Manners Matter: Government neutrality is necessary for good public policy

Commentary, Role of Government, Marco Navarro-Genie


Manners matter, and they matter especially in politics.
In a democracy, as French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville remarked, manners matter most. They act as barriers, he wrote, “between the strong and the weak, the government and the governed.”
Manners protect us from one another, and from those who govern us. They promote a certain neutrality.
On Feb. 22, while trying to defuse a tough situation at a town hall in Ward 13, Mayor Naheed Nenshi publicly referred to a “specific (Calgary) developer” as “jerks.”
While a minor thing need not be exaggerated, the incident offers practical political lessons.
It is true that people are entitled to their opinion, including public officials. People are entitled to dislike others. But let us recall that Nenshi is the mayor of inclusiveness and the mayor who would conduct city hall politics in a different way.
Politicians referring to specific constituents as “jerks” is certainly a way to conduct politics differently, but it does not reflect the language of inclusion that the mayor professes to embrace. Insults separate us from the ones we insult.
In fairness, he meant it as a factual observation and let’s assume he is correct in his characterization of that group of citizens. Most of us find it frustrating dealing with jerks, right? Does it justify the remark?
Before you say that even bringing this up in a column is unfair, that Nenshi was simply musing and that there is no need to take the comment seriously, think if you would say the same about another politician in the same situation. What if it was former U.S. President George Bush? What of former Prime Minister Jean Chretien basically saying the same about Albertans once?
Think as to whether it would be appropriate had Nenshi publicly used the same language in his former occupation when referring to a faculty colleague, or a member of his university’s administration. Or if he had said similar things about one student to other students.
The ethics of the action are dubious because the epithet raises the serious issue of civic neutrality; that is as to whether the developer in question could now be treated fairly at Nenshi’s city hall. The mayor’s opinions might influence the disposition of city employees who implement public policy.
But that’s not all. The surprise of the night was the new line that the mayor injected in to his job description. He went on to say “as much as I wish I could have a bylaw saying [that] I’m not going to deal with you if you’re a jerk, my real job is to try to make the jerks be less jerky.” Most of us think his real job is to run the public affairs of the city.
The mayor correctly implied it’s not against the law to be a jerk. While most folks will be happy to hear him publicly declare that he will not use his bylaw-making influence to exclude those citizens he deems to be jerks, the suggestion that Nenshi can make some Calgarians “be” something other than what they are or choose to be, and that doing so is his “real job,” sadly opens the mayor to ridicule.
Most people understand that the job of any politician includes being diplomatic. Citizens know Nenshi’s job does not include changing any citizen he does not like, even when he has the popular endorsement of many of the community members applauding his remarks. At a common sense level, most people also understand that one is not likely going to change the attitude of any jerk or jerks with publicly expressed insults and unprofessional remarks.
If the mayor was making those remarks for the sake of seeking applause or to seem sympathetic, one could dismiss it as simply more populist politicking on his part. But the problem of beating on a group of citizens for the sake of attracting the adulation of another is not a different problem. This is what de Tocqueville had in mind about manners guarding us from one another and from the abuse of those in power.
Although, by most accounts, Nenshi handled the situation in Ward 13 well, he is the mayor for all Calgarians. He owes the neutrality of good manners to every one of his constituents.