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If civility is a public good, it is a public good that is in increasingly short supply.

Protesters incensed at the casualties from Israel’s overwhelming armed response to the Oct. 7 terrorist attack have not been content with merely airing their views in public. Jewish businesses, synagogues, a hospital with deep Jewish connections, and Jewish neighbourhoods have all been focus of such protests.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been hounded out of a Vancouver restaurant, and his security personnel cancelled his planned appearance at a Toronto event where he was to host the Italian prime minister. That is mob rule, plain and simple.

Those protesters have chosen confrontation over civility. Fear among Jewish-Canadians has been the result, even if not the intent. Alongside those vehement protests have been acts of despicable violence: synagogues firebombed, and bullets fired at Jewish schools.

Faced with the roar of a mob, a call for civility might seem rather quaint, a fluttering of handkerchiefs to wave off a storm. But that call, in an open letter from dozens of prominent citizens, is a stark warning of the consequences for Canadians if public discourse continues down its current dangerous path.

The letter rightly raises the alarm about “the rise of incivility, public aggression and overt hatred that are undermining the peace and security of Canadian life,” with the protests over the Israel-Hamas war part of a broader trend. And the signatories correctly point out that even legal words and actions can still contribute to a climate of fear.

That climate of fear is the antithesis of Canada, a contradiction of the ideals of our peaceful democracy. The power of an angry mob cannot be allowed to trample the power of discourse, the process of understanding and the possibility of consensus. We owe each other that possibility; we owe each other civility.

Civility in public discourse is not a matter of dainty manners, of making nice or of speaking in hushed tones. Vigorous debate, impassioned debate, is not out of bounds. But intimidation is. If the goal is to change minds, civility is no barrier.

Civility is not a covert way of silencing strong views, or of hemming in the boundaries of free speech. To the contrary, civility is the foundation of free speech and of democratic discourse.

An open letter to Canada’s political leaders – for the sake of the country’s future

Open letter calls for greater civility in public discourse

At its core, the freedom to speak is about much more than venting anger; speech is the act of swaying opinion. And to sway, you must first be heard. The freedom to speak means nothing if no one bothers to listen.

Civility is also about admitting the possibility of being swayed. It requires the humility to imagine that you may be mistaken, that someone with an opposing view may have a point worth considering. Civility eats away at the kind of absolute certainty that fuels extremism. With doubt comes the possibility of consensus, or at least comprehension. Doubt is the foundation of democratic discourse.

So, civility is a public good, and one worth protecting. Part of that task falls to police, who have been slow to restrict protests targeting Jewish institutions and neighbourhoods. In Montreal, the Jewish community needed to obtain an injunction forcing protesters to stay 50 metres away from synagogues and schools. Toronto police took too long to clear away a protest abutting a Jewish neighbourhood. It is beyond puzzling that protesters were able to accost federal cabinet ministers on their way to meet the Italian Prime Minister, and force the government of Canada to cancel the Prime Minister’s appearance.

The right to protest, like all rights, has limits. Police need to do a better job in enforcing existing laws.

Politicians have a role to play, too, in making it clear that intimidation is unacceptable, full stop.

As this space has previously said, Jewish-Canadians are not responsible for the actions of the state of Israel. Political leaders need to say so, without equivocation; a unanimous motion from the House of Commons would be an excellent start.

Ultimately, though, the burden of restoring civility falls to all of us, and requires a choice of each of us. Will it be civility, and the possibility of consensus and conciliation? Or a race to dark depths to find out who has the muscle to control the street?

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