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Taking the civil out of civilisation?

July 30, 2016

I love words. I love the history of words and discovering new things about them. For example, when I realised that “benediction” literally means to give a good word it completely shifted the context of benediction from something we receive at church to a blessing we can all extend.

This week’s “a-ha moment” came when I was listening  to former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson’s 2014 CBC Massey Lectures, Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship. Since 1961, the Lectures invite a leading thinker to prepare five one-hour essays on a given topic. These are then presented in five Canadian cities, broadcast on radio and published for posterity — and further deep thought.

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Can you have civilisation without civility?

Massey Lectures are extraordinarily well researched and presented simply and thoughtfully. They provide five hours of rich, challenging ideas presented without slides, gimmicks or drama . They offer a refreshing change from the endless bombardment of Twitter’s 140 characters, a quick TedTalk or the constant pulse altering drums and dizzying graphics of the 24-hour news channels. The Massey  Lectures are a buffet of rich food for thought that is to be savoured. It is the antithesis of sound-bite junk food for the mind.

So it was during Adrienne Clarkson’s third lecture: “The Cosmopolitan Ethic” that I found my recent epiphany. She said:

The whole function and idea of democracy lies within each of us and our ability to accept and include the Other… We have obligations as citizens not just toward the state and its institutions but toward each other as individuals and as equal citizens. One who does not behave this way betrays his own citizenship.

For us to function as a truly democratic society, we must be civil with with each other and treat each other with the respect that is due. (Adrienne Clarkson, Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship, House of Anansi Press – emphasis mine)

Whoa… hold the phone. Is Donald Trump, with his complete lack of civility actually undermining civilisation? YES! 

The Presidential candidate has said he will exclude all Muslims from his country. He has called Mexicans “rapists” and often ridiculed women for their gender or appearance. He has labelled an endless stream of people, including senators, governors and journalists as “losers” and repeatedly called his opponent a criminal*. This is not civility. This is not acceptance and inclusion of the Other. This is not “sticks and stones” stuff. The names will hurt me because this behaviour erodes trust and democracy – no matter who does it. This is shutting down voices in the debate by not focusing on policy and ideas but on distractions and personal attacks.

As a Canadian, I am not at all involved in the American Presidential election but, like most people in the Western World, if not the globe, the antics of this presidential campaign are impossible to avoid. As a student of trust, I know nothing good comes from candidates tearing each other to shreds during a campaign and then turning around to say “trust me.” There is nothing to inspire confidence from people, other nations or financial markets when people behave this way.

Looks like Mom was right. You’d better mind your manners because bad things happen when you take the “civil” out of civil society and civilisation.

*The New York Times compiled an extensive NYT list of Trump insults of the 250 people, places and things Donald Trump has insulted on Twitter since declaring his candidacy.  I hesitate to share it because it just brings us deeper into the muck but I wanted to illustrate the point.

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