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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