. Indeed, winning the argument — or, rather, being seen to win it — is the essence of many discursive exchanges, especially political ones."

    This would imply that a reached goal (the point at which winners and loosers can be declared) could be long-lasting. Nothing could be further from the truth, because in essence, a goal reached is merely the beginning of trying to reach another one. Why not find more pleasure within the process of getting there, because that is ultimately where the real solutions to problems will be found. Collectively playing the "game" is what makes the player understand the rules, understand the need for civility. Doing is believing.

  18. We must remember this: Civility in political discourse was the theme/subject matter of Kingwell's doctoral thesis, subsequently published in book form (no surprise there) and was his first book. It received a couple of bad reviews especially one from a philosophy prof at McMaster who labelled it "prolix." Kingwell's response – he being notoriously thin skinned – was to call the McMaster prof a "self loathing hack."

    Bit of context for y'all. Oh, and wasn't Kingwell Mr. Potter's thesis advisor? Spy magazine used to label that "logrolling in our time."

    • "Spy magazine used to label that "logrolling in our time."

      I should have guessed as much. Potter's always doing that.

      • Kingwell was not Potter's thesis advisor. De Sousa had that privilege.

  19. "We are locked into the familiar tragedy of the commons pattern, where each defector from the civil space makes those who remain in the game feel increasingly like suckers."

    Well put. That's exactly how I feel.

  20. Basically,, both of these posts advance arguments that are supposed to appeal to the vanity of people like Michael Ignatieff and perhaps, Stephen Harper…certainly the intellectuals who've mentored him. The examination of civility has to framed within the grand contours of millenia of history and impressive political philosophy for it to be sufficiently worthy of their attention. In that sense, the arguments are not intended for the rest of us, who either feel (or know, in the case of anthropologists, sociologists and experts who are more empirically-minded) that this particular fashion in incivility is rooted in recent developments in communications technology, economics, residential patterns and the role of family, community, community leadership and public institutions in how people are socialized.

    Sad to say, I'm pretty sure Stephen Harper has a better grasp of this than either Mark Kingwell or Andrew Potter.

  21. Book to read: "The Cost of Bad Behaviour"; (Christine Pearson/Chrisine Porath) which puts it into monetary terms. It costs the US billions – and "bad behaviour" – ie incivility, bullying, targeting, sarcasm, slighting remarks, vicious gossip — is worse in Canada than it is in the US. Put it into dollar terms – it makes more impact. Cost to businesses and cost to the health system, and cost to society in general. For example — Starbucks is one of 5 top companies who have a "zero tolerance" policy towards incivility, to the point of encouraging feedback and reports on it from employees. Costco is another exemplary company in that regard – and they both appear to be thriving.

    I'd stop short of saying it was "intellectuals" who mentored Harper, we are talking U of C here. And I live in Calgary.

  22. Trudeau gave the finger to the MEDIA – with whom he had quite the relationship, and most of whom he regarded as being rather stupid; which is why they persistently twist it to say that he gave the finger to the public.

  23. I can see some healthy points in your article and I think there is nothing like healthy liberal politics now. But once there was.

  24. Hi Gaunilon thanks for the valuable comment.

    It consistently amazes me how relevant Aristotle's thought remains, 2300 years later. Not only relevant, but head and shoulders above the contributions of most other thinkers in the intervening millennia.

  25. Modern distributive models of justice rightly place emphasis on the fate of the least well off; in a non-distributive idea of justice, we can update and expand this idea: a city, like a people, shall be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members. These may not necessarily be the poorest: consider the systematic disadvantage, in an idea economy, of truncated education, learning disability, and low access to the technologies of success. Torontonians talk about the value of otherness, celebrating cultural diversity in word, but they do not walk that walk. The smug inwardness of our de facto stealth neighbourhoods, the vertical gated communities of condo developments, the lifetime preoccupation with the averted gaze — all this shows city not confident enough to engage with itself. The gravity of downtown is reduced, as so often, to the cash nexus of shopping, democracy soured into a form of narcissistic pathology and sense of entitlement for a few, invisibility for the many. Race and class, poverty and hatred cannot find a point of intervention when the discursive space of the city is limited to surfaces.

    Submited by : Bajar Libros Gratis

  26. 1. Cripes, Mark is a beautiful writer. This is the best-written and best-argued essay of his that I've read in ages.

    2. As it happens, I was at the table, sitting beside Joanne Chianello, as he was giving his talk on civility and political discourse on Parliament Hill. I can attest that Mark (and Joanne) are not exaggerating, that the behaviour of the two Liberals (one of whom is a former cabinet minister and now big shot Senator) was fantastically rude. People were actually shushing them, not that they cared, or even noticed.

    Great points and very admired writing.

  27. There are number of polls indicating that people want more civility in Parliament.
    ___________

    Parliament doesn't begin and end with question period and that's all most Canadians see if they are bored enough to see any other program. Beside this the political show is also scripted, i fell ! Question period is same as it was 30 years ago.

  28. c) I'm not going to even try to defend Harper's contemptuous attitude towards parliament. It's astonishingly cynical from the perspective of political tactics, but I am not convinced that it hits the low-water point in our politics from the perspective of civility. In a telling section, Mark contrasts Harper's “dismantling of legitimacy” through opportunism and rank self-interest with the relatively benign behaviour of Pierre Trudeau.

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