Posted Thu, Aug 12, 2010

In his 1961 Inaugural Address, President John F. Kennedy admonished both sides of the Cold War divide that “civility is not a sign of weakness”, neither a flaw to be exploited nor a soft underbelly to be probed. Fifty years later we need to remind ourselves of this essential truth. Far from representing a sign of weakness, civility is an essential component of a healthy, vibrant democracy that encourages civic engagement and the frank discussion of opposing perspectives in the public square.

Whether spoken or keyed-in, words are powerful tools and can be used for good or ill. Sadly, the general decline in societal courtesy is sharply reflected in the diminution of civil discourse, which depends to a great extent on finding the balance between the fundamental right of free expression and the need for respect and, dare I say, graciousness, in dealing with one another on sensitive issues.

Now, vigourous debates on contentious issues benefit from hearing a wide variety of voices and views, irrespective of labels such as “moderate” and “extremist.” But the flip side of this is that such engagement must play by some basic rules so that everyone is working toward a shared purpose. As foreign conflicts increasingly play out on Canadian soil—the Middle East is one example but surely not the only one—we are drifting from the central proposition that while civility may emerge from dialogue, it is also a vital precondition for it.

The time has come to re-commit to a dialogue of decency, reject the poison pen, and reinforce our shared commitment to the integrity of the public square.

In Canada, differences between groups of people and cultures are generally recognized as a potential source of enrichment of Canadian life and culture. But to achieve that potential, all of us, whether born here or recently-arrived, must accept that while passionate political views can be freely expressed, such discourse must be conducted in ways compatible with basic Canadian values. These include, among others, democracy, civility, social harmony, and respect for the rule of law. Incitement to hatred and violence is not consistent with these core Canadian values, should not be considered protected as legitimate free expression and must be unambiguously and forcefully denounced. We must not allow civility of discourse to become the victim of the very open, accommodating society we have created at the core of Canada’s commitment to multiculturalism.

The issue of civil discourse plays out in different, but no less problematic, ways in today’s on-line world. In many blogs, chat rooms and comment sections what passes for dialogue and commentary are often polemical rants that brook no discussion or counter-argument. All-too-many internet bloggers and commentators on both the right and the left pose as champions of unfettered expressive rights and then disparage those with whom they who disagree as fools or proponents of censorship. Rather than fostering a climate for the cut-and-thrust of civil debate to flourish, the blogosphere and news comment sections of on-line sites too often resort to the skewering of the other with tasteless ad hominem attacks that ignore the merits of the case.

As Canadians, we should be capable of shrugging off slight offences but many bloggers and comment posters go well beyond the bounds of decency to target people of opposing viewpoints with personal insults directed at, inter alia, their intelligence, disabilities, or faith.

Social networking seems to thrive without filters, whether for politeness and courtesy or for attention to grammar, syntax and spelling. To some this is the charm of social media, to others, its gravest weakness. Alas, with its potential for anonymity and its cult of speed, it may be too much to ask the blogosphere to eschew the attack mode in favour of thoughtful public parley. Text without context is pretext, and there is precious little context in the agenda-driven world of sound-bites and 140-character limits.

Last month, the Buffalo News announced that it would no longer accept anonymous posts commenting on its on-line news stories. Predictably, this apparently unprecedented policy attracted polarized reviews. Opponents played the free expression and “hidden agenda” cards. On the other hand, according to the newspaper’s editor, supporters, “…are relieved that the astonishingly hateful and venomous commentary on news stories will likely be restrained once people have to identify themselves. They are hoping for a measure of civility, without the loss of wide-ranging discussion and diverse viewpoints.”

She added, “We’ve tried the other way, living in the anonymous Wild West world, for more than a year, and are ready for something else.” Good for them. There is no need for civility and trenchancy to be mutually exclusive and I hope this policy catches on.

It’s also worth remembering that the second part of JFK’s Inaugural Address call for civility was a reminder that “sincerity is always subject to proof.” It is time for bloggers, Internet commentators and all those engaged in dialogue in the public square to commit to civil discourse and actually mean it.

BY: Eric Vernon, Director of Government Relations and International Affairs, Canadian Jewish Congress

One of Canada's leading experts on antisemitism and human rights, Bernie M. Farber is the National Chief Executive Officer of Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC).

Mr. Farber has spent more than 20 years with CJC, battling hatred and racism and strengthening relationships with police services, government and other ethnic and faith communities across the country.

The recipient of countless awards, Mr. Farber is an associate member of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, and was recently selected by the Ontario government to serve as a member of the Hate Crimes Community Working Group. He also serves with the city of Vaughan Mayor's Task Force on Community Safety and Security and the York Regional Police Community Crime Prevention Advisory Council.

Mr. Farber is a published author and has contributed numerous articles on the Jewish political scene, human rights issues, the Holocaust, hate crime and white supremacy to newspapers and periodicals including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Toronto Star, and many others.


Eric Vernon was born in Toronto in 1953. He was educated at the University of Toronto, University of Waterloo and Ohio State University, in history and political science.

For over twenty years, Mr. Vernon has been the principal lobbyist in Ottawa of the Canadian Jewish Congress, the lead advocacy organization for Canada's Jewish communities and UJA Federations.

In 1987, he established the Ottawa Advocacy Office of Canadian Jewish Congress and is currently the Director of Government Relations for CJC. In these capacities he has written numerous briefs, op-eds, position papers and correspondence on national legislation, public policy, and international issues affecting Canada and its Jewish community, including antisemitism, Israel and Holocaust commemoration.

Mr. Vernon has performed a wide range of advocacy duties with federal Members of Parliament and Senators, senior public servants, government agencies, members of the diplomatic corps and representatives of other non-governmental organizations. In conjunction with these duties he has staffed several Congress committees, represented CJC at inter-faith tables, organized conferences and been involved in legislative and social policy development for CJC on a variety of domestic and international issues.