One of my favourite stories about Canadian politics (just when we thought you couldn’t possibly get any more insufferable — ed.) involves Dalton Camp. It may be just about the best illustration, not only of the points I want to make about civility, but about conservatism itself — and why it needs to be rescued.
I’m not going to try to give a comprehensive history of either conservatism in Canada or the Progressive Conservative Party. I’m referring to Mr. Camp because, it says here, he personifies the Red Tory tradition, and the kind of decency and civility that badly needs to be restored to public life in general and to Canadian political discourse in particular. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone with more than two brain cells that the public conversation has been debased, shot through with venom and hostility, and dragged into the gutter over the past couple of decades; reversing that trend is in everyone’s best interest, except perhaps those who benefit from it.
Imagine a gentler time, when political differences did not lead automatically to scorched-earth hatred. You didn’t have to agree with your opponents, but you could acknowledge there was merit in their arguments, that they were decent human beings, and that at the end of the day, you were all committed to … The Public Good. You could argue, you could seek advantage, you could undermine, contradict and mischaracterize, but once it was all done, you could sit down with them and have a beer. (I know, I know. Not everyone has a cabinet full of sherry and a closet full of tweed jackets with elbow patches.)
I’m not about to nominate Dalton Camp for sainthood. Anyone acquainted with Canadian political history knows about his role in bringing down John Diefenbaker. But while I wasn’t there, I’m fairly certain he never used words like “gravy train,” “teat-sucker,” “despicable,” “pathetic,” “union scum,” “silly socialist,” “illegal coup,” or “child pornographers” in his public or political life. Maybe it’s just a naive delusion on my part, but for me, politics as practiced by Dalton Camp involved camaraderie, reaching out to your opponents, and a willingness to set partisanship aside occasionally for the sake of the greater good. Decency. Such a quaint notion.
Anyway, the story. I wish I had video of this, but some years ago, Dalton Camp appeared on a televised panel discussion with some worthless little pisher whom I will not identify. Suffice it to say that said little pisher is among the worst offenders in terms of venom, gutter politics, name-calling, and smearing; he’s exactly the sort of malignant tumour that needs to be excised from both contemporary discourse and conservatism itself. So there’s Dalton Camp, trying to make his points in a calm, quiet, reasonable way, and listening to the others like the decent and honourable gentleman he is — and there’s the little pisher, jumping up and down, interrupting, shouting down Camp and the other panelists, and giving a perfect demonstration of what it means to be an obnoxious jerk. I wanted to reach into the TV and smack him. To this day, I will never forget the expression on Camp’s face. It wasn’t disgust — it was incomprehension. If I had to read minds, I’d suspect he just could not fathom how anyone could possibly be so ill-mannered, let alone be invited to mix with decent people or debate public affairs.
That episode symbolizes almost everything that’s gone wrong with public conversation. Over the past few decades, we’ve allowed it to be dominated by the tabloid-press screamers, the talk-radio yellers, and the barking monkeys of lowbrow cable-news TV, and the effect is obvious. Instead of discussion, we have insults. Instead of reason, we have name-calling. Instead of respect, we have gleeful contempt. There’s no reflection, no nuance, no critical thought, no exchange — just the continuing cultivation of stupidity and debasement of conversation itself. And it’s hard to see how that can be anything but antithetical to the public good. Difficult though it may be, it’s past time to push back. Once again, I’ll recycle my own argument:
Listening to your neighbours and giving your opponents the benefit of the doubt isn’t a sign of weakness, and it isn’t a class thing either. And by the same token, demonizing, misrepresenting, name-calling and smearing isn’t a civic virtue. It contaminates public discourse and lowers us all, and it needs to be called out for what it is.
The other element, of course, is inclusion. In case it isn’t obvious by now, I’m a straight white guy, and because of that, I enjoy privileges that many people don’t. Straight white guys could remind themselves of that every now and then, and consider that other people have to face barriers to participation that they never even perceive. So while you’re working to revive the public good and encourage civic participation and enable decency in public discourse, spare a thought for your friends and fellow citizens who aren’t straight, white and / or male — and make room for them.
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