As a kid, I was a pint-sized political junkie, the kind of dork who collected those matched sets of gas station coins with the prime ministers’ heads on them. In the summer of 1974, when my father was transferred from the air force base outside Summerside, PEI, to the flight training school in Winnipeg, I lobbied hard for us to visit Ottawa on the way, to see the Parliament Buildings. My two brothers were hostile and indifferent, respectively, but I won the day. We reeled in the long ribbon of the eastern Trans-Canada and headed to the capital so I could experience the little thrill of walking up that small incline to the front steps, of taking in the elegant lineaments of the most beautiful neo-Gothic building in the world.

I still get a bat-squeak echo of that first naive take whenever I walk up those stairs. The last time, in the spring of 2009, was for something called Breakfast on the Hill, a morning lecture series for academics held in the parliamentary dining room, itself a nerdlinger’s dream, with its separate, panelled alcoves for each province. My talk was about leadership and the political virtue of civility. Among other things, I echoed the Great Liberal Leader’s call for a more civil exchange to make our country (and maybe even him) great.

Here’s what Joanne Chianello of the Ottawa Citizen wrote about it later: “Ignatieff writes that ‘if our politics are good, we can keep our disagreements civil.’ And indeed, the theme of civil dissent ran though Kingwell’s early-morning talk Thursday as well. ‘Incivility,’ he told the audience, ‘doesn’t just threaten the etiquette of interchange, it threatens democracy.’ But while Kingwell was taking comments following his speech, two Liberal parliamentarians began their own conversation at their table—clearly audible to all those around, the speaker, and certainly the woman asking the question. They seemed oblivious to the irony of their incivility.”

Not just audible, actually. They practically shut down one whole side of the room. “That’s why we don’t take our students to visit the Commons anymore,” a high school teacher told me afterwards. “They’re too shocked by the bad behaviour of the MPs.”

Yup. That air of bozo entitlement, coupled with a disregard for anybody else’s views or right to speak: pretty much your basic definition of incivility. If these two, washed up by chance on the silver beach of late-capitalist power and wealth, are even partly indicative of what our elected representatives are like—and they are—then we’re all in a mess of trouble, though not for the reasons you may think.

Only a child could find surprise in the idea that MPs are rude. I mean, really. “Have you ever been in the House of Commons and taken a look at the inmates? ” a P. G. Wodehouse character wonders. “As weird a gaggle of freaks and sub-humans as was ever collected in one spot. I wouldn’t mix with them for any money you could offer me.” Some would say that in this context rudeness is, if not quite a job requirement, then at least an occupational hazard. And there may even be a simpler explanation of the MPs’ behaviour. “If people were talking over Kingwell, then that’s not so uncivil,” ran one online comment on Chianello’s story. “They’ve probably heard the speech before and got bored. I’ve heard it, and it’s frigging boring.”

To which the only rational response is fuck you.

Just kidding. But it is difficult to make the argument for the value of civility when the immediate response to the argument is Don’t frigging bore me, you long-winded doofus. (I added the “long-winded doofus” part, but it feels right.) I’ve been defending the political virtue of civility in spaces both academic and popular, public and private, for almost fifteen years. Lots of other people were at it long before that. I don’t think it’s boring; but then, I don’t think I’m a pompous jackass either. Pleas for civility are commonplace even as current discursive practice places a growing premium on rudeness and incivility in everything from opinion-dominated newspapers and unbridled blog posts to the words of groomed television hatchetmen and politicians whose idea of a good riposte is escalating the insult. This is one of those instances, like the NHL playoffs and prime-time television, where things really have become worse in recent years. Underneath the road rage politics and bratty teenage campaign rhetoric lurks a creeping nihilism, a disregard for the very idea of reason.

Well, who cares? You should, even if you never watch those shouting matches that pass for Sunday-morning political commentary or pay a lick of attention to the duelling reductionists of the op-ed pages. Parliamentary democracy is nothing more nor less than a conversation among citizens, both directly and by way of their elected leaders. Here, and only here, can our interests and desires be made into law. A good conversation is a delicate thing to sustain, as anybody knows who has attended a dinner party where wine was served. We all have a direct personal stake in seeing such discussions thrive, because every time a good citizen checks out, the tactical forces of incivility lower democracy’s value by one more notch.

And so, at the considerable risk of boring you, I am going to make an argument for civility’s central place in political discourse, but in terms I hope will be unfamiliar enough to slow, if not yet reverse, this decline.

The standard argument goes something like this: at least since Aristotle, it has been obvious that a thriving political order—let’s call it a just society—arises only when there is a significant store of fellow feeling among citizens. Lucky for him, Aristotle was an ethical monist; he believed there was just one best way to live, to flourish as the human form of life. That way involved good citizenship and so, among other things, eunoia, or goodwill toward an other. Strictly speaking, Aristotle had no need of civility insofar as it is understood as a restraint on bad behaviour. Good behaviour is, instead, something that emerges organically from a polity in harmony with its own natural ends.

A nice idea, but under conditions of ethical pluralism—that is, where there is more than one answer to how one should live—we quickly see that conflict, not harmony, is the basic condition of human affairs. You don’t need to be a confirmed Hobbesian to acknowledge that it is not all happy-clappy agreement about the meaning of life on the campaign trail or the debating floor. And so, somewhere in the seventeenth century, civility emerges as a signal virtue of politics, not out of some fetish for etiquette and politeness but precisely because civility allows diverse views to be debated with tolerance and respect—at least sometimes. The basic insight is obvious: if we cannot agree, maybe we can agree to disagree without killing each other. Indeed, this kind of background agreement, the second-order agreement on reason that makes first-order disagreements possible, is a major human achievement. Not only does it allow a minimal cohesion, staving off the anarchy of war between all and everyone, but the conditions of rational disagreement actually indicate a significant upgrade in human intelligence. Even vehement argument, if it replaces outright violence, marks a big step forward in the march of reason and civilization.

Not that it is all about reason. Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, persuasively suggested that sympathy, the recognition of shared human vulnerability, is the real glue of social structures. Contractual theories, like the ones popularized a century earlier by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, miss the point. We would not make a contract with another, much less hold to it, unless we already recognized the other as an entity worthy of our consideration. There may be fear woven into the heart of all contracts, but not all of that fear is personal, nor is fear all that is so woven.

When discussing matters of shared political concern, civility thereby becomes the expression of regard for the other. That is why it is both more and less than mere politeness, with which it is often confused: more because it extends well beyond the niceties of interpersonal behaviour, but less because it is not rule-governed or explicit. Civility is, on this account, something like the political air we must all breathe to negotiate our differences and, maybe, serve the cause of justice.

It is an optimistic picture. Worse, it is one that is justified using arguments that are themselves optimistic—namely that people will smoothly discern a personal interest in being co-operative. Hence the standard objections to the political virtue of civility, from the claim that civility stifles dissent or obscures power relations to the brisker claim that civil talk (in common with all talk) changes nothing. None of these objections is ever far from sight. In 2007, when the collection of intellectual anarchists known as the Invisible Committee circulated their manifesto, The Coming Insurrection, they said this about civility and politics: “All the incivilities of the streets should become methodical and systematic, converging in a diffuse, effective guerrilla war that restores us to our ungovernability, our primordial unruliness… Rage and politics should never have been separated. Without the first, the second is lost in discourse; without the second the first exhausts itself in howls.”

You have to admit that’s a nice piece of dialectical reasoning: Rudeness now! The only trouble is that, though passion may sometimes fuel good change, rage is a distinct modality of human conduct. Rage and politics really should be separated, or there will be no such thing as discourse, just shouting. Even anarchists demonstrate this; otherwise, they wouldn’t bother penning manifestos that make studied factual claims and offer rational arguments. But the argument for civility based on the presuppositions of discourse is valid only if we follow those presuppositions. And clearly many people don’t. So what can we say to them?

Here’s a suggestion, borrowed from game theory. What is incivility but a species of collective action problem? A collective action problem is generated whenever a situation’s rational opportunities at the individual level generate, at the systemic level, outcomes that are bad for everybody. Consider the familiar example of status-seeking via acquisition of a luxury sport utility vehicle. As consumers compete for this particular clump of positional goods—the feelings of safety that come from a ride bigger than the other guy’s, plus the bmw or Mercedes logo over the grille—they have to shoulder mounting personal costs. The competition then turns into a “race to the bottom,” in which every move to advance my position (larger car, fancier logo) creates a new incentive for you to invest more in pursuit of the same combination of size and status. Because these goods function by position, there is no theoretical upper limit to the ratcheted spending of our competition. Ultimately, the mounting opportunity costs mean we all end up poorer, even as the ends of “safety” are obliterated by the fleet of urban tanks surging through the city streets.

How and when the exercise of rational self-interest generates system-wide defeats has been the subject of much investigation and analysis. Some scholars have suggested, for example, that individual rationality, amped by greed and cleverness, led to the collective self-defeat we know as the economic meltdown of 2008—though this analysis says little about the uneven distribution of the costs of that meltdown, whereby the greediest somehow ended up losing the least. But relatively little attention has been given to discursive versions of collective action problems, perhaps because we naively assume that transparency will govern political exchanges; we think we know what the other person’s interests and actions are. This assumption is false. Discourse, no less than consumption, has positional and hence competitive aspects. Indeed, winning the argument—or, rather, being seen to win it—is the essence of many discursive exchanges, especially political ones. If politics is reduced to elections or debates, it goes from being a shared undertaking of articulating ends and means and becomes a game of status and one-upmanship.

Traditionally, the philosophical defence of political discourse over divine-right authority claims and bare might-is-right power grabs has been that some arguments are better than others, and so they carry the day justifiably, not just factually. Which may be true in some idealized sense, though there are certainly people who doubt even the idealized claim. The trouble is that there are still lots of ways the worse argument can win factually, and incivility is one of these. So I have a clear incentive to resort to it, especially if my argument is weak, in order to boost my position. You jackass.

Now, however, you have an incentive of your own. In fact, merely repeating the incivility would just generate a minor stalemate, and maybe force us back to a rational assessment of the arguments. So you actually have an incentive to raise the rudeness stakes. Where do you get off calling me a jackass, you fucking moron?

And so on. The result is that the goal we sought, carrying the discursive day by force of reason, has been obliterated by the very pursuit of that goal via positional advantage. But now everybody loses, and nobody can win, because the well is poisoned; it no longer contains the fresh, justificatory water that drew us here in the first place.

So much for what Jürgen Habermas called “the unforced force of the better argument,” that fanciful lodestar of rational discourse. In actual discursive markets, bad currency tends to drive out good. Birthers and Tea Partyers can thus dominate the public debate in the United States by saturating it with misinformation, the discursive equivalent of shoddy but cheap merchandise; corporations, meanwhile, can increase their power through effectively limitless donations to election war chests (thanks in part to the Supreme Court’s 5–4 decision in January to strike down electoral spending restrictions for private organizations).

Further accelerating the decline, on both sides of the border, the practice of deindividuation—adopting an online nickname, for example, or hiding behind a political action committee—has become widespread, snapping the bonds of personal responsibility for what people say. It is a small irony of the digital world that John Rawls’s famous “veil of ignorance,” behind which he imagined anonymous citizens rationally choosing fair principles of justice, has in the real world translated largely into nameless flaming. So it goes.

The argument implicit here is the oppositely charged companion to the traditional one of moral sentiment. Instead of, or in addition to, saying that civility is a good thing for a pluralistic society, respecting difference and all that, we can say just why incivility is a bad one: it self-defeats, working against everyone’s individual interests, including the individual who made the first non-co-operative move. Being rude might look like a good tactic, but sooner or later it is revealed as a loser’s move. The argument is imperfect, to be sure: game theory research has shown that optimal results in competitive games are sometimes best achieved with a combination of co-operation and defection, making your moves unpredictable. But even that just highlights the underlying danger of treating political discourse as if it were a zero-sum game in the first place.

You might be thinking, and poised to type, that surely nobody sane considers anonymous discussion boards or wack job attack campaigns genuine forums of democratic debate. True, but it is nevertheless instructive to watch how our fellow citizens talk to each other over the issues of the day. And consider the more serious case of political attack ads. Though widely decried by citizens, polls demonstrate that they are still sometimes effective. That gives all parties a strong motive to use them. Once the last resort of dying election campaigns, such ads are now the norm even for the party in power, launched pre-emptively in place of the former convention of messages that outlined competing platforms. Remember platforms? Where parties would set out what they believed in, rather than attacking the competing guy as a doofus, a cynic, an opportunist? Those were the days.

The claims that negative ads excite political energy and hence are good for discourse—yes, some people claim to believe this—fall down when we observe that their effect is spiralling nonsense from the start. An attack ad is a deliberate appeal to unreason through fear, hatred, or suspicion, and suggests primarily that the attacking party has nothing rational to offer. If we let discursive idiocy of this order succeed, we really would be a sad lot; but the fact is, attack ads don’t even work reliably, which means a party that resorts to them is being stupid as well as rude. The motive of positional advantage is so compelling a goal, however, that the cycle goes on and on, until the incessant and short-sighted name-calling blankets a miasma of disgust over the entire public sphere.

And if you doubt that these incivility ratchets can disable forums of democratic debate more important than television—well, the Visitors’ Gallery is open. At least, it is sometimes.

Question: what is the only thing worse than un-civil discourse? Answer: no discourse at all.

The genius of parliamentary supremacy is its flexibility; unfortunately, that is also its central weakness. Stephen Harper’s prorogues of Parliament, especially the recent bogus, Colvin-inspired Olympics timeout, exhibit an all-too-familiar degree of cynicism about the institutions of democracy. Even Harper might have realized that he had crossed some kind of line when the generally conservative editors of The Economist denounced his “naked self-interest” in asserting that “Canadians care more about the luge than the legislature.”

Self-interest is not the issue; neither is it whether Canadians are always vigilant about watching Parliament. In a good system, we are not required to be; that’s why it’s called representative government. We trust elected politicians to maintain our interests, not just their own. The real issue is Harper’s breach of trust, and his implicit war on the very idea of political discourse. These bland clampdowns on debate are worse than any swapping of rowdy jibes inside the chamber, and underline this government’s status as the great spoilsport of modern Canadian politics. Begging off on technical grounds (the governor general said it was okay) or floating tactical comparisons to Jean Chrétien (I know you are, but what am I?) just confirm the case. In the first instance, the argument is factually valid, even while clearly in violation of the spirit of the law, not to mention the public interest. And on the second point—well, maybe nobody taught the young Stephen Harper the celebrated dictum that two wrongs don’t make a right.

The claims that nobody cares about this constitutional law stuff, meanwhile, were given the lie over and over. Ordinary citizens complained bitterly at the disappearance of the one piece of semi-transparent governance in our whole system. That, at least, is reassuring, in the way that terrorism-inspired acts of airline passenger heroism are reassuring. We should not have to resort to the threat of badness in order to highlight goodness, but better that than no goodness at all. La Rochefoucauld said hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, and Harper’s hypocrisy cast a bright light on the dedication of many Canadians to the project of democratic discourse.

Such is the good news. The bad news is that some serious damage has already been done, and a larger danger raised than the possibility that Harper will continue in his dismantling of legitimacy, busting new moves in this provincial game of Goon King of the Hill. He will do that until Canadians stop him. No, the real danger is that the value of discourse may be permanently lowered in the Canadian polity. Even the protests are part of that devaluation, so long as they go ignored. Look, you can object all you want; you just can’t change anything.

The only possible philosophical justification for a parliamentary system, where legislative and executive functions are mixed, is that it remains open to challenge from within as it crafts and executes policy. The checks and balances have to be realized in the act of law-making. This openness should generate healthy debate at all levels—that is the point. Citizens are willing to tolerate a certain amount of rough talk to that end, so long as the rudeness does not generate a collective action problem in the form of parliamentary chaos. Pierre Trudeau’s “fuddle-duddle” episode of 1971, in which he allegedly mouthed the words “fuck off” to an Opposition MP and then told reporters it might have been something like “fuddle-duddle,” did not generate one, in part because it was not deployed for discursive advantage. It was just what an expletive should be: a slightly shocking intervention that snaps your eyes open, like a good joke. And it was only mouthed, not spoken.

Speaking of good jokes, where is the wit in parliamentary debate? Nobody expects the member from Whosit Centre to be Disraeli or Sheridan reborn, but how about a little leavening, at least? Wit, and maybe its natural counterpart, ideas. It is becoming harder and harder to remember that Michael Ignatieff was once hailed as the new Trudeau, the intellectual as leader. Having tied himself in knots trying to keep his scholarly credentials and American-identity flirtations at a distance, even as he failed miserably in the role of ordinary guy, he has become a man in desperate search of an identity. Partly this is just what we shall have to label the Hortons Constraint, or the Tim Block, of Canadian politics. If you want to get elected, you cannot be seen to prefer Starbucks’ coffee to Timmy’s brown brew, any more than you could openly avow atheism in that grand residence on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Instead of dealing with these challenges gracefully, by finding a populist payload for innovative political ideas, Ignatieff has preferred to disavow his former incarnation as a thinker. Typically, he has gone ever further, giving himself permission to dis intellectuals in general, from his new perspective as a real-world actor. But even that would be tolerable, if somewhat pathetic personally, were the basic ideas of rejuvenated liberalism or the just society still somehow in play. But they’re not. Ignatieff’s Liberals have been powerless during these recent abuses of Parliament, because his guiding role as chief articulator of policy is nowhere evident. The initial Liberal response to prorogation was… yes, attack ads targeting a scary Harper with “something to hide.”

To be fair, the responses grew in both thought and power as the popular outcry unfolded, getting back to the anti-democraticfoolishness of the move. But they did little to suggest that Ignatieff was his own man. His glossy new pragmatism on prorogation was both in the grand Liberal tradition of stealing platform planks from the New Democrats and of a pace with his habit of being both for and against just about everything, dislocating his shoulders trying to agree with everyone at once. Torture? Yes, but no. The Alberta oil sands? Yes, but no.

This sort of thing gives pragmatic politics a bad name, as in compromise and blowing with the wind rather than commitment to a process of debate and justification. Civility does not mean you never take a stand or disagree with someone else. That, after all, is what good politicians do. Civility means that you take those stands and argue those disagreements for the sake of the discourse itself, for its continued openness and vibrancy. So policy-making will not be a matter of brokering interests while shadowing the incumbency, opposition will not be a series of tired attacks, and governance as a whole will not consist merely of one damn punch after another. Good policy will emerge from good government. Duh.

It is customary to offer a hortatory conclusion to this topic, akin to the well-meant but paradoxical “Be more polite, goddammit!” Instead, let me offer something more in the spirit of pragmatic discourse, which is really about the virtues of citizenship.

An argument, in politics or anything else, can be approached at least two ways. If we agree with the position, we are inclined to identify with the argument, tucking it away for future use. This is what fancy theorists call a hermeneutics of belief. If, by contrast, we disagree with the position, we tend to investigate the argument, looking for where it went wrong. Call this a hermeneutics of suspicion. The irony is that the latter stretches the mind far more than the former, but most people do not turn the tables and investigate their own ideas. Yet only by doing so can we come to see the weaknesses, as well as the strengths, of what we already believe.

It is sometimes said that literacy is the software of democracy. Let’s be more accurate, and more demanding. The real software of democracy is not bare literacy, which permits and even enjoys all manner of rhetorical nonsense and short-sighted demagoguery. It is political literacy, the ability to engage in critical dialogue with ideas both agreeable and disagreeable, interests that align with ours and those that do not. We need to learn this skill, run it, and revise it constantly by repeated engagements. We must be prepared to sacrifice something we value, for the sake of the larger good. That is, finally, the only thing I or anyone could mean by “civility.”

The point is not, it never has been, that civility is some abstractly good thing, a nice idea. If we do not repair our political conversation, if we do not demand that elected leaders speak rationally if they want to go on claiming the privilege of our interest, then we all lose. Collective self-defeat. And when that happens, when Stephen and Michael’s insult swapping and bogus claims have filled the conversational air to such a degree that we can no longer hear, let alone appreciate, a sane voice with a good idea, a just idea—when that happens, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.

Who else?

Mark Kingwell
Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.
Alain Pilon
Alain Pilon has drawn for such publications as The Atlantic and the New York Times.