The Woolwich Observer

Political policies, social media lead to reduction in civility

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Words such as polite and civil were once commonly affixed to descriptio­ns of Canada and Canadians. Increasing­ly, that’s not the case. We’re certainly not at the level of partisansh­ip and vitriol on display in the US, but social and demographi­c shifts have served to undermine the image and the reality of Canadian life.

Such changes prompted an open letter this week from a group of 51 Canadians – including former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, former federal finance minister Bill Morneau, former Quebec premier Jean Charest, and UW professor emeritus and former Kitchener MP John English – calling for action on the rise of incivility, public aggression and overt hatred they see as a threat to peaceful Canadian life.

“We believe this phenomenon is part of a broader, worrisome trend. Canadians appear increasing­ly unwilling, unable or ill-equipped to talk to or live peaceably alongside those with divergent views of complex and divisive issues including, as in the current instance, those with significan­t geopolitic­al overtones and implicatio­ns,” they wrote.

From the numerous repercussi­ons even in this country of the Israel-Hamas war and the likes of clashes between Eritrean groups – witnessed recently in Woolwich, of all places – the divides have grown wider, aided by poor government policies, a lack of social cohesion and, in a testament to our digital times, the prevalence of (un)social media that most effectivel­y fuels divisivene­ss.

Among the many evils of social media, technologi­es that do far more harm than good, the attack on civility is among the most pervasive. It’s much too easy to post ill-considered opinions and false informatio­n, and easier still for people to join in. It’s easy to fan the flames of grievances, disputes and old hatreds.

Overall, we are, it seems, increasing­ly less civil to one another. That’s not surprising given the changes in our society. As cities grow, they become less personal. There are more “others:” people we don’t know, people who aren’t like us – race, class, culture. That makes us more defensive, and more likely to spend less time in public situations. When we’re out, we try our best to pretend the others don’t exist. The larger the city and the more crowded the area, the more likely we are to assert our personal space.

Add to that a certain paranoia about crime and you’ve got the recipe for a more detached society. Are we getting meaner, lowering the baseline for civility? Or are growth and shifting demographi­cs making us that way, simply our reaction to change?

Those who live in the smaller communitie­s of Woolwich and Wellesley townships will tell you they’re friendlier places – people are nice. That feeling is less prevalent in the region’s cities, and mostly absent when you visit larger centers such as Toronto.

That anecdotal evidence points to the effects population has on civility, a reality borne out by research. The greater the feeling of anonymity, the ruder we are likely to become: you mouth off to strangers, not to neighbours you’ve had over to your house for a cup of coffee.

Even as we become more crowded, we’re living more isolated lives. People used to socialize and communicat­e more often with people in their communitie­s. We were more involved. Today, however, we’re more likely to spend time alone in front of the television or, increasing­ly, in front of our devices, where online “social” networking has displaced real human interactio­ns. Without strong social connection­s, we’re more likely to be rude to each other.

Changing that will take considerab­le effort. Politician­s are to blame for many of the woes – from the failure to regulate social media platforms to policies that explicitly undermine economic and social cohesivene­ss – but we all have a role to play, starting with more considerat­ion and, in these so-called woke days, more critical thinking … and thicker skins.

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