[The Owl] In Defence of Civility, Redux

[The Owl] In Defence of Civility, Redux

HUGH SEGAL, The Owl, Summer 2018

Some years ago, at the turn of the millennium, I wrote a book titled In Defence of Civility. It held a collection
of my newspaper columns, op-eds, speeches, and some new essays—all, in various ways, offering a defence of civility in our politics, in our way of life, and celebrating warriors in this cause. The times in which we now live have prompted me to think a bit more about the ideas behind that book. Lately, incivility — in global politics,  in domestic politics, in social media — has emerged as a dynamic in and of itself. Violent political rhetoric — “Lock Her Up!” — “Build That Wall!” — jagged anti-immigration demonstrations in Eastern Europe, rampaging balaclava-clad demonstrators in Hamilton, enhanced coverage of both police/civilian violence and anti-police-violence advocacy — these are but few among many incidents contributing to my sense that what counts as acceptable behaviour has changed, producing for me one of the most glaring questions for our time: Is civility dead? Is incivility the new test of sincerity and authenticity? Is civility no longer a viable mode of engagement? Is nuanced and measured discourse too far off the credibility scale for wide public support? Is this a new era wherein to speak, to be heard, to be believed, requires vindictiveness and rudeness?Here, we might take a breath and reflect  on the underlying value of civility. I have always enjoyed the jokes about Canadians that circle around too much politeness and civility attributed to our collective character:

“How can you tell a Canadian at an ATM machine?”
“He’s the one who says ‘please and thank you’… ”

“Why did the Canadian cross the road?” “To get to the middle!”

My late Mom, a working woman since I was about four years old, always made the case with my two brothers and me that pessimism and bad manners never advanced any worthwhile cause. In my mind, that produced a formula linking good manners and optimism directly with civility. As a college debater, as a think tank head, as a political operative, as a lecturer and adjunct professor at Queen’s, as a senator, as someone in the communications industry, as someone who held advocacy duties for Canada on human rights issues within the Commonwealth, I learned that civility as an instrument of inclusion and engagement was defined as much by what is said and how it is said, as it is by those who know when not to say things, either seriously, or even in jest.
A Premier I once served (formerly the Minister of University Affairs who took the law establishing Massey College through the legislature in the early 1960’s) had the habit of telling his staff, cabinet, and caucus on the eve of an important debate: “You always get more flies with honey than with vinegar.” For Bill Davis, this was not about the shallow premise of going along to get along. It was about respecting the other people at the table for who they were, and taking what was important to them into careful consideration.

Hugh Segal, Principal of Massey College, telling tales in the Visitor’s Office during “The Night of Pretentiousness” launching the Fall term, September 6, 2017. Credit: Jim Rankin


Restraint, as in the case of civility, can be a virtue. In the academic world, where interaction spans age groups and generations, civility can be threatened by strong disagreement, by perceived entitlement, by radically different life experiences and worldviews. The challenge is about how those who do speak — seriously, humorously, sarcastically, in advocacy or opposition to any idea or cause — frame their words in a way that respects sensitivities and experiences of their fellow interlocutors.
The magic of the Massey experience is sustained and advanced when civility — between new and experienced, between old and young, between different disciplines and perspectives — is a two-way street. The robes worn by all fellows at dinner in Hall speak not to stodgy purposeless tradition. They speak to the core premise that whatever our discipline, age, gender identity, national origin, or creed, we are all deemed equal members of the Massey fellowship, meriting respectful and civil treatment from others, and offering it generously ourselves. This is what fellowship really means. While this may not, of itself, bolster the case for civility elsewhere in the larger world, it does elevate the importance of civility as part of our Massey College ideal. And in this ever more civility challenged world, that is one step in the right direction — toward repairing democracy, mitigating intolerance, celebrating diversity, and fostering civil society.

Hugh Segal is the Principal of Massey College, a post to which he was elected in December of 2013.