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Sunday, August 30, 2015

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Quebec teaches us a valuable lesson in civility

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Bernie Farber

Last month, we learned a valuable lesson about public discourse. And it came from, of all places, Quebec.

Former premier Pauline Marois should have won the provincial election handily. She believed that by playing the intolerance and bully cards, Quebecers would finally hand her the majority she craved.

The Parti Québécois’ proposed “charter of values” – I called it the charter of intolerance – that made certain faith groups second-class citizens was her touchstone. Targeting those who wear kippahs, niqabs and turbans, Marois believed she had found the secret ingredient that would bind most Québécois together. She was wrong. Yet intolerance, bullying and libel are still very much with us.

A recent editorial in this newspaper outlined the parameters of acceptable behaviour. Kol hakavod to editor Yoni Goldstein for articulating a modern worldview utilizing the ancient Jewish concept of lashon hara (the sin of the evil tongue).

According to Jewish law, any statement  – written or verbal – that leads to hurt or humiliation or damages the well-being of another is lashon hara. More serious is the sin of defamation, or motzi shem ra. Judaism strongly recognizes the importance of one’s character and the danger of gossip and slander. And perhaps much to the chagrin of those who claim to hold the truth as a defence, in Judaism, no such defense exists. In Jewish law, the only deciding factor is whether the statement causes harm.

Thus you would think that Jews more than most would know better. Sadly, too many who publish bigoted political blogs that utilize bullying words and the worst forms of both lashon hara and motzi shem ra come from our own community

In the past, it was difficult for bullies to gain a public pulpit. Letters to newspapers were closely monitored to ensure that slander and intimidation were not published. Likewise for magazines and TV. Professional mainstream media, for the most part, undertook the responsibility to self-regulate. Today, anyone can publish anything and distribute it through blogs, Twitter and Facebook to potentially thousands in the blink of an eye.

Whether from the hard right, where many of these blogs originate, or the far left, which also engages in personal attacks, it’s time we return civility to public discourse.

Make no mistake: I’m not advocating that uncivil behaviour be regulated. I suppose people have a right to be rude, ignorant and ill-mannered. And for the most egregious of hate speech, Canada already has some very robust anti-hate laws. My point is to make a case for what Canadians do best: engage in vigorous, passionate civil debate.

Our tradition is rich with stories that tell us of the importance of guarding our tongues. We’re told the tongue is so powerful that it requires two gates (the lips and teeth) to restrain it.

Marois aptly demonstrated over the course of the election campaign what happens when both the lips and teeth fail to do their job. And while the PQ remains a political party to be reckoned with, Quebecers thankfully did not let her tilt toward intolerance and bullying and instead chose respectful engagement.

My dear friend and former Canadian Jewish Congress colleague Eric Vernon got it right when he wrote of John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address admonishing both sides of the Cold War divide that “civility is not a weakness.”

More than 50 years later, Vernon expanded on Kennedy’s admonition quite wisely, noting that “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.”

When it comes to public discourse, let’s not settle for mediocrity. Let’s work toward true civility. In that regard, I’m always reminded of the words of my late mentor, Louis Lenkinski, a Holocaust survivor, tough trade unionist and former chair of CJC’s community relations committee, who advised: “Never engage in a pissing match with a skunk. Just let the skunks pee amongst themselves.”

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