The View From Here – Politicians and private citizens are equally responsible for upholding civility in public discourse

Tom Henihan

During a Union of British Columbia Municipalities conference held in Vancouver recently, a clinic presented by lawyer Kathleen Higgins, discussed the growing trend of incivility towards members of municipal councils in British Columbia.

Members of municipal governments from various regions in BC spoke about personal confrontations as well as harassment and slander online by members of their communities.

Higgins suggested that the acrimonious environment hampers legislative productivity and in an article written by Jennifer Saltman in the Vancouver Sun, Higgins is quoted as saying, that research shows that the public agrees that incivility is on the rise.

Kathleen Higgins also identified two main reasons for the negative behaviour towards councillors as being social media and that government is more open.

In the Vancouver Sun article, Higgins says:

You can vent on social media with few repercussions and this has allowed people to let it rip.”

The rise in uncivil behaviour in local politics is not new or exclusive to BC, the contention that social media accounts for people’s lack of restraint on social media is also no revelation.

However, I don’t believe a more open government is a reason for the lack of civility. An open government, especially at the local level is more accessible and therefore more prone to direct confrontation but it does not account for why people’s behaviour is uncivil.

Higgins also said that antagonistic discourse reduces trust and diminishes respect.

In the long run, it does erode public discourse on really difficult issues.”

Open government and social media offer the means for people to confront politicians and rant but it reveals nothing about the reason why people are increasingly disrespectful and distrustful of their local representatives.

Trust and respect work both ways and whether justified or not, people have the perception that politics works for the interests of the few and against the interests of the majority.

Local representatives have a responsibility to change that perception, to speak candidly and act openly in the best interest of the people they represent.

It is the responsibility of citizens to behave in a civil manner and while they have a right, even an obligation to hold their local representatives to account they should also feel obliged to do so without vitriol and slander.

Respect and trust are two commodities that people must earn and in the larger picture, such as provincial and federal politics many people see politics as a theatre of lies where politicians, who breathe rarefied air far above the fray, show contempt for the electorate that put them there.

Of course, all politicians are tarred with the same proverbial brush, which is unfortunate for people in municipal government who live a lot closer to the ground and rub shoulders everyday with those who elected them to council.

Without placing blame, both representative and private citizens need to share responsibility for preserving a civil society, which the Oxford Dictionary defined as “a society considered as a community of citizens linked by common interest and collective activity.”

People need to be less passionate about political ideals and more concerned with the tangible health of society which is also supposed to be the first concern of politics.

Share this post