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Editorial: Are we becoming an uncivil society?

How can we continue to be a civil society if we cannot respect our opponents enough to disagree respectfully? 
2022-02-07 ottawa truck convoy 5
The truck convoy protest during the second weekend in Ottawa on Saturday, February 5, 2022. (Photo/David Smith)

Have we become an uncivil society? From social media platforms to protest signs, incivility and outrage are everywhere.

Living in what feels like an unending pandemic has certainly brought this incivility to the forefront. People are frustrated; people have had their livelihoods threatened; people fear an invisible illness will kill or disable themselves or their loved ones. Society is heaving from this collective psychological trauma.

We can see the slide to incivility all around us: from protest signs to political statements to online comment threads; from people proudly waving “F—k Trudeau” signs, to hashtags like #FluTruxKlan. We have seen politicians and medical officers of health harassed in their homes. We have seen stones thrown at the prime minister. We have seen health officials like Dr. Theresa Tam’s decisions criticized not for their rationale but for her ethnicity.

When we attempt to distill complex political or societal issues into pithy (or not so pithy) slogans, context and nuance are lost, but those qualities are key to effective communication. When people on two sides of an issue lose the ability to communicate, their opposition can quickly turn from the cerebral to the physical, with rationality exchanged for rage.

The free exchange of ideas, the opportunity to debate and distill – these qualities separate a free society from a totalitarian one. If we can no longer debate like human beings, we will rend and tear like animals.

And as a liberal democracy that was built on a framework of cooperation and shared values, a society in which disparate views are (at least ostensibly) welcomed and encouraged, losing the ability to communicate our thoughts and ideas does not just threaten our personal relationships, it threatens our system of government.

The ongoing anti-mandate protests and occupations are a prime example. 

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau categorized all of the protesters as a “fringe minority” who hold “unacceptable views”, he indelicately lumped all of the participants – whether they were white nationalists, fascists or just regular people balking at ongoing pandemic restrictions – into a single camp of undesirables. Surely some of the organizers and some of the participants hold despicable opinions (this is, after all, a country of people and people have all sorts of beliefs), but it is clear the vast majority are simply Canadians feeling frustrated and compelled to act.

This is not a defence of the blockades and occupations, which is a separate issue, but an example of how politicians can use outrage among their supporters as a political tool, while disparaging their opponents in the same breath. It is, in a word, uncivil.

To paint them all as undesirables might score political points but it is both inaccurate and wrong. And what was the impact? The protesters embraced being called fringe. The prime minister’s word choice galvanized them in a spirit of unity, creating a space where racists, fascists and regular people could find common ground. Is that what we as a society really want?

On the other side, anti-mandate protesters have turned Trudeau into a fancy-sock-wearing boogeyman who is either a communist dictator, a fascist or the son of Fidel Castro, a ‘woke’ sissy who is not a “real man.” Like any politician, Trudeau can be criticized for so very many reasons, but to launch childish, conspiratorial attacks on his character, rather than his actions, not only cheapens their arguments, it attacks the wrong thing. And it is uncivil.

We have seen this tendency to incivility locally, too. A man is facing a criminal harassment charge for showing up at Mayor Brian Bigger’s home, banging on the door, yelling and videotaping, and causing the mayor to fear for his family’s safety. As well, it came to light recently that Ward 11 Coun. Bill Leduc took a political dispute with Ward 2 Coun. Michael Vagnini outside the council chambers by contacting the councilor’s daughter. 

Local reporters have been targeted as well. Sudbury.com regularly receives messages accusing us of being propagandists (and often much, much worse) colluding with the government to steal people’s freedoms. Reporters have been harassed on duty and called names simply for attempting to do their jobs. 

There are ways to criticize constructively. That criticism does not have to be coarse or profane to be effective. If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dropped an F-bomb into his “I Have a Dream Speech” (one of the greatest, most erudite criticisms of modern American society ever delivered), how would we be talking about it today?

Communication is key to any healthy relationship, whether that relationship is between loved ones, friends and neighbours, or even the relationship between the public and politicians.

If we are so quick to become outraged at everything, outrage loses all meaning and nothing is truly outrageous anymore. In that environment, we lose the ability to differentiate between relatively innocuous things like mask-wearing and actually dangerous things like fascism. 

How can we continue to function if we cannot speak to one another in clear and rational terms?

We might be, right now, standing at a crossroads, faced with a choice between continuing down the road we are on or changing course, a choice between the kind of country we want to live in and one we no longer recognize.

Incivility and outrage might seem minor. They are not. Politeness actually matters. So before you send that email or scrawl a slogan on a protest sign, take a moment, take a breath and decide: What kind of Canada do you want to live in? 

Sudbury.com's editorial opinion is determined by an editorial board made up of senior staff.