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Civility Starts with Ourselves
Alexandra Hudson talks with Ben Klutsey about civility as a moral virtue and as the necessary foundation of a liberal, pluralistic society
In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with Alexandra Hudson, a writer and adjunct professor at Indiana University’s Lilly School of Philanthropy, about her new book, “The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles To Heal Society and Ourselves.” They discuss the distinction between civility and politeness, hypocrisy as a sickness of the soul, the “front-porching” revolution, unbundling people’s good ideas from their bad actions and much more.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Today I have the great fortune of speaking with writer and speaker Alexandra Hudson, founder of Civic Renaissance, a publication and intellectual community dedicated to beauty, goodness and truth. She’s the creator of a series for The Teaching Company called “Storytelling and the Human Condition.”
She was named a 2020 Novak Journalism Fellow. She’s a contributor to Fox News, CBS News, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and several other news outlets and platforms. She’s an adjunct professor at the Indiana University’s Lilly School of Philanthropy. Thank you very much for joining us today, Alexandra.
ALEXANDRA HUDSON: Thanks, Ben, for having me.
Civility vs. Politeness
KLUTSEY: We’ll just delve right in. One of the things you note in your book is that whenever civility comes up, people think about politeness. I think many, many people think about this; they equate civility with politeness. But civility and politeness are different, as you note. You highlight that civility is a disposition, whereas politeness is a technique. Can you expand on this distinction for us?
HUDSON: Absolutely. Thanks, Ben. I first want to say, it’s understandable why people would conflate these two terms. Often they are defined in terms of one another. You go to the dictionary and look up “civility,” it’ll have the word “politeness” in the definition. You look up the word “politeness,” it’ll have the word “civility” in it. That actually goes back all the way to the very first English dictionary in 1755, Samuel Johnson. It was this huge, scholarly, academic intellectual feat where he defined the English language. That was the first compilation of the English dictionary. Even he defines politeness in terms of civility, civility in terms of politeness.
All that to say, it’s in our consciousness for a reason: because there is this long-standing tradition of the words being conflated. But yes, to your point, I think it’s essential that we disambiguate them in order to better understand the challenges facing us today in terms of the deep divisions in our world and to help us think about what can help us move past them.
I argue that, as you noted, politeness is a technique. It’s manners, it’s etiquette, it’s the superficial actions alone. The Latin root of politeness supports that definition. The word “politeness” comes from the Latin word polire, which means to smooth or polish. That’s exactly how I define politeness, that it focuses on the external. It polishes over difference as opposed to giving us tools, an outlook that allows us to grapple with differences head-on.
Contrast that with civility. Civility, I argue, is a disposition of the heart. Instead of just the outward things of what we do, it’s how we approach the world, how we see the world and others, and again, seeing people as beings with irreducible dignity and worth—and worthy, deserving of a bare minimum of respect by virtue of our shared moral status as members of the human community.
The Latin etymology of civility also supports this definition. “Civility” comes from the Latin civitas. It’s a series of words, civitas, civis, all those relating to citizenship, the city and the citizen. That’s what civility is and does. It’s the disposition of citizenship. It’s the habits of citizenship, the way of viewing others in the world, seeing them as our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings worthy of respect. Again, sometimes citizenship in the city often requires having difficult conversations. That’s what this joint project of living well with others is, especially in a democracy. It’s navigating difference and saying, “How can we live together across these differences?”
Having those hard conversations is essential, absolutely essential. You can’t eschew them, you can’t sweep them under the rug, you can’t paint polish over them. You have to be able to grapple with them head-on. I argue that is what politeness doesn’t do, [chuckles] but that’s what civility does do, which is why we should aim for civility in our interactions with others, not settling for the technique alone.
Haircuts and Hypocrisy
KLUTSEY: Really interesting. Now, in the book, you use an example of, say, noticing your boss’s haircut. You indicate that there is a politeness approach to commenting and there is a civility approach. Can you use that example to help us understand the difference between politeness and civility?
HUDSON: At its worst, politeness will have an eye to a self-interested and ulterior motive. The polite thing in this instance would be telling your boss that he looks great, he or she looks fabulous, even though you don’t actually think that. It’s this disconnect between what you actually think and what you say and what you do, how you act—for your own benefit, which is ingratiating yourself to your boss because you’re hoping for a promotion, or you have your performance review coming up just around the corner, right?
KLUTSEY: You want that bonus or the raise. Yes.
HUDSON: Absolutely, exactly. You do or say the easy thing, the thing that polishes over differences, the thing that will most likely benefit you, but may not actually be true, may not actually be respectful. Of course, lying to others is not respecting them. Anyway, the civil thing to do is not to lie, but maybe note it and then find something else to compliment instead. You don’t have to have an opinion. Contrary to what many today think, you don’t have to have an opinion on absolutely everything in life. We don’t have an obligation to do that. And so you might notice your boss’s hair—or it’s okay to say nothing, as well, and find something else about them that you can sincerely compliment.
The key is sincerity, that you don’t want to say something that you don’t mean. That’s not respectful of them, and it’s not respectful of yourself. Doing one thing and really harboring a different sentiment on the inside, that’s like embodying a lie. That’s embodying a disconnect between the inner and outer that is super bad for our psyche. It promotes this cognitive dissonance where we lose a sense of self and who we are because we’re so focused on doing and saying things that we think will advance us, we lose who we are along the way.
I unpack this in my third chapter, on civility and integrity. I don’t know if this is where you were going with your question, but this is an important distinction I make: that there’s a difference between inauthenticity and hypocrisy. Telling your boss that they look great when you don’t think that they actually do—that’s hypocrisy. “Hypocrisy” comes from the Greek “play-acting” or “pretense.” That’s what hypocrisy is. It’s, again, this disconnect between the outer and inner that—and this is key—that is self-serving. It seeks to benefit us first.
By contrast, inauthenticity might also require a disconnect between the inner and the outer, between what we do and say and what we actually think or feel, but it’s for a broader purpose. It’s maybe even to serve others instead of serving self. Here’s a classic example: Dwight Eisenhower, he led the Allied forces in America through World War II. He famously battled with crippling anxiety and other mental health disorders while he was doing this huge feat of leading Allied forces against tyranny, against Nazi hegemony.
He would wake up every morning and vomit and be like, “I can’t do this. I’m not going to be able to make it through this day.” Yet he would pick himself back up off the ground after he literally let it all loose, and then he would walk and smile and pat his troops on the back, shake their hand. He had this pretense of utter confidence, of indefatigable faith in the effort of the Allied forces.
Of course, someone might see that and say, “That’s not how he actually felt. He wasn’t being authentic.” Of course he wasn’t, but he was being inauthentic for the sake of saving the world from tyranny and embodying the ideals that he had of freedom, of democracy, of human dignity. Those are the values and ideals that the Allied forces represented in that battle against Nazism.
I make that distinction between hypocrisy and inauthenticity, which both require this disconnect between inner and outer, what we think and feel and what we actually do. But one, hypocrisy, has that disconnect for self-serving purposes, whereas inauthenticity does that for the sake of others or for the sake of country, for the sake of a higher, more noble motive.
KLUTSEY: Another interesting insight in your book is the idea that civility requires respect of self, and that it enables us to discuss important differences head-on while truly respecting others. But it also helps us respect ourselves by empowering us to say no to others unapologetically.
KLUTSEY: Maintaining healthy boundaries, right? To me, it sounded as though one of the important aspects of civility is boundary setting. Does this seem valid to you?
HUDSON: Absolutely, it does. I’m so glad you picked that up because I came to that appreciation. I wanted to make sure I included that later in the book. What I had originally written in the book was about civility being respectful towards others and seeing personhood. But I also came to realize that a core root cause of so much incivility in our world today—and by incivility, I mean all manners of indecency and ad hominem attacks, even violence across difference, all of it, the vitriol in social media. Often, that originates from an insufficiently high view of the beauty and majesty of what it means to be human, the gift of humanity.
Often, people who are deeply uncivil and cruel and malicious, they have an insufficiently high view of self. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but often, that self-loathing—that poison that is manifested comes from a dark place of woundedness and self-loathing. I wanted to see that, that there’s this cliché that hurt people hurt people. It’s a cliché, but it’s also deeply—it’s a cliché because it’s true. It captures something really true about the human experience.
My hope is, I wanted to have a conversation and mention that there is an inward aspect to this as well. Yes, civility requires respecting others and having a high view of others, but it also requires and often it starts with having a really high view of self, the gift of who we are, the gifts that we each have as human beings. Often just having that compassion, that self-love, it helps us have a higher view of others and makes us want to respect others more.
The Sickness of the Soul
KLUTSEY: I was going to ask this later on, but since you mentioned it, that “hurt people hurt people,” you make an interesting point later in the book about whether we can be civil in an uncivil world. I get this question a lot when I talk about pluralism and toleration and so on. People ask, “Can you be tolerant toward intolerant people? Is that possible?” I think in the book you allude to the difference between Machiavelli and Socrates. Machiavelli says, “If you want to win, forget about civility.” Socrates has a different approach, and he said that those who dehumanize are hurting themselves, so best to stay civil so you don’t hurt your own soul.
HUDSON: Yes. Absolutely.
KLUTSEY: I was going to ask whether you’re on the Machiavellian side or the Socratic side, but it seems as though you’re clearly on the Socratic side.
HUDSON: I’d say so. I’d say safely on the side of—there’s lots to appreciate about Machiavelli, but I’m, on this issue, absolutely squarely on the side of Socrates here. Socrates says, “Virtue is health of the soul. Vice is sickness of the soul.” Someone who conducts themselves in such a way that they leave this trail of virtue wherever they go—I don’t know if you remember the example of my grandmother, “The Mellifluous Echo of the Magnanimous Soul,” that these people who live their lives in such a way that they just leave this trail, this sillage . . . In French, this word sillage, it’s a perfume word, but it’s the beautiful trail of scent it leaves in your wake.
I love that visual of sillage, the mellifluous echo—that people who are virtuous, who are good, who are kind, who are decent, that they benefit everyone that they meet. Not just their Uber driver, the cashier at the grocery store, but also the people who know them well. That they invest in them, they build them up, they ennoble those around them so much. Those people then go out, and it creates this ripple effect for good. Socrates would say that, again, virtue is its own reward because it’s health of the soul. It’s you benefiting yourself as well as others.
By contrast, vice is sickness of the soul. You might think that nice guys don’t get ahead, or why is it that bad people who are unbound by the rules, who pretend the rules of propriety and decency and honesty and integrity don’t exist—why do those people succeed? Socrates would say, “They’re not actually succeeding. Living with themselves is its own punishment because they know what they’ve done to get ahead, and that’s fleeting. That’s short-lived. They’ve done such damage to their soul. They’ve created such sickness of their own soul. That’s its own punishment.”
The same is true for civility. Treating people with decency and benevolence when people cannot do things for you, people who are powerless, who can’t return the favor, just because of the dignity and beauty of the other—that’s its own reward, that magic of that moment. By contrast, being cruel, malicious, debasing those around you, that’s its own punishment. It doesn’t just hurt the other; it hurts us too.
That’s Socrates, but that’s also Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I unpack his argument against segregation. I build on that in my argument for civility. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King writes, “Segregation is bad because it gives the segregator a false sense of superiority—
KLUTSEY: Superiority, right.
HUDSON: —and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.” Again, segregation doesn’t just hurt the segregated, it hurts the segregator too. The same is true for incivility: It hurts both parties involved. It deforms the spirit of the person who is the segregator, the one who is being vicious and violent, disparaging, as well as hurting the person to whom they are acting. Dr. King is great on this, and he, of course, was also influenced by Socrates. It’s all part of this iterative dialog, this rich and vibrant wellspring of ideas that I drew from to write this book and make this case.
How Divided Are We?
KLUTSEY: Now, I guess one of the reasons you wrote this book is to produce something that speaks to our current moment. You emphasized that we live in a divided moment. I’m curious to get your thoughts on, how divided are we? What’s the extent of our division? Should we be concerned that we’re entering civil war territory or not? What are your thoughts?
HUDSON: It’s a great question, Ben. Thanks for asking it. There is reason to be concerned. There is a reason that I wrote this book here and now. Part of my story is that I lived through a very divided time in Washington, D.C., in a very divided political administration and a very divided moment in history, and it took an enormous toll on my soul. I left government after a year of my life being told that I didn’t have value, I didn’t matter because of who I was, who I was affiliated with. And that took an enormous toll on my soul. I left government and had to think deeply about these first principles again.
I revisited Scripture. I revisited Socrates and Aristotle, Aquinas, Dr. King, other thinkers who had nourished me across my life to think deeply about these questions again. What does it mean to be human? What is the best way to live? What does it mean to live across deep differences? That’s the origin story of this book. Yet, as I started writing this book, Ben, I came to appreciate that, yes, this is a question now, an important question now in our moment. But this is a question that human beings have been grappling with for a very long time, since the dawn of our species, in fact. This is because of two competing facets in our soul, in our spirit.
We’re deeply social as a species. We thrive in community and relationship with others. We become fully human, the best version of ourselves, in relationship. And yet, we are also deeply self-interested. We’re defined by love of others and self-love. We’re biologically and morally driven to meet our own needs before others’. Those two aspects of our self are in tension, the love of others and love of self. Because of these two competing forces in our spirit and what it means to be human, the joint project of human community, of civilization itself, will always be fragile. It’s not a foregone conclusion.
It was so fun to explore these different books from different cultures that identify this issue and this tension. I loved learning, for example, that the oldest book in the world is a civility book. It’s a handbook on how to live with others that could have been written by Miss Manners today. It’s all about decency to the other. Don’t exert power over those who are weaker than you. Don’t gossip. You’d be surprised—or maybe you wouldn’t—by how common admonitions against gossip are across history and culture because it’s this social virus. It’s this thing that corrodes trust in community, and thoughtful people have known that across time and place.
Table manners, basic table manners. Don’t disgust others. All of this is treated in “The Teachings of Ptahhotep,” written 2600 B.C. in Ancient Egypt. [chuckles] His 38 maxims, virtually all of them are just as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago in Ancient Egypt. And so, to your point about whether we should be concerned about division today, yes, we should. Thankfully, I don’t think we’re on the brink of a civil war. We’ve been in dire straits before. We have been to civil war before.
I like to say that history is both caution and comfort. That it’s a caution because, again, like I just shared, we’ve been to civil war before; we’ve been here before. That’s a cautionary tale. Because we’ve been here before, we could be there again, and we should always keep that in mind—that fragility of civilization and community in mind.
But it’s also a comfort. Because we’ve been here before, we can learn from the lessons of history. How can we rebuild? How can we prevent us from getting to that brink again? I think having that mindset, having that curiosity toward history is such an advantage to us now. That’s part of why so much of my book draws from history, the stories of people who have come before us, so that we can learn from them and hopefully emulate the good and avoid the bad.
KLUTSEY: Yes. I think it’s interesting that you look, as you just said, at ancient texts and religious texts to understand the wisdom of the past. It seems to me that religion played a role in instructing us and institutionalizing ways to help us be more civil. Since we’re becoming less religious—people are spiritual but not religious; that number, that category is increasingly rising, but are moving away from traditional religion—we’re having to look for alternative ways to cultivate civility. Does that ring true to you at all?
HUDSON: Yes. That’s in my final chapter where I explore this important trend that you noted, Ben. I argue that it’s empirically verifiable. Researchers have been worried about these traditional touchstones of community, of meaning, being on the decline in recent decades—things like religion, as you noted, things like community. Religion, church and family—these are all traditional touchstones of meaning and joy, sources of joy that we have had across history and culture, and yet those have been declining in recent decades.
I argue that, as those traditional touchstones of meaning have become less important for whatever reason, people have increasingly found their meaning in public life, in politics, in political issues and in activism. That is a problem for our public discourse, for civility in our world today because, all of a sudden, we can’t just have an important and robust conversation about a policy issue. Now it’s like, “Oh, if you disagree with me on this policy issue, that’s an assault on who I am. That’s an assault on my identity,” because people have increasingly become so identified with these public issues.
That is the opposite of rational debate. It’s like just pure lizard brain is activated because, all of a sudden, we’re in fight-or-flight mode, and we’re not going to be rational and calm and dispassionate about these important issues. We’re not going to be able to be calm and see an issue from all perspectives. It’s like, “No, I am being attacked and I can’t abide that, and that’s why I’m going to shut this down, run away, attack.” I argue that we need to reclaim—well, first of all, make politics matter less. We’ve allowed politics and public issues—they’re important, but there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. [chuckles]
What we have to do is put politics back in its proper place and reclaim aspects of our lives that nourish us, that give us joy, that give us strength, that restore us, so that we can come back to public life together and do it better. Right now, we’re overdoing democracy, we’re overdoing politics, we’re overdoing public life. And as a result, we’re damaging politics, we’re damaging democracy and we’re damaging ourselves along the way. We’re damaging one another along the way because, again, we’re allowing other people to become purely means to our ends.
Our political issues, because they’ve become so equated with our identities, anything who’s not advancing our vision of the good is the enemy, and we’re going to do whatever—people are often motivated to do whatever is necessary to get them out of the way, to cut them down, to cut them out, to silence them in order to pursue our vision of the good. As opposed to, again, seeing people, our fellow human beings as worthy of respect in and of themselves, and not just means to our ends, people who either advance our ends or, if they’re in the way, getting them out of the way.
It requires retraining of the soul, retraining of the spirit to make what currently is taking so much of our consciousness—making that matter less and making room for the things that can give us life. Some of the examples I give are intellectual curiosity, friendship and beauty. Those are just some of the examples, and there are many, many other examples of things that we could turn to to help restore souls, again, as we make politics matter less and put it back in its proper place. Many other things we could turn to to restore us, but we have to have these things.
Otherwise, we’re just running on empty all the time and constantly, again, in this lizard-brain, fight-or-flight mode that’s not productive and not joy-filled. Life together, there’s high promise for it to be the good life. It is the best life, life together in community, and it should be joy-filled. It should be filled with delight. Often today, it doesn’t feel like it is because of these reasons.
Forgiveness and Freedom
KLUTSEY: Yes. One of the reasons I bring up religion, too, is that in the last section of your book, you talk about forgiveness. I think of how important—and how religious institutions are able to deal with forgiveness as a framework for fostering civility in society. That becomes a bit of a challenge, to deal with forgiveness outside of a faith context in order to foster civility. All very, very, very interesting.
Here’s an idea I found also very interesting in your book, that civility sustains the social contract. I’d love for you to elaborate on that. The idea that you can’t socially engineer civility, but it’s a bottom-up endeavor, and it’s doing a lot of heavy lifting to support our free society. You use the example of [former New York City mayor Michael] Bloomberg and others in that context. I’d love for you to elaborate on that, the idea that civility is able to sustain the social contract.
HUDSON: Yes. Just one point on your comment on forgiveness, and we can return to this later if you’d like, but thanks for bringing that up. I make the point that forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. It doesn’t mean sweeping the grievance under the rug and pretending like it never happened. That is a recipe for making the same mistake over and over again or enabling sociopaths and enabling abuse in any given communal context, the church context, any sort of community context.
That forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. It often means—again, back to what civility is, versus distinction from politeness—it requires airing hard truths and having really important, difficult conversations. That the polite thing to do might be to not have those conversations, to sweep it under the rug and diminish the grievance that might have occurred. But the civil thing to do—that’s the respect to both the victim and harmer, the person who did—the aggressor, the misdeed—is to have that reconciliation from both perspectives.
I’ll also really quickly share that reconciliation is the ideal, where both parties involved come together and mutually apologize (if that’s what’s appropriate) and just have that healing, that reconciliation. Sometimes, often, that’s not always possible, but you don’t need two people to forgive. You can forgive without forgetting, forgive without diminishing the injustice that has been done. But forgiveness, what it does is frees you from the burden. Again, this is me. I sometimes have trouble doing this myself. I laugh that maybe it’s the Irish in my blood. Honestly, I have a hard time forgiving sometimes. The one visual that is always really powerful to me: that bitterness, resentment, unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die.
For some reason in my life, I’ve often thought that holding on to bitterness and resentment toward others, even if they have no idea they’ve ever even hurt me, that that somehow gives me power. But that’s really just a burden that I carry that doesn’t affect them, but it does affect me. It drains me of my power, drains me of my energy, drains me of my time. Just a few comments I wanted to elaborate on on forgiveness, so thanks for inviting me to do that.
Back to your comment on freedom—so that’s my chapter on freedom that it sounds like you’re drawing your question from, which is so much fun. Students of political theory are familiar with this framework of the social contract. And this is the bond, the compact between the sovereign and the citizen where we say, “Okay, we’re going to surrender some of our natural rights and give those to the sovereign, and in exchange, we’re going to receive some protections.” The famous one that John Locke gave us is the right to life, liberty and property. Those are the protections that the sovereign will facilitate. They’re our natural rights that the sovereign protects because we give him some of our other rights.
Anyway, we’re familiar with this framework, but I argue that civility is the social contract that supports the social contract. The traditional social contract is vertical. It’s between citizen and sovereign. Civility is a social contract that is horizontal. It’s the citizen-to-citizen, unspoken, unwritten agreement that supports the relationship between the citizen and sovereign, that vertical social contract, the traditional one. That is because it governs, through norms and through rituals, our relationships in ways often, in our modern democratic context, that allow our government to stay limited by governing our individual interactions through, again, norms and rituals.
HUDSON: The danger is that when that social contract, that horizontal relationship between citizens—when that disintegrates, when that falls apart and there’s none of that modulation of our interaction, there’s none of that social trust that inhibits or curbs or facilitates how we interact with one another—if that goes on for too long and that becomes too much of a problem, the sovereign, the government is tempted to step in. People are not going to tolerate that for too long.
I give three examples. One is Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s, when he was the mayor of New York City, his politeness campaign. For some reason, it just came to a boiling point and a breaking point. And New Yorkers were ready, were sick of the impoliteness on the subway or just in daily life together—things like spitting on the street, putting your feet on the subway car, yelling at your kid’s Little League games, talking and having cellphones in movie theaters. All these were offenses. They became low-grade crimes that people could be fined for.
New Yorkers were outraged. They did not like the manners police coming around and being able to fine them, and so that did not last very long. It was very short-lived, very ineffective, but also very funny and a cautionary tale because that’s what happens. If people don’t govern themselves, then the government will be tempted, and often has and often will step in to force self-governance.
Another example that’s super funny is the Respect campaign, Tony Blair’s Respect campaign in London when he was mayor. Mayor? Prime minister?
KLUTSEY: Prime minister, yes.
HUDSON: Prime minister, sorry, yes. It was very similar to the Bloomberg campaign. One of the most egregious ones was a sort of noise ordinance on bad neighbors. The law was written in such a way where you could actually have your property taken from you if you were too bad of a neighbor and didn’t abide by these noise protocols. That, again, was also short-lived because people were like, “Whoa, this is a bridge too far. Let’s just keep our own conduct under control.”
There was also a similar campaign in Paris that was more—instead of being top-down, where you could be fined for not obliging with these rules and protocols and manners and basic decency, basic consideration of others, Paris went, as they often do, the public shaming route. They had these really hysterical—this whole public relations campaign with these hysterical posters of different animals being super slovenly and talking loudly on the phone and just doing outrageous things in public.
Saying like, “Average Parisian citizen, don’t be like this ugly sloth who’s manspreading on the subway,” or something like that. That actually was pretty effective. Of the three politeness campaigns in these Western democratic cities, the Parisian one was the most effective, that more appealed to people’s social conscience—which is very funny and, I think, a cautionary tale.
The Porching Revolution
KLUTSEY: Now, after your time in D.C., you move to Indiana and you discover a phenomenal concept called porching. Tell us about porching. What is it? Do we need more porching to cultivate civility?
HUDSON: Yes. Porching, I think it’s chapter five, my chapter on civility in civil society. The story is, I moved from Washington to the American Midwest. My husband’s from Indiana originally, which is why we moved here. The very first day after church—it was one of the first days we were at the church that we had decided to go to, and a woman comes up to us and says, “Hi, my name is Joanna Taft. Would you like to porch with us?” I had never heard the word “porch” used as a verb before. Intrigued, we joined her.
She had this great big historic home in a historic neighborhood in Indianapolis. It was just this place of community, a place of conversation. There was some drinks and some food, and there were people across political spectrums, across race, across religions, and it was just a place to convene. There was no structure, there was no organized event schedule or conversation. It was just a free-flowing place to get to know people across difference and have important and even unimportant conversations just about what’s going on in our neighborhood.
Joanna, I came to discover, is staging a revolution against our atomized and divided status quo from her front porch because she is reclaiming in a powerful way her sphere of influence and saying, “I can’t control what happens in Washington. I can’t even control what the mayor of Indianapolis does. But I can control what I do and how I use what I have.” What she has is her front porch, and what she’s choosing to do is every week convening people across difference to just be together, to just share a physical presence and get to know one another. That’s powerful. That’s magic. It forms this social trust that is so essential to forming and sustaining civil society and civic institutions.
I argue that porching, and the civility that porching enables and fosters, is the building block of civil society. The good news is, you don’t need to own a great big historic home with a great big front porch to have that disposition of porching, that disposition that says, “I’m going to build community wherever I go. I’m going to use what I have, whether it’s a stoop, whether it’s just a living room, whether it’s my front lawn, whatever it is, I’m going to open up my home, my heart to building community and to being this convener and to reaching across divides and facilitating trust and friendship that, again, sustains not just civil society, but also our democracy.”
Alexis de Tocqueville and many, many others—it’s a very rich tradition all the way back to Aristotle talking about the importance of civil society to a democracy and to human flourishing. But again, you don’t need to own a front porch. It’s not about what you have; it’s what you do with what you have. Again, it’s disposition. It’s how you approach others in the world around you with openness and grace and a welcoming, hospitable spirit. There’s magic and power to that. That’s my theory of social change. It’s enough people like Joanna choosing to reclaim their social sphere, saying, “I can’t change the world, but I can change myself.” Choosing to, every day, in the ways big and the ways small, to have an impact that way.
KLUTSEY: I guess one of the things I like about that recommendation is that it’s reachable. It’s something that one can do in their own sphere. You talk about third spaces: front lawn, living room, the park. That’s great.
KLUTSEY: Another thing you also talk about is the concept of unbundling people and how that helps with fostering civility. I guess you had to do your own unbundling with Socrates and Jean Vanier. I’d love for you to talk about that as well.
HUDSON: Yes, I love this idea of unbundling people. We live in this era of strange perfectionism, where we expect everyone to be perfect all the time and have everything figured out and always say and do the right thing. But as the English poet Alexander Pope said, to err is to be human; to forgive, he said, is divine.
KLUTSEY: Divine, yes.
HUDSON: What’s interesting about the moment and perplexing about the moment we live in is that we define people by their worst moments, by their worst faults, whether it’s that they make a mistake today or 20 years ago, and want to destroy them and define them by that. That’s the sum total of who we are. As opposed to seeing what it means to be human as, again, being these beings with irreducible dignity and worth that are capable of greatness, but also capable of wretchedness.
I get that “greatness and wretchedness” dichotomy from my favorite thinker, Blaise Pascal, a French scientist and polymath of the French Enlightenment, but he was anti-Enlightenment. He was skeptical of the Enlightenment even though he was this great Enlightenment scientist. He had this conception of the human condition, greatness and wretchedness of man, both/and. To expect this perfectionism really reduces us. It essentializes us to one aspect of who we are when in fact we’re all deeply complex, and we’re deeply flawed and deeply beautiful at the same time. What does it look like to keep all aspects of who we are, each of us, in mind at the same time—just the good alongside the bad or the bad alongside the good—and not, again, essentializing us to one aspect of who we are?
I like this idea of unbundling people. It’s like a mental framework and a mental way to say, “Okay, we are all this amalgamation of impulses, of passions, of goodness and badness and greatness and wretchedness all at the same time. Can we choose to see the part in light of the whole, the good in light of the bad, the bad in light of the good?”
I did this with two thinkers that are deeply important to me, two figures that are deeply important to me. One is Socrates, who I think is great but also has some bad ideas sometimes. For example, in Plato’s “Republic,” Socrates talks about abolishing the family. As a parent of two kids, I don’t support that idea. I happen to like the family. I love art and poetry; he is not a fan of music and poetry. He’s really skeptical, hates Homer. He was a proponent of eugenics. I’m not a fan of eugenics. I think it’s deeply evil.
As someone who has been so influenced by Socrates, how can I disambiguate his bad ideas from his good ones? Because he also gave me a deep appreciation of the unity of beauty, goodness and truth, and of the power of ideals and the way in which the world of ideas matters more than the world of the body, and that really high vision of the human soul and the human spirit. He gave me also the notion that was really important to me (and also to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) about virtue being its own reward, civility being its own reward, vice being its own punishment—that being cruel to others doesn’t just hurt others; it hurts us too.
How do I, can I view his good ideas alongside his bad ones? Can I choose to benefit and learn from his good ideas while dismissing his bad ones? Or should I just dismiss everything he’s ever done and written and said because he has a few bad ideas? No, I chose to, again, take the good alongside the bad, build on the good, discard the bad.
I had to do the same thing with Jean Vanier. Jean Vanier was a French Canadian thinker who founded these communities for people with physical and intellectual disabilities across the world called L’Arche. He wrote this wonderful book called “Becoming Human” about what he’s learned from people with intellectual and physical impairments, what he’s learned about the human condition by living alongside these people and how their vulnerability and their fear of not being seen for who they are and loved for who they are—how those get to fears that we all have. We all fear vulnerability. We all fear being seen and not fully known, or being seen and known but not loved. He has a really high view of the dignity of the human person, of what it means to be a human being in all of its forms, regardless of our capabilities, our economic output.
Anyway, he’s just a really powerful, really beautiful thinker who’s been important to me. And yet, after he died a few years ago, it came out that he was a serial abuser of women in his ministry, in his institution. He used his position of power to sexually exploit women that he had authority over. That was gutting. That was absolutely devastating to learn that he wrote so eloquently, so beautifully about the dignity of the person and the power of autonomy and the need to respect others and the need to humbly approach hierarchy in communities. You need hierarchy and equality to be in human relationship and to be fully joyful. Yet he didn’t live up to that in his own life.
What do I make of that? The fact that he didn’t live up to his own ideals—does that undermine his ideals of the dignity of the human person and the beauty to be learned, the insights to be learned from people with disabilities? No, I don’t think so. He’s an important thinker in my life and in my thought. I don’t feel that I’m tainted because I’ve been influenced by him and he did some very bad things. I can condemn what he did but also celebrate the beauty in his work. He did beautiful things in his life, as well, in creating these communities of friendship for people with intellectual disabilities and for people . . .
Those are two examples of unbundling that I did in my own life, but we can do that for people all around us every day. People who have hurt us, family members, colleagues—can we view the good alongside the bad instead of choosing to focus only on the negative and want to eradicate people from our lives, see them fired, see them just removed from the face of the earth because of something they’ve done or said?
That’s the impulse today. That’s the impulse in our public discourse, to cancel people, to shame them. That mob mentality that there’s no room for nuance there, there’s no room for truth, and there’s no room for complexity. But human beings deserve that. We are defined, again, by the greatness and wretchedness in our soul and our spirit.
Educating People in Civility
KLUTSEY: Yes. I guess one of the important parts of this is education. You talk about this in your section on civility in practice, and you highlight hospitality and education. I’d love for you to focus on the education part of it and highlight how, as you say, you have to cultivate a love of our fellow persons through education. Because obviously, civility is about human dignity and recognizing that dignity in each other. How do we do this?
HUDSON: I loved writing the chapter on education. I open the book talking about this duality in our nature, the duality between our love of others and our self-love, and how civility is the process of overcoming our self-love, at least often enough so that we can actually live together with others. If we’re only defined by our self-love or self-interest at all times, that’s a recipe for a lonely life, a life in isolation. No one’s going to want to be around you.
In my chapter in education, I unpack this very old conception of what education was and is, which is ordering our loves. It’s ordering our souls. This goes back to Plato. He talks about, a just soul is a soul where our rational mind rules our passions, our appetitive bellies, through our chest, through our discipline, through our courage, our thumos, our willpower. That is a rightly proportioned and a rightly ordered just soul: head, belly, chest. Plato says that a just society, a just regime is built up of people of just souls, of just citizens, where the head rules the belly through the chest, where our passions, our desires for whatever in life, are reined in by our will and our reason.
Plato says that the city is the soul, the individual soul writ large. Plato’s conception of a just society is the philosopher-king, the head, ruling the many, the deimos, the citizens, the belly, who are very appetitive and defined by their passions, through the chest, through a military class, through the praetorian class. Anyway, that’s Plato who says that.
Fast-forward a few hundred years, a Christian Platonist thinker named St. Augustine—he conceives of rightly ordered love as the ordo amoris. For him, education was very essential to that. Again, he’s very influenced by Plato. For Augustine, the ordo amoris is loving God first, others second, our self last. That comes from the dual commandment in the Christian New Testament where Christ says, “Love God, love others.” Augustine builds on that, and that’s his philosophy of education.
Anyway, all that to say is that this concept of ordering our loves, ordering our souls, that’s what education has been across history. That’s what it should be today. It’s teaching us what we ought to love, countering the parts of our soul and our nature that’s like gravity to love ourselves first, and training us through habit and instruction and example to love others first, to cultivate this general affection of mankind that we’re not always necessarily born with. We’re born loving ourselves first, and then our love of others has to be cultivated and maintained and refined over time. Loving ourselves is easy. Meeting our own needs is easy. Again, biologically and morally, we know that we have to meet our own needs before others’ to perpetuate ourselves.
That’s what we have to do to survive, is to meet our own needs. But to thrive, we need others, we need community, and we need friendship. I unpack these ancient concepts of paideia and humanitas. In ancient Greece, paideia was soul-craft—again, this notion of ordering our souls as crafting our souls. Paideia means both education in Ancient Greek, but also culture. It was this essential way of cultivating the fullness of our humanity, bringing out the best version of who we are and cultivating our fullness of our potential so that we could serve in public life and bring our best selves to relationships with others.
That concept of paideia was rendered in the Latin humanitas, that concept in the Roman Empire of humanitas, which had a connotation of philanthropy in the original sense, which is philo, love of others, philanthropy. The idea there as well was to, again, have an education that ordered our souls, cultivated our souls and helped us bring our best selves to public life. It was often an education that was fit for public leaders, people who were going to serve in public life.
In the Renaissance, these ideas were revived and rendered again in the concept of civility. That civility was this process of ordering our loves, and it was a whole approach to education, of cultivating the soul, bringing out the fullness of who we are, our greatest potential so that we could live well with others—again, countering our self-love and misanthropy, the cruelty toward others.
Cruelty to others, incivility—that was conceived as an underdeveloped soul, someone who didn’t have a sufficiently high appreciation of what it meant to be human in ourselves or in others. Education was essential to countering that tendency in our spirit, cultivating the fullness of our humanity because as we appreciated our own humanity, again, we began to appreciate the humanity in others as well.
It was really interesting to track this etymological link, but also conceptual link across history because it’s a really helpful tradition for us to think about in our own world today. There are institutions doing this who have the same conception, the same view, the same approach to education. I feature a public charter school network in Texas and Arizona called the Great Hearts Academies that has this exact approach to education. It’s happening; there’s hope. How do we get more of it, though? That’s the question.
Is Alexandra Hudson Optimistic?
KLUTSEY: Yes. As we wrap up this conversation, I’d love for you to reflect on this. We ask all our guests to do this, and it’s about optimism. Are you optimistic that we will improve the level of civility in our society right now from where it is? Obviously, most people see that there’s a bit of a challenge, and we are a lot more polarized than we used to be. Are you optimistic that the efforts, including your book and the work that others are doing, will move the dial ahead so that we can be a more civil people?
HUDSON: I am hopeful. There is no magic bullet. It’s not like my book or one person’s individual effort is the thing, but it’s the accumulation of many people’s efforts and many people’s decision to be part of the solution.
I’ll tell you a story. In ancient Rome, Marcus Aurelius, when he was emperor, he endowed four chairs of philosophy. For the Platonists, he endowed the Academy. For the Aristotelians, he endowed the Lyceum. You can visit both these places in Greece, by the way. That’s a future book that I’m writing. Anyway, for the Epicureans, he endowed the Garden. For the Stoics, he endowed the Stoa or the front porch. I love this story because the disposition of front-porching that Joanna has—it’s a very Stoic concept. Again, you can’t look outward and expect other people to change. You can’t change the world, but you can change yourself.
I believe deeply that if enough people choose to have that disposition of Stoic front-porching, that will change the world. If enough people choose to have a disposition of civility, that we can change our world for the better, but it starts with each of us. It starts with people ceasing to blame the other party, X, Y, Z political leader, and saying, “What can I do? I can turn off the TV, I can be decent to my neighbor, I can invite a new friend into my life, into my home.” Those are essential. Those are foundational to a new beginning, to a more civil era.
KLUTSEY: Lexi, thank you for helping us land this on an optimistic and hopeful note. I really appreciate you taking the time to come on. Thank you very, very much.
HUDSON: Thanks for having me, Ben.