Discover more from Civic Renaissance with Alexandra Hudson
Beyond Politeness, Toward Civility
Reflections on style vs substance, shots from the book tour, recent media coverage of The Soul of Civility + a chance to win your own copy!
Last week, I wrote for The Globe & Mail, Canada’s largest newspaper, that too often, Canadians settle for politeness, when they should instead aim for true civility. The article is called “Canadians should be less polite – and more civil.”
The original title of the article was “Sorry not Sorry,” homage to the perception that Canadians are nice to a fault—even going so far as to apologize when other people bump into them!
Ideas in this essay have application far beyond Canada. It has a message for us all: it’s time to move beyond politeness, and pursue true civility in our everyday lives, and our society in general.
Civility vs. Politness
As I argue in my new book, The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves, civility and politeness are very different things.
Politeness is a technique, behaviour, manners. It is external and superficial.
Civility, by contrast, is internal. It is a disposition of respecting the equal moral worth and basic dignity of our fellow human beings and caring about them enough to risk offending them by discussing both sides of an issue.
Crucially, sometimes actually respecting others requires breaking the rules of politeness.
Telling hard truths, or engaging in robust debate, takes courage. It’s often hard to tell someone that you think they’re wrong. It’s far more comfortable to be “polite,” and to just keep our opinions to ourselves. Even discussing politics or religion at the dinner table are topics that traditional politeness has forbidden.
Why the difference between civility and politeness matters
We need more civility and less politeness because our politeness obsessed culture prevents us from telling hard truths and debating difficult questions—which we need in order to truly show respect and love toward, and love to serve and thrive with, others. Telling hard truths to others is one example of conduct that seems impolite and is difficult for Canadians to do, because we risk offending others – but it flows from the disposition of civility, of recognizing and affirming their basic human dignity.
The etymologies of the words support this distinction. The word “polite” comes from the Latin polire, which means “to polish, to make smooth.” Politeness focuses on external appearances; it is about “smoothing over” and diminishing our differences instead of equipping us to act in light of them.
The term “civility,” however, comes from the Latin civilis, which relates to the status, conduct and character befitting a citizen of the civitas, or city. Civility is about the habits and duties of citizenship. Again, this often involves acting in ways that appear impolite, such as having an uncomfortable but necessary conversation.
Too often, we shy away from taking strong stands on issues, or expressing controversial opinions. We don’t want to offend others. This courteous impulse undermines our freedom when it prevents us from having debates about important ideas.
How I learned that “politeness” can be weaponized
Growing as a strong, forthright woman—and being from a family of strong women—I didn’t always fit the mould.
We were chastised, reprimanded, barred, pushed out and silenced. I was often criticized for being too assertive or disagreeable by male authority figures in my life. When I spoke with passion, I was dismissed as being “hysterical.” When my view differed from others, I was deemed “disagreeable.”
I still am.
I don’t fit many people’s dominant cultural expectation of how a woman should act, and I am often reprimanded for it. I’m told I’m too confident, too forthright, and that I ask too much.
When people tell me this, I sometimes wonder if they’d say the same thing if it were a man making the request.
How we can each be part of the solution
A culture that places inordinate focus on politeness harms those who fail to conform to a certain expectation of propriety – and inordinately harms historically disadvantaged groups, such as women, and linguistic and ethnic subcultures.
Reclaiming civility in a world that values politeness isn’t a job that we can leave to our public leaders.
It’s a job for us, too. We can each be a part of the solution in how we interact with one another. We can start by discarding mere politeness – which polices tone, focuses inordinately on the “rules” of one dominant standard of etiquette, and avoids uncomfortable conversations.
We can instead choose civility – a disposition of the heart that actually respects and seeks the good of others, and sometimes, courageously, speaks the truth in love – in our every day.
As I explore in my book, The Soul of Civility, politeness is ends-oriented. It’s a technique. It’s spectacle. It’s appearance alone.
Civility is means-oriented. It’s a disposition of the heart. It sees people for who they are, not how they look. It’s substance over style.
Civility is necessary for friendship, freedom and flourishing. The world values politeness because it’s useful for transient ends such as closing a deal, getting a job, or winning a date.
But if we want real and lasting and fruitful relationships—if we want harmony of the soul and society—we need civility.
Shots from the book tour
The last month has been vibrant and full as I’ve been on the road with my mother and two kids traveling the country and talking about The Soul of Civility!
Two weeks ago we were in three cities in Michigan!
This week, we were in DC, Richmond, Durham, Raleigh, and back to DC.
In Richmond, Veritas School hosted a public talk and book signing.
In Raleigh, the Braver Angels of Raleigh hosted a public conversation about the book.
I LOVED meeting so many of you who are part of the CR community who drove from other parts of the state to join the event!
I loved meeting others who had heard me on podcasts, or read about the book, and decided to join the conversation.
That’s why your help is SO important.
Consider telling people about the book, buying one for a friend, inviting them to join public events.
I then spoke to Campbell School of Law in Raleigh, before heading back to DC for a book signing.
Saturday morning, The Federalist Society held a book signing for me at The Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C.
The kids were a hit!
Don’t forget to pay attention to the Book Tour page and come say hi if I’m in or near your city.
And if you don’t see your city on the list yet, write to me at email@example.com and let’s collaborate on a book event!
Looking ahead, I’m in DC and NYC this week, and then Canada—Toronto and Ottawa—the week following.
Hope to see you there.
Recent media coverage of The Soul of Civility
CTV television interview on why Canadians should be less polite, and more civil.
Book review: In Civility is now countercultural, Timothy P. Carney, in The Washington Examiner: Tim puts my book in dialogue with another recent book, Against Politeness.
Book review in the Indianapolis Business Journal: “As Thanksgiving approaches, Indianapolis author Alexandra Hudson’s newly published book, “The Soul of Civility,” speaks directly to this center. Hudson explores the distinction between what can be performative “politeness” and a more substantive and durable ‘civility.’”
For Christianity Today, I argue that Christ was civil, not polite, and we should aim for civility too.
Exploring civility as a disposition of the heart with C.S. Monitor.
Conversation with Russ Roberts on EconTalk podcast.
Conversation with Brett McKay on the Art of Manliness Podcast.
Thank you for being here!
Are you reading The Soul of Civility? If so, write to me and tell me what you think!
And PLEASE consider leaving a review on Amazon!
As a thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance community, I’m also giving away a copy of my book this week.
If you’d like to win, send me a note with the subject line CIVILITY!