I grew up in the advertising business in Toronto when there were Liberal agencies, Conservative agencies and even a few NDP agencies. I worked at all three.
Political campaigns were treated like consumer campaigns, based on research and attitudes and guided by strategies that had very little to do with denigrating the opposition. The general thinking was that the people could easily be able to figure out what’s real and what’s not about a candidate’s position depending on how vague they were in talking about the issues of the day.
This advertising required a bit of cleverness, but not too much. In fact, it was really more an exercise in brand character development than it was anything else. And the people who did this well showed the candidates putting their best foot forward on behalf of the people and those candidates generally became the most popular.
This would have been back in the 1970s when I was first starting out.
But then in the middle of that decade something happened at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, that I believe was the event that turned the tide in politics. Not because there wasn’t a lot of skullduggery going on behind the scenes, but because it had finally made it to the surface where everyone could see it.
The Watergate scandal was a major political scandal in the United States involving the administration of U.S. President Richard Nixon from 1972 to 1974 that led to Nixon’s resignation. The scandal stemmed from the Nixon administration’s continual attempts to cover up its involvement in the June 17, 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Washington.
Like any sea change in a society, this one happened slowly. Dirty tricks became all the rage and it was reflected in slow but steady tendency to poke at your opponent, just as much as you tried to make yourself look appealing to the voters.
A lot of things that were ‘civilized’ back then started to become rougher and tougher. The culture became more aggressive. The political nastiness continued to grow, especially in the press and the news media.
As cable networks came on line, one could see that a definite left and a definitely right wing was developing there. Before this there were the hawks and the doves, and most of the activity was centred around putting an end to the war in Vietnam.
But what both sides learned from Watergate and from all the nastiness that developed in politics as divisions deepened, was that civility was for wusses. You had to go for the throat every time.
This began a new era not just in advertising but in the culture as well. Criticism became sharper and more frequent. Consumers were made aware not just of the benefits of the product being advertised but the lack of any or all of these benefits in competitive products.
I remember having conversations with some of the people I worked with in the agency business, remembering how we sold stuff before the concept of re-positioning the competition came along.
So the lack of civility we are experiencing today has been slowly growing for at least the last half century.
Then when the Internet came along, this lack of civility almost automatically found a new home. The culture of trolling developed, mainly along political lines, where someone who was trying to make a positive statement or ask an honest question was almost immediately met with hype-critical and denigrating comments.
This activity did a couple of things. 1. It discouraged a lot of people from actually speaking their minds. and 2. Those who were not discouraged got tougher and quite a few became trolls themselves.
But like the gradual poison it was, it slowly but surely eroded our civility. And the results can be clearly seen today in the kind of political advertising that is being done. Not only does it attempt to reposition opposing candidates, it does so with the most slander it can get away with.
This kind of activity, which takes place pretty much every two years and is very intense, has been part of the process that has managed to make incivility somehow acceptable, and create a huge divide between left and right leaning people. This is a chronic situation in the US, and it also exists to a lesser extent here in Canada and many other countries around the world.
Where this ultimately leads is to a breakdown in communications between people and an increase in the amount of incivility that people are willing to accept as normal.
Politically, this leads democracies into violent revolution, which generally results in some shade of fascism. Culturally this leads to a state of being not unlike that of Russia or North Korea, where a small cluster of oligarchs control a large culture of poor people and the middle class disappears.
Whether that will happen in the US is anybody’s guess at the moment. But the breakdown of civility in that society in particular country gives it a pretty good chance of ending up in some sort of dictatorship, simply because the concepts, freedom, equality, justice and tolerance have been radically compromised by the ever shrinking levels of civility in that society.
How do you combat this? Well for one thing, you need to recognize and admit that it exists. For another thing we all need to work to change the narrative.
For the past four years, I have been attacking the Trump presidency, but at the end of it I realized that it was a self-destructive entity and I pretty much backed off. And when I did, I started to see that there were much more important issues to confront. The environment, the Covid epidemic and its opposition, and the injustices that are being visited on any number of people on a daily basis.
So I began to affect a sea change in my own writing. Talking about issues in a common sense way, as opposed to just attacking them. Promoting a lot of the good that people, businesses and countries are doing in the world. Not so much as a critic, but more as a cheerleader.
I’m still doing some of the attacking I used to do as well, because some people just need to be knocked upside the head before they wake up.
That’s a good start for me.
How about you? Wouldn’t it be nice if there were more civility in your world?