Canada’s inferno of incivility

We stand at a precipice where we face the danger of losing our humanity forever.

Years from now, what I will remember most about the pandemic is not a virus but our response to it. We have become an intolerant, contemptful, rude and savage society, more inclined to cut off our relationships at the knees than to massage the joints a little to keep them moving. We threaten instead of persuade, mandate instead of respect, and gaslight, scapegoat, and insult our targets into submission. Seared into my memory are the bold, black letters on the front page of The Toronto Star last August: “I have no empathy left for the wilfully unvaccinated. Let them die.” These words are, unfortunately, more aligned with today’s rules of behaviour than an exception to them. Online and off, we are becoming a crude, insensitive, and morally bankrupt society being slowly engulfed, it seems, by an inferno of incivility.

Our own prime minister fuels the flames, modelling the very sort of hate speech his Bill C-36 is supposed to extinguish. He masterfully turned what should have been a campaign killer into a successful campaign promise — don’t think you are getting on a “plane” or “train” next to the vaccinated (i.e., the pure, acceptable citizens). Instead of electing someone who might have led us up and out of this swamp of incivility, we wanted a leader who would vindicate our rage and whose indefensible malevolence could be a model for our own.

“True patriot love in all of us command.” Apparently not.

Maybe I should have seen it coming. Maybe I should have tried harder to prevent our nosedive into incivility. I didn’t. I thought we had learned the lessons of hate and intolerance, bigotry and dehumanization. I was wrong.

Instead, I am left wondering, when did we become so publicly and unapologetically savage under the guise of well-signalled virtue?

When I was a high school student, about to set off to study art in Italy, I was urged to wear a Canadian flag, the emblem of a people whose politeness was so legendary we were mocked for our tendency to apologize for the presence of our foot when someone else stepped on our toe.

In May of 2022, Robin Sears wrote an article for The Toronto Star called “Where did Canada’s famed civility go?” Referencing Hugh Segal’s 2000 book In Defence of Civility, Sears wrote, “We had yet to fall to today’s depths, where a would-be prime minister once thought it was acceptable to attack a former Liberal party leader as the father of a policy ‘tar baby.’ (Pierre Poilievre was forced to apologize.)”

Google blames the death of civility on Trump’s 2017 presidential win, but even if he did coarsen political discourse, we didn’t have to get in the ring with him as Bill Maher did when he went on his HBO show to defend and repeat a previous “joke" that Trump was the product of sex between his mother and an orangutan.

Perhaps we should blame the decline of civility in Canada on its collapse in Russia, or on the long-term failure of Israel and Pakistan to broker enduring peace? Or perhaps on the tenuous relationship between anglophone and francophone Canadians? Maybe it’s due to the loss of civics education? Maybe a muddled and motley collection of all these things.

Online communication certainly hasn’t helped. Jordan Peterson recently wrote that Twitter is turning us all insane. No doubt. It’s the catchy, acerbic barb that rises above the more civil discourse and is rewarded by retweets and, ideally, virality. The more efficiently we can criticize and inject our ideological venom into the virtual world, the faster our social currency rises. As Mark Twain wrote, the critic “deposits his egg in somebody else’s dung, otherwise he could not hatch it.”

We have learned to write first and think later (or maybe not at all). Online anonymity is changing us, and it’s saddling us with a social and moral debt we may not be able to pay. We no longer have to confront our victims, sit with them in the hurt of our words, defend our views in the public square. We strike and then we run away.

What is our incivility costing us?

Maybe nothing. Maybe words are just words, a little harmless, hyperbolic theatre.

Maybe it’s a good sign, namely that we feel more comfortable than ever to express ourselves, to lay bare the darkest parts of our soul. Maybe it’s a way to work out our inchoate reactions as stepping stones to a more articulate understanding of what we are really worried about.

Maybe it’s a quick and ready way to unite over a common struggle. Drawing from the well of terms already accepted by the dominant group helps to create a feeling of solidarity. Professor of Modern English Language, Ronald Carter wrote that verbal play brings people together around a set of collective cultural reference points creating a kind of lexical “social glue.” It helps us to feel less isolated, more connected, more engaged with others.

But this, I think, takes our charity too far. Words have immense power. As Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, “Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it.” Words place parameters around our ideas and frame how we perceive the world. They build our beliefs, they drive our behaviour, they weave the fabric of our lived experience. The philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein put it well: the limits of our language are the limits of our world.

When we allow terms like “Covidiot” into our ordinary communication, we don’t just mark our opposition to the subject’s views. We are saying that the person is “so mentally deficient as to be incapable of reasoning. As the Greek idiotes suggests, to call someone an idiotis not just to denigrate their intelligence; it is to put them on the periphery of the community of citizens, or perhaps even outside of it. It is to imply that ones opponent is not just wrong but irrational, inhuman and worthy of cyber (or even real) extermination.

Incivility and fear

Our incivility is, to a degree, understandable when you consider how much there is to fear these days. We fear the loss of employment and relationships. We fear being found out for being on the wrong side of the right issue. We fear becoming conspicuous and, at the same time, insignificant. We fear being abandoned by the human race as it barrels ahead towards an uncertain future.

Fear is the most primitive and earliest human emotion. It is particularly unresponsive to reason and therefore tends to charge ahead of our capacity to regulate our emotions, to reflect on our reasoning, and to be civil. And, as Martha Nussbaum explains, fear has the capacity to infect every other emotion. Shame is fuelled by fear that the shamed one will undermine what keeps us safe, anger can lead to unreflective scapegoating that is fed by fear, and disgust is an aversion to the terrifying possibility that we may become brutes (literally). Fear manifests itself through other emotions because we are impotent to manage it any other way.

But the cost of our poorly managed fear is the disintegration of the bonds that hold us together. In a democracy, we don’t have the threat of an autocrat or a dictator to control our actions. We are constrained by the rule of law and by our willingness to be cooperative. We understand that democracy is fragile and that it needs civic cohesion to work. In the words of writer Peter Wehner, “When civility is stripped away, everything in life becomes a battlefield, an arena for conflict, an excuse for invective. Families, communities, our conversations and our institutions break apart when basic civility is absent.”

When we become uncivil, we lose our political footing, we lose what transformed us from animals into citizens, what took us out of the state of nature and put us into society together. Incivility, from the Latin incivilis, literally means “not of a citizen.”

How do we become civil again?

As an ethicist and student of history, I think a lot about what I do and why, and why others do what they do. I try to keep biases front and centre, knowing many are to a degree unavoidable, I read voraciously, and I try to listen as much as I talk. But I feel the seeds of incivility growing even in me. The outcome of the 2021 federal election made me nothing short of nauseous and I find it increasingly difficult to relate to those Canadians who support our government’s draconian measures. These feelings are hard to reconcile with the desire to be reasonable and reflective and tolerant, but I still think there are things we can do to nurture civility in our current culture:

Fine-tune your radar. The cold and unwelcome but also freeing fact is that the potential for civil discourse isn’t distributed evenly across the population. Not everyone is primed for it. Those who have fully embraced incivility have become savages and you can’t reason with a savage. There is a spectrum of civility and some are simply closer to the vile end than others.

Also, civilizing is a process and civility is always, at best, precarious. Norbert Elias wrote a beautiful book on civility in 1939 but that was followed by years of war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Creating a culture of openness and tolerance and curiosity and respect is a long-term project that will serve democracy well, but it doesn’t happen overnight and even once it does happen, we have to take great care to nurture it. If we want the benefits of civility, we must keep the devil on our shoulder where we can see him. We must build civility from the ground up, from the inside out.

Keep your eye on the prize. What is your goal when you enter into conversation with someone? Are you aiming to win, to exact revenge, or are you genuinely interested in the pursuit of truth? In his impressive 1866 guide to the art of conversation, Arthur Martine wrote, “In disputes upon moral or scientific points, let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”

It takes humility and confidence to admit that we might have something to learn from another person. But we can approach conversation with the goal of learning, not converting. We don’t always need to be a COVID evangelist to have meaningful conversation about today’s challenges. We can respond rather than react. We can be both critical and charitable. We can push pause on a conversation while we gather more information and reflect. We can walk the path of truth together.

Break up the masses. We all know how efficiently the masses can engulf you, and so the pressure to conform is strong, but the cost of conformity is higher than we might think. “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else,” wrote Eleanor Roosevelt, “you surrender your own integrity [and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.” Those who complied with the mandates over the last two years, but who did so against their better judgement, are starting to see the costs of their compliance. It is easy to feel protected by the size and the anonymity offered by the masses. But in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“Leave this hypocritical prating about the masses. Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not be flattered but to be schooled. I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them…Masses! The calamity is the masses.”

Choose your words carefully: Words can undermine our moral treatment of others, but they can also elevate it. So which words should we choose?

Words of respect: When George Washington was a teenager, he penned 110 rules of civility and wrote, “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present.”

Words of respect can be as simple as “I’m interested,” “I’m listening,” “I don’t understand your view, but I would like to hear you explain it in your own words.”

Words of curiosity: “Be curious. Not judgmental.” So goes the line attributed to Walt Whitman. Curiosity is rare these days in part, I think, because it takes a lot of effort. It requires attention and empathy and genuine interest and mental endurance. And, of course, only non-rhetorical questions are truly curious. “What do you think?” “Why do you think it?”

Words of commitment: One of the biggest obstacles to productive conversation is the fear that we will be abandoned. We fear that the other will turn their back, walk out, say “we don’t talk about that.” Instead, we can say “I’m in this conversation with you, let’s talk” and then show you mean it by sticking around.

I know what you’re thinking. Is she really so naive as to think that it’s possible to approach conversation with civility and survive? Can you really play by the rules and win a debate with someone who has no interest in your rules? No. But you won’t beat them any other way either. What you will have is a hurtful, pointless tussle of words, not a real conversation. To converse is to “keep company with,” to discuss is to “examine by argument.” To do these things, you need an able and willing participant, skills that are in short supply these days but ones we can nurture with those closest to us and with a little effort in the tiny decisions we make every day.

There are many who will disdain what I have written here since it threatens the collective thought process that sees itself as being in no need of, and being threatened by, individual critical thought. Talk of civility and respect, pulling individuals out of the masses, pursuing truth together. All of that threatens the conformity…ahem, I mean cooperation that defines 21st century Canadian culture.

But there it is. Civility is not conformity. It is not agreement per se, but rather how we handle our disagreements. A society made up of identical citizens speaking and thinking in perfect unison, perfectly purged of moral tension, is in no need of civility. If you know that no one disagrees with you, you have no reason to tolerate them. The virtues of tolerance and respect and understanding — those we must nurture if we are to have a flourishing, healthy democracy — consist in how we handle our differences, not in how we eliminate them.

We stand at a precipice where we face the danger of losing our humanity forever. What can we do about it? What will we do about it? What will it take to turn us around? What are you going to do today, as soon as you finish reading these last few words, to rescue us from our inferno of incivility?

Julie Ponesse

Julie Ponesse

Dr. Julie Ponesse was the Ethics Scholar for The Democracy Fund where she authored the book: My Choice: The Ethical Case Against Covid19 Vaccine Mandates. Dr. Ponesse's focus was on educating Canadians about civil liberties.

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