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Dozens of former politicians, academics, artists, religious leaders and human-rights advocates are calling on Canada’s political leaders to improve civility in public discourse.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

On Tuesday, The Globe published an open letter signed by dozens of prominent Canadians, imploring the country’s political leaders to take action against the increasingly hostile rhetoric being seen across Canada, from public protests to university campuses.

“Canadians with different perspectives and lived experiences need to be working together instead of retreating to the familiarity of our echo chambers to lob hurtful tropes at one another,” the signatories wrote.

In The Globe’s comment sections for the open letter and related articles, a clear hunger for this manner of discourse was evident. Many commenters requested that the open letter be made into a petition so that they too could sign it.

Several themes arose, including the role of social media, educational institutions and specific political figures – on all sides. While the comments sometimes veered away from the civil tones called for in the letter, on the whole they demonstrated the existence of an engaged populace that is looking for similar leadership.

Here’s a look at some of those comments. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Support for the open letter’s concepts

From Globe commenter GMJenkins1:

This letter is long overdue. The level of ignorance and incivility in Canada could threaten our democracy. In a democracy, every voice needs to be heard: the conservative, the environmentalist, the liberal, and the socialist; however, the use of misinformation needs to be banned, and hate speech needs to be defined and outlawed in the interests of human rights and public safety.

Part of the solution to the present level of closed-mindedness in Canada would be in improving our education system. Students should be taught issues from all points of view, curiosity should be encouraged as should engaging in civil debates with those of opposing points of view. Instead, we have a watered down primary and secondary education system that often pays scant attention to the origins of critical issues in Canada and globally and that fails to encourage students to overcome their biases by seeking credible sources for their information.

Canadians need to be better informed so they can understand different points of view and empathize with those whose opinions don’t mirror our own. The present trend of ignorance and incivility is really scary.

From Globe commenter Sense2Cents:

This letter is a breath of fresh air for a nation of people starved for the oxygen that respectful dialogue must have to survive and be sustained.

Our inability to civilly discuss opposing views with each other permeates Canadian society. It is present on many of our school playgrounds and is replicated in our Parliament where there is supposed to be leadership by example but instead is often characterised by its members levelling gratuitous insults at each other.

On a personal level, I experience it in discussion groups where some people lose their tempers and see it in families where some members haven't spoken to each other in decades. I read about it happening in international forums where representatives are supposed to be finding ways to end the killing of innocents and civilized ways of ending wars and are chronically failing to do so.

The change we need starts with leadership by example from our elected government officials and leaders. And while our parliamentarians are busy with their task, the rest of us can look in the mirror and find ways to increase the amount of civility we bring to our own and others' lives.

From Globe commenter penney5:

My take on the intent of the open letter was simply to point out that while there will always be room for divergent opinions and the right for vociferous debate, the increasing hostile nature of this debate is what we should strive to avoid. I find the saddest aspect of this letter is the nature of many of the comments to it.

Disagreement with what the letter suggests

From Globe commenter tinman1957:

Either you believe free speech is fundamental to the success of liberal democracy or you don't. I am not convinced the authors are being sincere or just lobbying to define what can and cannot be said publicly. Canada and other nations seem to be abandoning the importance of public discourse with the use of legislation to restrict what can be said.

From Globe commenter app_69666183:

The entire letter is elitist and written with a patronizing tone. I don’t think the average Canadian will even understand or appreciate the “message” or, rather, the premise that Canada is a racist, violent country built, apparently, on inequities and prejudice. Nonsense utter rubbish as far as I am concerned.

Concerns about the erosion of public discourse

From Globe commenter Marilyn0:

There are civil ways to disagree and to make your point, but somehow, at least on social media, they have disappeared. Is social media to blame? The Trump effect? I have no idea, but the current tone is disturbing. Maybe it was always this way, and I'm too old to recall how it used to be.

From Globe commenter Liam Lipovore:

One of the reasons that the quality of discourse is eroding can be witnessed in every session of Parliament. One member asks a reasonable question in direct but polite terms and the member that "answers" it rarely does. Instead they list talking points that often never speak to the question asked. How long can that kind of disrespect continue before decorum disintegrates?

From Globe commenter HeavyJetCaptain:

I’m going to suggest the erosion of public discourse in this once great country is a reflection of the everyday frustrations of average Canadians. The country is changing and many Canadians are finding these changes becoming a challenge.

There was a time when one could get a good job, buy a home, start a family, then enjoy a secure retirement with a pension. People were recognized for doing well, those who failed were held to account.

That’s all in the past and Canadians are frustrated. Instead of trying to soothe those frustrations, politicians build on them for political gain. Rather than bringing Canadians together, they divide. Today’s Canada speaks for itself. The tone of the country starts at the top, it’s called leadership. Perhaps that’s a good place to begin.

What politicians can do

From Globe commenter Mft3:

For all who signed the letter - Bravo! However, in its care not to be divisive, your letter feels watered down. If any, some or all of you would have the courage to call out specific acts (on both sides of the aisle), I believe it would be much more impactful. Your signatures here are great, but putting yourself and your powerful platforms at risk by speaking out alone on a singular event would be huge.

From Globe commenter WhistlingInTheDark:

Surprised there is no call for politicians to lead by example. Their chronic bickering does not sink to the level we see at protests or on social media but it is there all the same. All too often, they are deliberately obtuse, overly selective in their use of facts to make arguments, and keen to take their opponent's quotes out of context.

Rather than intelligent debate, we get insults carefully crafted to skirt parliamentary rules of procedure and pointless semantics.

Such is the nature of politics, I get that. But it has gotten far worse over the past few decades.

Many of the recommendations contained within the letter are sound. But we would also benefit from examples of debate based on fact rather than partisanship and cheap tricks. The only place to find such discourse is in the judiciary these days.

From Globe commenter app_76544788:

Having recently returned to Canada, I have been struck by how ugly civil discourse has become among Canadians. It seems some Canadian politicians have been eager to adopt the ugly polarization tactics used by American politicians; they have made personal attacks a norm and by doing so encourage the public.

It needs to start with our political leaders who need to demonstrate that vigorous civil debate is possible without demonizing the other.

From Globe commenter BetteStock:

I dream of living in a country where leaders remind us of what we have in common and our obligations in a civil society, rather than catering to any kind of interest group for political gain (clientelisime in French). Leaders who can share a vision for the greater good. I can always dream.

Social media, personal responsibilities and hard conversations

From Globe commenter MarcoPatry:

Social media is at the root of this incivility. Total anonymity encourages people to inflame, lie, insult, spread fake news.

Solution: No access to social media unless your identity is fully on display. You want to speak in public? Show your face.

When you can be recognized by your family, your co-workers, your friends, your community, you are a lot more likely to behave in a civilized fashion.

From Globe commenter Blether:

The best way to bring back civility in debates is to be hard on facts and soft on people, and to call out anyone on either side of a debate who bear extreme, divisive and misinformed views. Will it happen? Unlikely with many, because they care more about being right than getting it right, and talking about problems than solutions.

From Globe commenter kerarasa:

Perhaps before "piling on", we can all take a collective inhale and think about how we each contribute to this breakdown of civility and what we can do as individuals to change discourse in our own little circle. I'm not suggesting we all sit around singing Kumbaya, just reflecting on our ability to influence life with positive gestures, comments and intention. Ripples in the water start with one little splash.

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