The Good Fight
Alexandra Hudson on Why Civility Matters

Alexandra Hudson on Why Civility Matters

Yascha Mounk and Alexandra Hudson discuss how civility can be a tool for pursuing justice.

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.

I have a whole chapter in my book on civil disobedience, sometimes speaking truth to power, sometimes taking action in the form of protests, sit-ins, letter writing campaigns. I feature abolitionists from William Lloyd Garrison to Frederick Douglass to Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to other figures in the civil rights movement to show how they actually employed the disposition of civility to inform what they did and how they went about speaking truth to power. And it can be this tool for us today.

Mounk: Help me understand those distinctions, right? I have a sense of what politeness is. Of course, what is polite is going to differ from time to time, and certainly in different cultural contexts. I can see what it would mean to reject any norms of politeness or civility in the United States in 2024, right? To say that political activists just speak the truth and fight with any means necessary, no matter the circumstances because their political objective is so important that those ends justify the means. 

What is that middle category? What does it mean to have a concept of civility which says sometimes you can be impolite, sometimes you can break the norms of civility if that's what it takes to fight for a righteous cause?

Hudson: You're absolutely right, and I'm very influenced by and invoke Dr. King in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He offers us a litmus test for how to know when it is appropriate to deviate from politeness in order to pursue a greater good. He asks how do we tell the difference, for example, between a just and unjust law? A just law is one that uplifts human personality and affirms human dignity, and an unjust law corrodes human personality, it degrades personhood and human dignity. And I realize that the same is true with our social norms and our appropriateness. That is a good litmus test to help us think about when it’s appropriate to deviate from either positive law or informal social norms and informal laws and protocols. And this is exactly, you know, civility as I define and explore it throughout my book. It informed Dr. King's view of nonviolent peaceful resistance.

Anyone who wanted to be part of his movement had to undergo this process of “purification,” he called it. And purification was essentially cultivating the disposition of civility and a fundamental esteem, respect, love for one's fellow citizens, people who held deeply bigoted, evil, abhorrent views, white supremacists, racist views. And that love and respect actually informed their protests, saying, “I respect you enough to confront you with the reality that you have an inaccurate view of the world and I'm going to take action to show you that.” But at the same time that civility demanded action, it also took certain action off the table. For example, Dr. King was not a proponent of sort of the instrumentalist view of justice that you were just alluding to where the end justifies the means. He never allowed his supporters to engage in viciousness, ad hominem attacks, violence, destruction of property, because he, Gandhi, and other thoughtful proponents of nonviolent peaceful resistance before him knew that that sort of consequentialism undermined their whole project. And Gandhi says means in fact are everything. They knew—like the abolitionists and other thoughtful people before them who engaged in the fight against racism and slavery and other forms of injustice and inequality knew—that they could not undermine the personhood and human dignity of some people along the way. They just saw that inherent tension.

People want to focus on rules. They want black and white rules of what to do and when. This is what Emily Post does in 800 pages. But human life is actually way too complex to be essentialized and reduced to a certain set of maxims and rules that apply in all times and places, and we need instead discretion, prudence, the disposition of civility that respects others and knows how to deploy that respect appropriate to the context. I have a whole chapter in my book dedicated to why we have allowed politics to take over every aspect of our lives in a very detrimental way. We have allowed politics to invade our dinner tables. 

Mounk: One choice could simply be: “I'm not going to persuade this person, I'm not going to change their mind, I'm just going to sit with my discomfort and have dinner with them and avoid discussing politics.”

Hudson: And find areas of agreement and shared loves! Because it feels like we too often lead with the hot button topics, the culture war issues. Like we wear those on our sleeves, and it sows division wherever we go. And that's bad for our souls and bad for democracy as well if we're only having the hard debates and conversations without any break from it, without any reprieve.

There are more important things than politics that we need to celebrate and affirm. And too often people have made politics kind of a quasi-religion, an idol in their lives. That's the most important thing. That's why they lead with it. And they wanna know, where are you on this issue? And that's how they view everything about you, right? And whether you're worth being in their lives, even if you're a long-term friend or a family member. 

Human life is far too complex to be essentialized to some static rules of politeness. We need a framework, and I think the disposition of civility gives us that framework. What does respecting someone in this context call for? And what does loving this person in this specific context call for? And I hope that my book empowers people to deploy that wisdom.

Mounk: I get that it's not going to be a set of static rules. I guess I want to understand conceptually what that framework is or how it is that it differs from the extremes? So what is it to have a robust disagreement with a fellow citizen, with a compatriot or with a family member, with a close friend, and yet to combine two competing maxims—one of which is that you respect this human being in front of you, you have reason to see them as somebody to whom you owe some duty of respect and some duty of care—but at the same time, presumably, you do have this commitment to political values, and you do think that they're in the process of making a political error? And so that's where the tension comes from: You think you owe it to your country or to the world to pursue what you see as an important political goal, and at the same time want to do it in such a way that respects the actual human being in front of you, recognizing that just because they held a view with which you disagree, that they're not worthy of decent treatment. 

What are the maxims that I should go into a situation like that with in order to have sort of orientation as to what to do and what not to do?

Hudson: Well, I'll tell you a story that is maybe apocryphal and has been told with different female protagonists, but the essence of the story stays the same. 

Queen Victoria, the proprietor of all things arcane Victorian etiquette, this era defined by very elaborate systems of protocol and ritual. She has the queen of Persia to her home for a state dinner. And everyone sits down to eat and the room is aghast when the Queen of Persia does the unthinkable: She takes the bowl in front of her, intended to wash her hands with, and tips it to her lips and drinks it like soup. This massive faux pas. And the room is silent and stares at Queen Victoria. What does she do? She takes the bowl and tips it to her lips and drinks it like soup.

Why did she break this very basic convention that she herself had instituted? For the sake of community, for the sake of making her guest feel welcome and comfortable, for the sake of social trust and friendship and relationship, which was the purpose of the entire dinner, after all. In my book, I unpack other examples of how the spirit of civility can pervade our lives, our social lives. What a snob might do at a dinner party when they see someone making a faux pas, they might relish that they know the rules and they're part of the in-group, this secret cabal that read Emily Post and others like her and is familiar with the rituals, and use that as a tool of division—as the rules of politeness often have been, right? Defining in-group, out-group, and segregating classes, not just between cultures, but within a society. But a civil person, instead of silently judging the person and self-inflating their own sense of self-righteousness, might choose to ignore it, or they might even go a step further, which is really uncomfortable, taking them aside and quietly saying, “Hey, by the way, you made this small error. Don't worry about it. No one noticed it. But you don't want to make this mistake in the future.” That might be the even more courteous thing to do. Risky, maybe, but I think it's actually the kind thing to do, preventing them from making a mistake in the future. 

I learned this from my mother, who is something of an etiquette expert. She's called Judi the Manners Lady, and she's traveled the world for my entire life, teaching manners, customer service protocols, and etiquette. She is someone who cares deeply for the rules of politeness to the extent that they facilitate human relationships and friendships and human flourishing. But she's also the very first to kind of deviate from norms of propriety when they don't serve that end. And I'll give you a funny example. She loves languages. My mother is an utter polyglot. And what's funny is that she will see someone and profile them in a way that is very non-PC. She'll be like, “OK, I think I know where this person's from. I think I've been there.” And she'll spontaneously speak the language that she thinks that they speak: “Kumusta ka!” in Tagalog when she sees someone she thinks is a Filipino person. That's totally not PC to assume that you think that you know their race and their ethnicity and everything about them. But when people hear this tall, blonde, beautiful woman, speak their home tongue (often they're the minority in a culturally Caucasian environment) they light up. They just utterly illuminate. She breaks this very conventional rule of propriety which is not to profile people but for the greater good of like fostering friendship and community and like we've been invited over to so many people's homes and had so many like international feasts because she just collects languages and friends wherever she goes by doing this very unconventional, bizarre, funny thing, even if it means breaking the rules of etiquette and politeness to do so.

Mounk: I certainly like the distinction between sort of a rigid adherence to the rules and sort of acting with the broader goal of connecting to people, in this case, right, of making people feel comfortable. I suppose I would distinguish between two different circumstances here, right? I mean, one is a rule that actually may just be erroneous. We've sort of accepted the basic insight that Asian Americans, in particular, often suffer “microaggressions” when people say, “Where are you from?” and they say, you know, “L.A.” And then someone says, “No, where are you really from?”

I completely understand that would be very alienating, right? Because you're an American, you're born in America, you feel American, and people, probably often of a certain generation, keep making you feel like you're not truly from this country. But I think we've overgeneralized that. I'm sure it can get annoying to Uber drivers, as well, but I do often ask Uber drivers where they're from when I can hear they have an accent, and nine times out of ten, they're very happy to engage in conversation about the place they're from. And obviously, if they realize that you know a little bit more about that place than the average passenger, then they're all the more interested in talking to you about it. And I've had sort of long political monologues with people from Persia, Azerbaijan, Ghana, Ethiopia, telling me about what they see as their country's politics when I elicit a little bit of interest. 

Hudson: The historical record supports exactly what you're saying. I read hundreds if not thousands of these conduct manuals from across history and across culture and found, exactly to your point, that the rules of politeness are highly changeable—between classes and across time as well. The moment the out-group learns the norms, the in-group has to change the norms in order to stay the in-group, right? And there are so many fun stories from history that I could tell you to illuminate this. But the principles of civility, the principles that modulate, temper our self-love and the worst excesses of our selfishness and help us consider the needs of others alongside of ourselves, they're remarkably timeless. People have independently come to similar assessments about what works when it comes to human flourishing and genuine human relationship and cooperation and collaboration and what doesn't. And that is remarkable and fascinating to me. I start my chapter two with the oldest book in the world, which is a civility book given to us from ancient Egypt, 2350 BC, and a lot of these maxims from Ptahhotep could appear in a Judith Martin “Miss Manners” column today in the Washington Post. They're just remarkably timeless conventional wisdom about how to do life together. 

Mounk: Having a kind of shared sense of norms about how to act in a certain kind of situation, perhaps especially difficult situations, can actually be helpful as a kind of social lubricant. And I noticed when I was in France a few months ago, there's this kind of strange bourgeois theater that people act out in a Parisian cafe house, a very specific social script. Now, I think often people in France and particularly in Paris can be very rude to people who don't understand and know the script. That's certainly something that I don't welcome. But for people who are part of that culture, there is something actually quite pleasant about the script. It lubricates social interaction and does actually make it quite pleasant. 

So what, ultimately, is your view of “Miss Manners”-type things? Does it have its place, and it's just that we have to know when to deviate from it? How should we think about it?

Hudson: I love that you use the word script, because I think that's really important. I love etymology. I think it's always illuminating. Manners are a form of non-verbal communication. And I think that, just as when you're a cultural minority, it behooves you to learn the verbal language of the dominant culture, it's the same with the social norms. It behooves us to adapt and not just walk in like the ugly American and assume that the whole world should conform to our sense of justice and right and propriety. But, invoking Dr. King's litmus test between just and unjust law (or, in this case, just and unjust social norms): is there a customary norm to treat a certain subsection of humanity with a little less decency, to not respect them equally? You can choose that that's a part of this culture that you’re not going to partake in. But I think otherwise you're right that there's nothing inherently morally superior in the vous, tu distinction, right, in French? And in English, even though we used to have that, we don't have that anymore. We treat everyone as equal, right? We used to have “thou,” but we're all “you” now. There's nothing inherently morally superior in that, but we do that because it's just a way to form and communicate respect where you are. We learn the rules and the grammar of the language. We also ought to learn the grammar of one's conduct as well when we're in a new part of the world as well.

What civility requires is to make that effort, and not just assume everyone's going to adapt to us, but actually adapt to others as well when the situation requires it, especially if it means we're going to have a greater chance of community and flourishing in a novel context.

Mounk: What I've just realized is that we're talking about the left's attitude towards civility and their misreading of civility as mere social rules and norms of politeness, and then the claim that those often stand in the way of a pursuit of true justice. 

I think, ironically, you could argue that in many progressive spaces in the last years, they have actually come very quickly to align on a set of quite rigid rules of politeness: To say “people of color” is politically de rigueur, and even if you say “Oh my God, I'm sorry, I actually meant ‘people of color,’ I misspoke,” you still broke this convention. So there is actually a strange way in which some of the moral panic of the last few years has taken the form of a new set of manners. And I think that explains part of the broad-based resentment against it, right? And I think that actually oddly gets at the nature of some of the anger against social elites today: “You go to your graduate seminars and you learn exactly how to speak about certain topics and which terms to use and why the term that I was taught to use to be polite five years ago is now suddenly no longer a term that anybody should use. And then if I make the mistake, you laugh at me and throw me back out into the realm of the plebs.”

Hudson: That's right. And relatedly, in this attempt to be inclusive, they end up being divisive and exclusive, often, of the people that they're trying to include, who just haven't had the educational opportunities to know what the appropriate term of the day to refer to themselves or other minorities is. 

Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, had this concept that was really influential on me called habitus, this cultural acclimation—tastes and norms and preferences and institutional knowledge from being raised in a certain environment that are very hard to learn overnight in a crash course. A kind of latter-day-Bourdieu—or a student of him, like I am—who studies this phenomenon of habitus on elite college campuses is Anthony Abraham Jack, an African American professor who studies what he calls the “privileged poor.” He talks about how there are two types of underprivileged people who come to elite academic environments. One is those from very disadvantaged backgrounds who have found themselves on scholarships to elite high schools, prep schools or boarding schools, and that gave them a slight advantage. It inculcated in them to a certain extent the habitus necessary to arrive at Harvard on day one as a freshman and know how to navigate this new environment: how to talk to authority figures, how to talk to your peers, how to behave in class, the right brands to wear, where to vacation, where to holiday, how to talk about wines. They weren't born to that, but they had socialization in this habitus that gave them an advantage when they found themselves in this new environment. And then there's another category that he calls the “doubly disadvantaged,” who go to public high school, who don't get scholarships to the fancy schools, and who find themselves like a fish out of water on day one at Harvard or Emory or some of these other kinds of elite institutions.

The argument he makes is that academic life is inherently social, and they find themselves at a disadvantage communicating through the norms, the cultural habits and mores of these new environments. And that is a necessary barrier in how they're able to express their innate academic potential. And so much potential goes unrealized because of this inordinate emphasis on these certain norms and rituals and practices, these external things like wearing the right brand, saying the right things, holidaying in the right place. These are matters of taste and preferences complying with the rules of etiquette that I argue (this is also what he argues in his book) we need to make matter less, and instead focus on things that actually help people deploy who they really are and bring forth their true self and true potential in academic settings. I've really enjoyed learning from his work and research, because it maps on well to the argument I make.

Mounk: Let's go to some of those more timeless principles. 

Each society has a pretty stringent set of table manners, perhaps some were more stringent than others, but each society has things that will offend people if you do them while you're eating. They're going to differ from place to place, but what are the things where, as you're going through these different works, you found you were recognizing again and again? What are the things that surpass these kinds of contingent norms and are principles that you think we should take to heart in the United States today?

Hudson: Let's go back to Ptahhotep for a second. He's the advisor to the pharaoh in ancient Egypt, over 4,000 years ago. He was actually offered the position of becoming pharaoh, which he turned down in order to lead a more quiet life, and after he had reached the pinnacle of political and worldly success, he set pen to paper to distill and immortalize the timeless principles of human flourishing, of living well with others, that he had derived from experience and observation, from being in the pinnacles of political and temporal power. And so he wrote this book for the pharaoh's son, intending and hoping that the pharaoh's son would read it and become a wise and just ruler himself. 

He says, “Do not in the heat of the moment let the anger in an argument get the best of you.” We're still seeing that on social media all the time. We go on and we're triggered. No one's ever had their mind changed or been persuaded on Twitter—that's not what people go there to do. He also says, “Do not abuse a power differential. Be good and generous and gracious to those that are vulnerable in society. Don't harm them.” Don't lie, don't slander, honor the gods. These are things that you see recur time and time again, in addition to some context-specific mandates and maxims for the good life: For example, very enlightened for this time, he says don't beat your wife: “Be good and generous to your wife, and she'll be a flower that blooms and brings you a lot of joy.” So that was context-specific, but a lot of this is generally good advice that has stood the test of time.

Mounk: So I do think that you have an audience here that is predisposed to like your argument. And of course Persuasion, the magazine that I founded, is trying to show what it is to have serious disagreements about important topics within a broadly philosophical, liberal perspective in a way that is productive and constructive. 

What is it that people who are, broadly speaking, on board with your project still do wrong? And what is it that you think perhaps all of us can learn from your reading and writing? How is it that we can actually live up to the sort of broad goal of civility that—I'm going to speak for my audience—I think most of the people listening to this podcast do share?

Hudson: The inherent vulnerability in writing a book on civility is that I myself am imperfect and fall short of my own ideals, countless times a day. My home was destroyed in a flood last year, and I'm the general contractor on the restoration. And I want to throttle my contractors for not showing up, not doing their job. I'm a mother, I lose my patience with my kids. And life can often feel like death, where it's just low grade aggravation after low grade aggravation. I'll give you an example. I went to my gym class a few days ago and I showed up one minute late (there's literally two other people in the class), and the instructor didn't want to let me in. And I'm like 14 weeks pregnant, I am so sick, I have two babies. You have no idea how hard and complicated my life is right now. It is a miracle I'm here at all and you're not going to let me work out because I'm one minute late? So I totally lost my cool and it became this whole thing. 

This is the reality of this problem. It's a fundamental attribution error: We know our own stories very well, I know all of my excuses all too well for why I was one minute late, and we want people to tell stories of exoneration about us and our behavior, right? From her perspective, I was late, and we have rules and protocols and, like, I'm someone who doesn't like rules, I'm constitutionally allergic to authority: like all the rules my mother educated me in growing up, I was like, why do we do things the way we do them? Why do we shake hands and not bow? Why are we setting the table with forks here, knives here, and not using chopsticks or our hands, like other cultures?

This is a timeless problem that’s always going to be a part of our lives. I still owe her an apology. I'm very much a work in progress and I don't have it figured out and I never will. A core message of the book is that there is no single public figure, no single technology, no single epiphenomenon that is the cause of this. We are the cause. This is a part of the human condition, there is no silver bullet. The moment Donald Trump leaves, this isn't going to go away. If Elon Musk and Twitter suddenly disappeared, the human condition is still going to be the human condition. So change really begins and ends with us and how we choose to interact with each other every day, and we're going to fall short and we just have to resolve to do better. We're so ruthless, we want to define people by one aspect of who they are and not take a full view of the dignity and personhood of the other. 

I'll just leave with Erasmus. Erasmus ends his lovely book called A Handbook for Civility in Children by saying, “Readily ignore the faults of others and avoid falling short yourself.” That is what he says is the wellspring of true civility and human harmony and flourishing. And I know I struggle with this myself, the inverse is all too easy: Blame others and exonerate ourselves. But he says, no, invert that. Readily ignore the faults of others. Tell these stories of exoneration and then avoid committing social infractions and making life more difficult for others. Don't be one minute late for gym class. Just show up on time.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.