Where has civility gone?

Public dialogue and civic literacy are more important today than ever, yet our space for discussion is shrinking due to decreasing civility and violence over differing perspectives. I am reminded of Samuel Pay, a French schoolteacher in France who was beheaded by a militant Islamist on October 16th, for the caricatures he used for teaching the importance of free speech.

Current public controversies drive home the point that Canadian democracy could do with more active listening aimed at enabling both ‘expert’ and broader public views, never mind calls for greater civility in the House of Commons. Question Period in Parliament has a certain entertainment value, though really what is needed is ‘space’ for serious and substantive dialogue, reflection and advancing deeper understanding and literacy among the wider Canadian public. American-style ‘debate’ between polarized sides more closely resembles professional wrestling than any kind of substantive discourse likely to intelligently inform public policy. The very fact that positions are rarely seen as having more than a simple ‘pro vs. con’ dimension reinforces this simplistic and theatrical approach to debate, as opposed to civil discourse.

The global pandemic, health care reforms, pipeline debates, climate change adaptation and mitigation, for example; problems are getting more and more complex, wicked and messy, and beyond the scope of any one community or sector of this country to solve. They demand unprecedented and new ways of conversation and collaboration between decision-makers, private and public sector leaders, practitioners and civil society.

This is why I started the virtual real-time e-Dialogues when I first joined Royal Roads in the year 2000. A space for researchers, practitioners and civil society leaders to come together virtually to discuss critical public policy issues. There are now over 100 of these conversations featured on Changing the Conversation. We question whether or not we are even answering the tough questions to get us to more sustainable futures, and even more critically now with COVID-19?

How do we transform our highly centralized energy grid to integrate more and more decentralized renewable energy sources? What training programs can we build to transition the lower paid retail employees, mostly female, who have been thrown out of work and are now entering shelters when they can no longer pay their rent, oil and gas employees? Where are the transition strategies for moving to a carbon neutral economy from where we are today to 2050? What are strategies for dealing with stranded assets (oil and gas that should remain in the ground)? How do we regain basic civility and meaningful discourse, never more important as the recent American election has demonstrated?

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