Wednesday, 15 April 2009

On "Civility", Again...

We've seen this movie before. I have already delivered my criteria for on-line civility, while noting that the virtue itself is somewhat overrated. I have come to believe nothing a year later that subtracts from the truth of that post. I still believe that a gentleman's only duty is to never offend anybody unintentionally and that the real challenge is to "retain the form of civility while in full process of being bloody offensive to someone on whom genuine civility would be wasted".

That said, I was moved today to leave a lengthy comment at Olaf's place which describes more discursively than does last year's post the way I approach civility and define its limits. Given that I've been invited to "take a shower" after my last post by the ever-ironically Puritanical Tomm, an importation of that comment might be both germane and timely. Apologies to those who've already read this at Olaf's.

Some context: Olaf mentioned that he's been "inspired" to try to moderate the partisanship of his critiques and to refrain from making sweeping, demonising generalisations about his ideological opponents (except "hippies" and "counter-cultural" types; they're still in his cross-hairs!). I told him not to try too hard. Here's a slightly edited version of my comment:


Would we still be reading Swift's A Modest Proposal if it were a clinical, respectful, "fair and balanced" review of British trade policy in Eighteenth-century Ireland? Fuck that. An hyperbolic rant about callous Whigs serving up Irish babies au jus? Now that's an instant classic.

We should keep in mind that not all generalisations are illegitimate. Some are defensible, while others require vigorous substantiation. For example, I would feel free to say that the vast majority of earnest, committed CPC supporters are economic and cultural continentalists. Now, this view may be contested as a generalisation (in fact, it is), but I doubt if I would be at a loss for relatively persuasive proof. The same could be said for the view that most committed Liberal supporters favour strong, bureaucratised gun control: I think the burden of proof would be on someone who controverted that assumption. Likewise, can we credibly suggest that most Taliban militants are misogynists? I think so. Generalisations must always be deployed carefully and honestly, but I'm not sure that one can or should place them under total proscription.

Ethical (rather than ideological) generalisations are more worrying, and perhaps these are what you specifically wish to target. If so, you're really pleading for what's known as "parliamentary language", one of the breaches of which is the attempt to "impute motives" to an opponent.

As a kid, I found this issue puzzling: I couldn't understand why it was unparliamentary to base an argument on your own (presumably honestly derived) assumption about what your opponent meant to accomplish through his words and deeds. I'm not sure I fully understand it even now, but I think the rule is a purely functional one, designed to keep debate focused: if you assume the guy is malicious, and if you persuade the House of your view, you then get to call the guy an "asshole" with impunity. If you're prevented from acting on your assumption (which may even be correct), you're limited to arguing that the guy is wrong, and that he needs to amend his policy.

Again, though, context is crucial. Is it credible to say that members of the CPC, NDP, BQ, or LPC actually wish to inflict harm on others? Of course not. Is it true that LPC and CPC government policies have hurt people? Of course it is.

The question becomes, then, is it valid to impute motives (and profanely, as I often do) to those government gestures that are definable not just in the abstract (e.g. tax rates, trade policy, Senate reform, etc.) but in their concrete, undeniable effects? Is it valid to call someone an "asshole" (or a party a "party of assholes") when he or they are indifferent or even gleeful before the catastrophic consequences of party policy? The answers are clear, in my view.

Take the case of Adelrazik, about which I'm passionate. In a parallel universe, I'm not sure I would feel compelled to impute motives to a government that brought in a bill making it illegal for Canadians placed on the U.N. no-fly list to return home if travelling abroad. Would I think the bill misguided? Yes. Draconian? Sure. I wouldn't call the party a bunch of "assholes", though--perhaps more a bunch of jurisprudential amateurs who need a crash course in constitutional law.

Now, in our universe, do I feel free to impute motives to two governments (Martin's and Harper's) who have effectively stripped a citizen of his dignity because of a situation either one could have changed at literally the stroke of a pen? You bet I do. This is one occasion when being wrong bleeds into being an asshole, and I feel not the slightest reservation about pointing that out.

Ultimately, those who are unwilling to impute motives under any circumstances are forgetting a key political distinction-- the difference between basically well-meaning legislators whose faults are grounded in incompetence and inexperience and venal hacks motivated by fear, ignorance and gratuitous misanthropy. It's a fundamental difference, and it's the only electorally meaningful one for political orphans like me. It's the difference between the tragi-comic but harmless Dion and the disciplined but odious Harper. The ethical implications of that difference explain why I could grumblingly tolerate the former and why I despise the latter.


rumor said...

Well said, DT. You put your finger on an internal struggle I've been having for some time concerning the (mis)use of generalizations. I think you've find the correct answer.

rumor said...

Found. You've found.


Ti-Guy said...

Sorry to go off-topic, but I noticed Olaf mentionned on his blog that he's a dual American/Canadian citizen. I think much is explained. Dual loyalities are really incompatible with the Canadian incarnation of the nation state and civic identity. The intellectual discombobulation is similar to what pro-Isreal Jewish Canadians and federalist Québécois experience, for which they have my sympathies.

Ryan said...

Sanctify them in truth, I say.

Sir Francis said...

I noticed Olaf mentionned[sic] on his blog that he's a dual American/Canadian citizen. As parochial and uncosmopolitan as it might sound, I've never been comfortable with dual citizenship, for the reasons you mention. I can't see how one's citizenship can be authentic when one's loyalty is divided.

I've been bludgeoned mercilessly for this view by many, including Red Tory (who's a dual citizen, I believe).

Aeneas the Younger said...


I'm with you on the divided loyalty angle. Someone suggested to me in the 1980's that I should have dual-citizenship (for some economic reason), and then was quite shocked at how appalled I was by the idea.

Common allegiance to an undivided Crown I get - because that is the Canadian tradition, but a shared loyalty with the American Republic?!

I will never understand that.

Aeneas the Younger said...

Of course I choose to go down with the ship - there is more honour in that ...

Aeneas the Younger said...

But then again, I AM half-reactionary (according to Red) ... !

Sir Francis said...


I AM half-reactionary... Heh. I'm afraid the both of us are all reactionary, given the current cultural climate...

Ti-Guy said...

I've been bludgeoned mercilessly for this view by many, including Red Tory (who's a dual citizen, I believe).I don't believe that's correct about Red. And Olaf has now explained that it was a joke; that he's not dual citizen. But I think divided loyalties is a big issue among a good proportion of Canadians who've been thoroughly Americanised.

Thus, a pressing need for re-education camps...or at least a few more of your delicious anti-American rants.

Can I pay you for one? After reading this pile of crap this morning, which is all too drearily common these days, I'm in dire need.

On the issue of dual citizenship, I don't much care. I think you should commit to the community and the culture in which you are living and if can't do that (and there's no shame in that), leave.

Sir Francis said...

I don't believe that's correct about Red.

Red's definitely a dual UK/Canadian citizen. The issue came up on his old blog, when Dion was being teased by some BT's about his dual French/Canadian citizenship. Red argued that it was a non-issue, that he felt offended by it, and that he would retain his UK passport and leave the country if he were ever made to choose between citizenships.

Thus, a pressing need for re-education camps...
In my darker moments, I tend to espouse the method Michael Collins used to deal with pro-British collaborators, but re-education camps would do in a pinch. Would they not be education camps, though--tout court?

...a few more of your delicious anti-American rants.
Oh, I've got plenty more of those in store. Ahh...I love my work...

Ti-Guy said...

Red's definitely a dual UK/Canadian citizen.Oh, sorry. I was thinking duel American/Canadian citizenship.

I missed that discussion, for some reason.

Would they not be education camps, though--tout court?

We'll call them "residential schools." That has a nice, warm ring to it.

Oh, I've got plenty more of those in store. Ahh...I love my work.

Especially since a batch of torture memos was released today.

Pardon me while I retch.

liberal supporter said...

O.T. Sir Francis, I would be interested in your opinion of this. A return to some of the conservative tradition? Or the usual shameless pandering?

Sir Francis said...


A return to some of the conservative tradition? Or the usual shameless pandering?

A bit of both, perhaps--as it always has been. Sir John A. could pander with the best of them, God rest his soul!

I shall reserve judgement until I see how this orientation affects Liberal policy. Those Liberals who have tended to talk this way (Turner, Gordon, Orchard, etc.) have all been destroyed--often by other Liberals.

I'm not sure I think highly of Ignatieff's East-West energy grid obsession. I think he's overstating its power as a national unifier. Surely, such a grid would be a symptom of an already engaged re-commitment to unity. He's putting the cart before the horse there.

A national energy grid makes a lot of sense, but not because it's going to make the provinces all love each other. It will not.

Ti-Guy said...

but not because it's going to make the provinces all love each other.

Was that ever a pan-Canadian ideal? I've always been happy with inter-provincial indifference or the absence of pronounced hatred. I'd very much welcome a re-invigoration of federal institutions, particular those involving transportation, communication and energy security.

Anyway, do you intend to read True Patriot Love? After reading this, I don't think I'd have the energy for it.

I've never like Ignatieff's prose and I'm still very suspicious about just how well he understands the country.

Sir Francis said...


Your hotlink didn't come through. What was it pointing to?

I've not read much Ignatieff. I read The Needs of Strangers ages ago; I found it passable (perhaps because I was just an impressionable kid).

I found Blood and Belonging tendentious and superficial--which is pretty much how I would describe most of Ignatieff's recent journalism. I find the man a reasonably good prose stylist but a shallow thinker--perhaps our answer to Christopher Hitchens. I've certainly never come across anything of Ignatieff's that could hold a candle to say, early Laurendeau or either of Trudeau's or Pelletier's work for Cité Libre.

As to True Patriot Love, I may pick it up after it wends its way into the remainder bin at Chapters—in a few weeks, I’ll wager. I may go to the book launch at the old St. Brigid’s Church, just a few blocks away from my place. If I do, I’ll be sure to get an autograph for you, Ti. ;)

And I shall report back on whether I think the eyebrows are fake…

Ti-Guy said...

Ewps. Here's the link.

Sir Francis said...


Valpy's editorial sallies at Ignatieff's book are more provocative than anything in the book itself, it would seem.

Ignatieff's apparent aim was to provide the usual liberal critique of Lament. I like the way Valpy points out that Grant was aware of and dealt with the criticisms Ignatieff seems to feel are novel and unanswerable.

Valpy puts Ignatieff's intellectual superficiality on full display. At one point, Ignatieff says something like, "I like markets, because I like their freedoms," as if there's an ineluctable equation between "free" markets and political freedom--something that would come as a huge surprise to Saudi Arabians, Indonesians, Egyptians, and so many others. Wasn't Apartheid South Africa capitalist? Pinochet-era Chile? Batista-era Cuba?

Valpy also notes the uncanny coincidence of the book's publication and Ignatieff's looming candidacy for prime minister. What better time to promote himself as a "patriot" than now, especially when he knows bloody well that one of the CPC's "frames" is going to be his alleged un-Canadianness?

Like I said, the book launch may provide a diverting spectacle, but I'll likely pass on the book.

Ti-Guy said...

Like I said, the book launch may provide a diverting spectacle.

Go. Try to steal a tray of canapés.