How Civility Can Be a Tool for Pursuing Justice

Yascha Mounk and Alexandra Hudson in Persuasion: Alexandra Hudson is a writer, an adjunct professor at the Indiana University Lilly School of Philanthropy, and the founder of the publication Civic Renaissance. Hudson’s first book is The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Alexandra Hudson discuss how civility is different from mere politeness; why true civility can require engaging in uncomfortable conversations and delivering hard truths; and why certain social norms and expectations have proven timeless.

The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity:

Yascha Mounk: So you wrote a timeless book but also an unfashionable book in that it’s a defense of civility. 

Why is it that in this political moment you think we need civility, that civility would do something good for our politics or our society?

Alexandra Hudson: I think that civility is this deeply underrated idea and virtue. Everyone thinks that they know exactly what it is and has very strong opinions on it. They either want more of it and think it’s the antidote, the panacea to revive our comity and harmony in public life, or they think it’s the enemy of justice and equality and equity and want less of it. They want to burn it all down. I argue that both of these contingents actually miss what true civility is. True civility, properly understood, is actually indispensable to a free and flourishing society, especially in a democracy like our own. 

In a nutshell, civility is the art of human flourishing. It is the bare minimum of respect that we are owed and owe to others by virtue of our shared humanity and common dignity. And it is different from mere politeness. It is not just papering over difference, not just etiquette, not just niceness. It is respecting and loving someone enough to tell a hard truth, engaging in robust debate. I’m writing an essay for Time right now about Emily Post’s 1922 Etiquette, this 800-page tome on manners. She actually wrote it for her own elite sort of upper-crust New York society, to be this definitive work. In the post-war era, it helped people navigate life together across difference, and it ended up being this book used by immigrants to kind of acclimate to new life in America, kind of the norms and mores of the dominant culture. But what’s interesting, she has this line that stood out to me. She said all of etiquette can be basically summed up to one line, and that’s not making other people feel uncomfortable. And I thought that was so interesting because life together actually requires discomfort sometimes, and to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations is part of human flourishing. We can’t just run away from that.

Mounk: That’s a great intro into the topic. Let’s start with the leftist critique of this, which is to say, look, we are fighting for really important principles. There’s dangerous politicians who want to take our rights away. We have suffered discrimination and exclusion. And now you’re asking us to be polite to the people who have oppressed us, to the people who have excluded us. This is a kind of procedural value which actually helps to perpetuate the injustices and the forms of discrimination that truly characterize our society. 

What’s your response to that? Why is it that civility is a value in a democratic society, even in the face of injustice?

Hudson: A lot of the critiques of civility should actually be redirected towards politeness. There is an essential distinction between civility and politeness. And you’re right, a common argument we hear from the left is that civility, manners and politeness are tools of the patriarchy. They’re tools of the powerful to keep the powerless and to keep the oppressed oppressed. And that’s why we need less of those things in public life in order to pursue more justice and equity in our world. And that argument actually conflates two important ideas that ought to be disentangled: civility and politeness. Politeness is etiquette, it’s manners, it’s technique, it’s external. And that sort of tone policing, compliance with norms and protocol and propriety, has been a tool of silencing discussion and oppressing minorities and dissenting voices. But civility—again, this disposition of the heart—is different than just mere superficial compliance with etiquette norms.

More here.