“I have often seen people uncivil by too much civility, and tiresome in their courtesy.” ~ Michel de Montaigne
Civility: a lofty goal– but is it really what we want to achieve in the House of Commons? Defined as gracious, polite, courteous and considerate, it is certainly, in most arenas, something to strive for. But in our House of Commons?—I am not so sure. Michel Eyguem de Montaigne scoffed at civility, and as he was a “great French Renaissance thinker” who studied mankind, who are we to argue? He lived from 1533-1592 and was a sceptic who used culture, literature and science “to increase our sense of relativity of all man’s beliefs about the world in which he lives.”
Since I was not really sure what that last sentence meant, I looked up relativity and found that its philosophical definition is “dependence on a factor that varies according to context.” While that did not really clarify the subject for me, nonetheless I am feeling much more intelligent now. I will leave understanding it to another day. Suffice to say that de Montaigne was well-regarded and quite bright—and he does not think that civility is necessarily always the answer.
I do not like brutal incivility, but what is Parliament without a little haggling? The finding that Jack Layton was deemed the least polite politician on the Hill by researchers at McMaster University, is according to newspaper columnist Elizabeth Renzetti “shocking”. She says the conclusion is, “almost as if someone had seen the Friendly Giant rampaging down Sparks Street munching a Prius along the way.” She believes that Parliament is “supposed to be about cut and thrust, scoring points off your opponent, presenting yourself as the coldest, most capable wit in the land” and is preparation “for the debates that win elections.”
I hope the promises made to the new Speaker of the House by the leaders to refrain from haggling and dare I say it, verbal sparring which makes the whole thing interesting, are soon forgotten.
Renzetti made the point that if you cannot be witty then at least be “quotably bad-tempered.” She noted that “many students became interest in Canadian history only when they read that John A. MacDonald had once crossed the House to confront Oliver Mowat over some perceived slight and bellowed, ‘You damn pup! I’ll slap your chops!’”
I understand that sometimes the haggling gets out of hand—I have heard some things come out of the mouths of the Parliamentarians that should have been swallowed rather than spat—but it is when the incivility crosses the line of no longer dealing with an issue, and instead a personality, culture, or gender that my hackles are raised.
Closer to home, as the ever loyal ink-stained reporter who covers our local council, I love it when things get “interesting” in Council Chambers–when those sitting on Council show some passion. Now, I do not want to lead you astray, no member has ever gotten out of their seat and threatened to slap someone’s chops, but on occasion, members have been known to get their points across in colourful ways—and where they stand on a certain subject is not left to question. As it should be. These are the people who use our tax dollars to improve our community. I don’t know about you—but I like to hear how they feel about issues and not just rubber stamp them after hearing a report from Administration. They question, they debate, they sometimes use language the Mayor reminds them is not council chamber worthy, but they get their messages across.
Now I am not calling for Councillor Ron to bash Councillor Bob upside the head, or Councillor Gail to comment on Councillor Gord’s outfit, nor do I want Councillor Sandy to take Deputy Mayor Tammy to task for her choice of brief case, but I do expect them, over the course of time, to reflect their personal municipal passions in the way they debate and vote. And if sometimes they get into a bit of a scrum, all the better—that is how an issue is illuminated and scrutinized. And if truth be told, a little excitement in Council Chambers keeps the audience awake, and this reporter furiously taking notes.
So no matter the level of government, from municipal, provincial to federal, civility should not be the overriding issue—it should be tempered with a dose of passion. Not the passion which made a member of the British Parliament declare the Speaker of the House a “stupid, sanctimonious dwarf”, but instead fiery debates worthy of the issues.