Putting the Polite Back in Politics

July 8, 2019

I have been in and around politics for almost 30 years.  Despite all the jokes about politics and politicians the majority of those whom I know or have known are honourable people who are in public life to serve and to make life better for all of us, based upon their perception of what is right of course.

I’m not your prototypical middle aged guy who waxes on about the glory days.  I like to stay in tune with social changes, I like to be on top of new technology and how it can be used positively to enhance my personal and professional lives. I live for new music but lament that most songs seem to need clean versions just to achieve air play.   One change I cannot abide is the long, slow and seemingly irrevocable decay of civility in our society and in particular, how it manifests itself in politics.

On a daily basis we are bombarded with accusations from all political sides that the other is vile, evil, out to destroy their country, traitors, nazis, communists, baby killers, Barbies and so on.

How did this happen?  Why the extremes?

There was a time when politicians were looked up to, respected and often admired for the good they did.  Those who achieve such lofty standing today are few and far between.  To me, no small part of the blame lies in the changing nature of our news, how we consume it and how we as citizens engage with others.  This is not to blame the media or journalists.  It’s not about bias or impartiality.  It’s about the constant need to feed the beast, to fill air time, to create something newsworthy all the time, all day, many times per day. And it’s about the feeling of invincibility for those with anonymous social media accounts, shielded from reprisal as they hide behind a screen and keyboard.

Today we are exposed almost instantly to every major crime, atrocity, natural disaster, accident, shooting or outrageous incident – think road rage videos, ISIS beheadings, sex scandals.  My kids are exposed to global events and news in ways I never was growing up.  Does that constant feed give them greater respect for their fellow man or woman?  Or does it paint a picture of a dog eat dog world where sport is often tearing down someone else in order to feel better about one’s own status?

I believe it’s the latter. And to get attention in today’s world, in many respects, one needs to be more outrageous, more controversial, more “newsworthy” in order to get any attention at all. Rock stars, sports figures, business leaders and certainly politicians need to be more extreme in their lyrics, antics, or as the case may be, rhetoric, in order to gain attention in today’s world of short attention spans.  This leads to language used on one’s opponent that is over the top to make a point.  The headline or the “click bait” may be the only things a viewer pays attention to.

Denigration of personal character as a means to discredit views on policy used to be a no-no for politicians.  No longer is that the case.

We need look no further than the President of the United States.  Regardless of one’s ideology or views on his policies, how can anyone respect they way that he speaks about and treats others?  For someone who leads the world’s greatest democracy to mock disabled people, to belittle opponents with offensive nicknames and call others criminals when there is no basis to do so, to still carry such strong political support speaks to the state of our civil society, our expectation or lack thereof for our leaders and our own views about value and respect of our fellow citizens.

Closer to home,  we witnessed recently an outspoken Twitter user call a Minister of the Crown a “c” word in a tweet about that politician’s daughter.  What followed was a fair amount of scorn and deservedly so, for there is no need and no place for such language, especially in public discourse among public figures.  What surprised me though was the number of people who defended the perpetrator because they too did not like said politician, therefore it was fair game.  There were well-known journalists too who said they’ve seen much worse language, what’s the big deal?

It didn’t help when days later that same politician was outed for using very colourful language in a public place while tongue-lashing a well-known Ottawa businessman.

In a world where infamy is just as valuable (sometimes quite literally) as being famous, where being outrageous is the only way to cut through the clatter, is there any surprise that politicians see no room to be friendly, cordial, collaborative with fellow politicians in order to create a better world?  How boring and un-newsworthy.

No, they reflect our own societal shifts to a more winner-take-all attitude, kill or be killed, disposable society where it doesn’t pay to be kind, or gentle for that is now viewed as weak, a flaw to be fixed lest it be exploited.

A leader and party’s policies are important to me and I am an engaged voter and participate significantly in the political process.  But as blind partisan loyalty becomes an increasingly toxic cocktail, my vote will go to the leader who pledges to reach across the aisle and engage meaningfully to work with and understand others’ viewpoints.  A leader who recognizes that his or her opponents have much to contribute and respects their experiences and expertise as much as his or her own.

We need our leaders to be leaders not followers. And as society places less and less value on the collective and more and more on individual needs and achievements, we need leaders to set an example.  And that example needs to be that civility, respect and honour are meaningful attributes for us all to have and to follow.  That the greater good of our society is more important than any of our personal needs.  I look forward to see who, if any, rise to that challenge.