‘Our civilization, our democracy, our society depend on that’
Alexandra Hudson on the Soul of Civility
November 17, 2023|Font size:
Too often, the people engaged in the political debate treat their opposition as barriers to be overcome rather than as fellow citizens to be persuaded. Yet persuasion is a potent political force because popularity shapes the bounds of the Overton Window. An increase in civility can help people treat each other better and perhaps even drive better policy. Alexandra Hudson is the author of The Soul of Civility, an adjuration to treat each other better, and I speak with her about it for the Overton Window podcast.
“Civility is the bare minimum of respect that we are owed and owe to others by virtue of our shared humanity,” Hudson says. This is different from politeness, which is people’s behavior toward others. Politeness can stem from a civil disposition or it can mask an uncivilized disposition.
Civility ensures better relationships between different people. “It’s a disposition of the heart. It’s a way of seeing others as our moral equals,” Hudson says.
“It’s really easy to feel like our own moment is the most divided,” Hudson says. “But this is not an America problem. This is not a modernity problem. This is a timeless human problem.”
Partisans often want people to ignore the civility to address the latest threat from the other side. “We hear a lot of this high stakes mentality, that we have to be willing to take the gloves off and do whatever is necessary to get the other side. Yet, what we don’t appreciate is that when we hurt others, we hurt ourselves, too,” Hudson says.
People disrespect themselves when they disrespect the dignity in others, because dignity is a quality we share, Hudson argues. “That’s actually where the title of my book, The Soul of Civility, comes from. Just as incivility is mutually debasing, civility — acts of grace, charity and kindness — it mutually ennobling,” she says.
“Treating others with the respect that they are owed by virtue of their human dignity is good objectively, full stop,” Hudson says. “It’s its own reward.”
She also argues that civility can be a tool to make the world better off. She cites the respect that Martin Luther King Jr. would cultivate in his fellow activists. “It informed and demanded the letter writing campaigns, the sit-ins, the protests that defined the peaceful nonviolent resistance,” Hudson says. “It said, ‘I respect you enough to confront you with your inaccurate view of the world, and you should appreciate the dignity and common humanity of all human beings. And I’m going to show you, through these actions, that you are wrong.’”
She uses historical examples because she wants people to learn from both the successes and failures, the strengths and weaknesses of the people who continue to inspire society today. “That’s very much the ethos of Civic Renaissance, my newsletter and intellectual community dedicated to beauty, goodness and truth, and reviving the wisdom of the past to help us lead better lives today,” Hudson says.
Better treatment of different people also generates what Hudson calls the mellifluous echo of the magnanimous soul. “My grandmother was someone for whom there was no such thing as a neutral human interaction. Every interaction with others was a supreme gift. It was a profound blessing that she relished,” Hudson says. “Less often do we hear stories of great men and women who, through their magnanimity, put into play the virtuous cycle and create mellifluous echoes that keep on giving with their lives.”
There are many different ways to cultivate civility. Hudson covers her neighbor Joanna’s effort to invite new people over for conversation on her porch. “Too often when we encounter difference, we want to go right into the difference and hash it out. We make these mental shortcuts about people. But that’s what was beautiful about Joanna’s front porch, that people had the opportunity to get to know one another just as human beings first, to sow those seeds of trust and friendship that might later allow for important conversations,” Hudson says.
“I choose to focus on making my community better, my family stronger and brighter. That’s what she’s doing and that will change the world,” Hudson says.
Social media seem to be a force that encourages incivility, but it doesn’t need to. “I have this idea in my book called cultivating our digital garden. We can’t focus on how others are using social media that can sow harm and division in our world. But we can control how we use them and we can use them to create brightness and beauty in our world.”
I ask Hudson what the world would look like if she were successful at bringing civility into vogue. “That will never happen, unfortunately. This is a timeless human problem. It’s not going away. No politician, no policy, no one technology has caused our challenge with civility right now. And no one public leader, no policy, no book is going to solve it, either.”
Still, the simple fact that some people yearn for something better encourages her. “We get glimpses of that right now, where we have moments when we feel seen and known and loved, and we have moments when we are able to have constructive dialogue across deep difference,” Hudson says.
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