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What a walk in the park says about our civic culture

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Photo: flickr/West Annex News

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My family was enjoying a splendid walk through Toronto's High Park, the local pond glistening under bright rays of sunshine. It was a cathartic escape from a pulsating city.

Then our dog was attacked. A much larger, off leash dog charged towards our guy ostensibly wanting to play but absent the appropriate etiquette. Already favouring a sensitive paw, our dog slipped, yelped and got entangled in his own leash with the other dog. My curt reminder to the other dog's owner that he was in an "on leash" area was met with a request for proof, followed by a string of obscenities. My dog's bleeding paw was, apparently, not his concern.

Seething, I tried not to submit to the cynicism of our times or attach a larger meaning to this event. This was an isolated incident I told myself, just one guy having a bad day, it happens to all of us.

Yet the man's defensiveness, unwillingness to take responsibility, and apparent insensitivity for the suffering of others, was for me symbolic of the type of civic culture being nurtured by too many in positions of power, and too passively accepted by the rest of us.

It is this civic culture that produced a Rob Ford Mayoralty. In fact, the incident in the park had all the characteristics of a typical Ford press conference -- ignore, deny, attack.

To many, the Mayor's leadership has been defined by incivility and ignorance: repeated ethical lapses, bullying behavior, and an interpretation of policy facts that is so far beyond political spin it deserves its own word.

Nevertheless, in the preceding election Ford successfully leveraged such slogans as "respect for taxpayers," ending the "war on the car" and stopping "the gravy train" into a decisive victory.

These expressions of sophistry found resonance not for their ingenuity but because the public discourse, across the country, had changed.

The politics of division is a real thing, and it goes deeper than an uncivil discourse.

Consider, a celebrity tycoon unabashedly declared on national television that "greed is good"; a senior cabinet minister recently asked "is it my job to feed my neighbour's child?"; a bank economist has lamented arts majors who fail to make "profitable decisions" with their degree choices; our Prime Minister once pronounced that "there is no such thing as a good tax."

These statements aim to undermine our notions of fairness, compassion, education, and citizenship. In the name of private benefit and partisan interest, communities suffer.

There are places to find solace however.

In his conception of Canadian mythology, philosopher John Ralston Saul describes this country as an ever widening circle, welcoming and tolerant of others.

This concept is closer to the idea that sharing, not self-interest, is what is most intrinsic to our democracy.

We share rights and benefits which have fostered one of the most tolerant and robust societies in the world. We also share responsibilities to maintain peace, order, and community well-being.

In his book The World We Want: Virtue, Vice, and the Good Citizen, academic Mark Kingwell similarly defines modern citizenship through the prism of sharing.

We have the foundation needed to develop a new discourse, one that is more consistent with, say, the inherent Canadianess of our character. Some specific initiatives to support this endeavour should include: 

  • Encourage a culture of service. This is not a partisan idea. Politicians as diverse as Mike Harris and Justin Trudeau have pursued policies that would encourage volunteerism and community engagement. Governments at all levels should take up the torch.

  • Enact measures to improve civility. The bullying behavior we recoil from in our schools we reward in our politics. There are many reasons for this but the proliferation of year round attack ads contribute greatly. In Shopping for Votes, journalist Susan Delacourt raises the very sensible suggestion that political parties be subject to the same Advertising Standards Canada code of conduct private companies are.

  • Recognize and invest in civics and arts education. Imagine what we could achieve if we channeled some of our energy spent worrying about the slightest dip in math test scores into developing a comprehensive strategy to promote higher civic literacy.

For my dog's part, he recovered quickly. After first collecting his dignity, he then collected a stick and proceeded to romp through the woods. His perseverance and sunny disposition is motivation for all of us who seek more civil and just communities.

Christopher Holcroft is Principal of Empower Consulting and led the Civil Election initiative during the 2011 federal campaign.

Photo: flickr/West Annex News

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