Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
July 18, 2024
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The Rules of Engagement

Without a real, thriving public sphere, there is no place to debate the issues of the day.

When I was in graduate school, I studied eighteenth-century literature. Civility, good manners, and sympathy were key topics in practically every class I took. I was impatient with it. Enough about politeness, I would think. There are more important issues! 

The eighteenth century is also known as the enlightenment. Two major figures were David Hume and Adam Smith. Both were radical originals — the first a famous skeptic who refused to believe in God in a deeply religious age. Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, which invented the framework for economics and civil society. Both were fascinated by social convention, the idea of a shared common sense. They stressed the linked ideas of politeness and civility as essential to social cohesion, and to understanding each other. For Hume, a common sense of things was far more important than God.

You have to remember that in the eighteenth century, civility was still pretty new. 

England produced the first great civil society in Europe. A “republic of letters,” it was in large part the creation of its free press. The UK, unlike France, which was still in the grip of an absolutist monarchy, was renowned for its newspapers and pamphlets, for its free flow of ideas and public debates. The arguments and the issues of the day were circulated in print. There was no other way, besides yelling. Pamphlet wars were frequent, and rival journals and magazines would jostle for position — a newspaper called Common Sense inspired a rival sheet, the Nonsense of Common Sense

Without a real, thriving public sphere, there is no place to debate the issues of the day. Through words and ideas rather than violence. It took centuries to accomplish the transition from medieval, feudal tribes at constant war with each other to the England of the Enlightenment, which had a monarchy held in check by the houses of parliament on the one hand, and the conventions of civil debate on the other. There was still violence and cruelty, as well as censorship. You could still go to jail for “treason.” But with newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsheets came a public realm. A place for ideas. 

The cost of participation was, of course, literacy. Education generally required property. These two things, property and the widespread ability to read and write, led to politeness: respect for others, and respect for ideas.

The “age of politeness” was also the age of satire. Its writers relished the art of the attack. It is famous for satire and jokes, its ability to ridicule. The best insults in the English language come from roughly this period, maybe starting with Shakespeare and reaching to Jane Austen. If, when it came to your rivals, you stuck to shredding their ideas rather than their persons, at least in public, you could get away with a great deal of satisfying ridicule. 

Given all this, when Councillor St-Jean brought a motion last month, “seeking Council support for civility in municipal government,” I was strangely heartened. The call for civility crosses the centuries — and, for me, the decades. It brought me back to my graduate classes and my contempt for such small things, and then the dawning knowledge of just how pivotal they are.

Ours is not a great moment for public discourse. One reason is that social media blurs the line between speaking in private and in public. By that I mean, it enables us to speak in public as though we were in private. That undermines not just civility, but the idea of a shared, public realm. With the dissolving of the public realm comes a mistrust in key public institutions: the legal system, government, traditional media. 

The motion, seeking “civility in municipal government” has an old-fashioned sound — in a good way. It acknowledges both how important civility is, and how easy it is to lose. There is a fine line between spirited debate and going too far. Indignation, or anger, wrongly expressed, jeopardizes public discourse. But so does not expressing it at all. 

A key moment in the discussion came in the form of a comment from the audience. “It’s a slippery slope,” the speaker warned. “Who is going to decide where the line is? Who defines abuse when it comes to ruling comments out of order?” Her worry was that those coming to Council to voice disagreement, or protest, would be cancelled, victims of a power masked as the politeness police.

“Soon,” she said, “we’ll all just be told to sit down, shut up, and pay our taxes.”

The comment suggests that a public conversation about what exactly constitutes abuse, or harassment, or denigration, or a threat, would go a long way toward ensuring people can speak freely in Council. If the lines are clear, and if everyone knows what they are, then worries about crossing them, or who polices them, should fade. 

Take criticism for example. Councillor St. Jean’s motion suggested no one — neither councillors staff, or citizens, should be criticized in public. An amendment struck that word. It is worth sorting out when criticism turns into an attack, or if perhaps criticism should be limited to the reports, not the reporters. The comments, not the commenters themselves.

Likewise, inviting people to participate in, not just the conversation, but in the framing of that conversation, builds trust. Trust is the bedrock of civility. 

Council eventually passed the motion; the vote was 8-5 in favour. It asks that staff research what other municipalities are doing, review the County’s current policies, and consult with the public on appropriate language for an updated code of conduct. The motion will lead to public discussion and debate on the rules of civility. This is important: for rules to work, everyone must know what they are, and why they are there. 

We will also find, I am pretty sure, that we are not alone. Other municipalities are facing the same breakdown of public discourse, the erosion of shared standards and therefore of even the possibility for spirited debate. This is an opportunity to participate jointly in re-creating our own little civil society, our common realm. 

This text is from the Volume 194 No. 27 edition of The Picton Gazette
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