Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 10/20/23

The Soul of CivilityAlexandra O. Hudson

Click hate. If you’re like me you probably find the perusing of the comments section of any website (particularly the ones that deal with current events and politics) to be a disheartening activity as they have become places where any attempt at civil discourse is usually quickly overwhelmed by tidal waves of vile snark that seems intent of dehumanizing anyone who holds a differing perspective. You have to wonder at what point does nasty verbal exchanges pave the way for violent physical exchanges and even wars. Rather than cursing the cursers Civic Renaissance Founder Alexandra Hudson opts to shine a light on promoting more productive communication options in her new book The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves.
JWK: Why did you write this book?
Alexandra Hudson: I wrote this book as a humanistic manifesto which I discovered to be necessary after living and working in government during a time of great polarization and dehumanization of the “other.” My hope is that offering a philosophy of civility grounded in human dignity can help us recover a sense of our duties to one another as members of the human community, namely what we are owed and what we owe to one another, because of our shared dignity as human beings.

JWK:  You say there’s a difference between politeness and true civility. Can you explain that difference?

AH: Civility is a disposition, a way of seeing others as beings endowed with dignity and inherently valuable. Politeness, by contrast, is a technique. It is decorum, mores and etiquette. Politeness, the thing that manners and mores serve, is neither good nor bad in itself. It can be used for good or for ill depending on a person’s inner motivation—depending on whether they’ve adopted the disposition of civility. At its best, the form of politeness can help mitigate the awkwardness, discomfort, and annoyance inherent in social life—but it will only ever apply surface-level fixes and will never be enough to help us navigate our profound and important disagreements. At its worst, politeness makes difference and disagreement worse by fostering feelings of selfishness, pride and superiority over others. Politeness can be – and has been – weaponized to penalize difference, oppress vulnerable populations and voices and silence dissent.

Civility requires rediscovering a general regard for our fellow persons and citizens. It demands that we revive the basic respect we’re all owed and that we owe to one another in light of our shared moral status as members of the human community. We need the disposition that comes from seeing other persons as intrinsically valuable and worthy of respect despite deep differences.

JWK: I also heard you say that peace and civilization are fragile and are not a foregone conclusion, that we assume they are but they aren’t. Can you elaborate on that?
AH: The enterprise of human beings coming together in cooperation, collaboration, mutual understanding and dependence is fragile. It relies on the daily decision we make to suppress the selfishness and lust for domination in our nature. We must make this decision again and again—each person for him or herself and each generation for itself, each day, every day—in order for civilization to survive.

The human condition is a contradiction, capable of greatness and wretchedness. We are each a bundle of desires and impulses that are constantly at cross-purposes. The central tension in our nature is between our sociability and our self-love.

We are communal beings who yearn for friendship, love and companionship. We flourish in relationship with others and are capable of immense generosity and altruism.
On the other hand, we are plagued with an intractable self-love. Our biology drives us to meet our own needs before those of others. Civility calls us to overcome our self- love so that we might thrive with others. Civility helps us properly channel our self- love and cultivate our social natures by requiring us to make the sacrifices necessary for society and civilization. It demands that we treat with respect those we do not like, those who are not like us, those we do not need favors from and those who cannot do things for us in return. Our drive for self-preservation means that we must consciously battle the perennial temptation to see the world and others exclusively through the lens of our own experiences and advancement. We instrumentalize people when it suits us—and are quick to (at least) appear to be kind and generous when we have something to gain. Because of the duality in our nature—self-love and love of others—civilization is always fragile. In helping us overcome the self and treat others with the respect they deserve by virtue of our shared humanity, civility supports the fragile project of civilization and human social community.

JWK: The recent terrible events in Israel certainly are proof of what happens when civility totally breaks down. What are your thoughts on that?

AH: Civility is the basic respect we are owed and owe to others by virtue of our shared humanity. When stakes are high—in times of important elections, in war— there is a temptation to dehumanize those we disagree with. It makes it easier to do or say what’s necessary to win if we diminish their dignity as human beings and, therefore, diminish our sense of obligation to them. Our integrity is tested precisely when there are no consequences for our actions—where we treat others with the decency and baseline of respect they deserve by virtue of their being human alone and not because someone is forcing us to do so. Its when the stakes are high that we need civility most, both in seasons of domestic strife and high stakes elections—and especially in times of war.

JWK: The division in our own country seems to be growing ever deeper – with not just disagreement but demonization of dissenting ideas and disagreement becoming the norm. It feels like any sense of American civility is on the brink of totally breaking down. How do we restore the value of reasoned and civil debate?
AH: Reclaiming the soul of civility starts with each of us…In a culture that is inclined to withdraw, we can reach out. In a moment of division, we can bridge the divide. In an era that excludes, we can include. In an era of tribalism, we can embrace difference. In a time that elevates self, we can elevate others. In doing so, we can be part of healing the personal and social hurt caused by our tribal, toxic status quo and of moderating the excesses of hostility and atomization and destructive politeness that define our public life today. In choosing to embody civility, we each have the chance to promote individual flourishing, civil society and our free and democratic way of life.

JWK: How can we learn to honestly state our serious disagreements about public policies, history or whatever the issue may be in a manner that is respectful – and maybe seeks to understand the other side’s point of view?

AH: In my book, I develop the idea of “unbundling” people. Often, we reduce people to one aspect of who they are. We define them by their worst trait or mistake—something they said or did, which they probably regret but which, thanks to the internet and social media, has been immortalized and widely circulated. It is time that we start “unbundling” people. Our current culture views the world and people through a cheapened simplicity. Everything, and everyone, is either right or wrong, good or evil. We define people based on one thing they’ve done or said, sometimes even if it occurred years or decades ago and “cancel” them for it. This view of the world and people is reductive, essentializing and degrading to the diversity and beauty of the human personality. We’ve adopted a strange perfectionism, intolerant of anything less than flawlessness. Each of us has within us a little bit good and a little bit bad. Unbundling people can help us reclaim a full, nuanced and rich view of the human person. It can help us see the part in light of the whole, mistakes in light of virtues.

Can we outgrow our sterile, static view of others and challenge ourselves to hold in mind multiple traits and characteristics of others—both virtues and vices—at once? Can we recognize the mistakes of others while at the same time remaining mindful of the irreducible human dignity of our fellow human beings—and the basic respect they are owed in light of that? I hope so. Civility and our future depends on it.

JWK: Beyond personally being respectful of differences – which I think most people on a personal level try to do – what role do you think corporate and social media plays in exacerbating social tensions?  My mother used to say “It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it.” Do you think that insight could aptly be applied to media, particularly social media? It seems to me, for example, that maybe social media sites could more helpfully promote civil conversation if they spent less time policing what somebody considers “misinformation” and more time holding up standards regarding such things as cursing and name calling – both of which are rampant and hardly conducive to reasoned discourse.

AH: Technology, soulless gadgets and faceless corporations are easy scapegoats for our problems today. Yet blaming social media as the cause of the many contemporary problems we face takes away our power to make important changes in our world. We each have an opportunity—and duty—to improve the tenor and alleviate the toxicity of our public discourse.
When I left Washington, DC, I withdrew from public life. Overwhelmed by the problems I saw firsthand, I resolved to better invest my time and energy in my own little corner of the world. I started a newsletter and intellectual community, Civic Renaissance, as an attempt to cultivate my digital garden. I couldn’t snap my fingers and improve the state of civility in our country or world but I could change myself and do what I could to make my own sphere of influence a small part of the solution.
Online groups can create their own guidelines for engagement and enforce them. Norms should be geared toward fundamentally respecting others and facilitating respectful, reasoned, robust conversation, keeping the dignity of the human person front of mind. Individuals can create their own personal set of principles to follow in their own lives too…It’s easy for people to despair at the state of our national conversation and to conclude, based on what they read on Twitter or watch on cable news, that no one is interested in pursuing the truth and no one is worth engaging with seriously. Incivility in all its dehumanizing forms—from bullying, slandering, online shaming, spreading lies and misinformation, and more—flourishes in anonymity and isolation. Our technologically mediated modes of communication enable us to depersonalize and dehumanize others. We must resist that temptation. When we forget that there is a human being on the other end of a digital interaction, when our interactions are depersonalized, we become part of the problem. In elevating our technological practices and how we interact with others—in making eye contact and being present with people personally, in cultivating our digital garden—we can be part of the solution.

JWK: I think one of the greatest threats to our domestic tranquility is that we’re at the point in this country where even the results of our elections are being challenged. While I would agree that it’s a mistake to go back and re-litigate what happened in 2020, I think it’s also a mistake to dismiss election skepticism with catch phrases like “the big lie.” Do you agree with me that steps must be taken so that future elections be seen as secure and the outcomes reliable?

AH: It’s essential that we have difficult conversations about issues facing our country—what civility requires— instead of silencing and sweeping them under the rug—what politeness would prefer. Take Braver Angels, the largest grassroots depolarization network in the nation. They chose to have a conversation and debate about election integrity when everyone in the depolarization space told them not to. April Lawson, the founder of Braver Angels, was convinced that they had to have a dialogue about an issue that half the country was inflamed about. How could they not?As John Stuart Mill wrote “The worst offense of this kind which can be committed by a polemic, is to stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men.” Too often today, we demonize people we disagree with instead of seeing them as people who are mostly like us and, maybe, have wrong views on a single matter.

JWK: Anything you’d like to say as we wrap up?

AH: Thank you for your interest in civility grounded in humanity—at least one part of the answer to healing our deep divisions!
The Christmas box office race is on. A new trailer dropped this week for The Boys In The Boat. Directed by George Clooney, the inspirational sports drama is set to arrive in theaters on Dec. 25th.  Based on a bestselling book the film tells the true story of the University of Washington rowing team that competed for gold at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. It looks the kind of old-fashioned crowd-pleasing movie America could use right now.

John W. Kennedy is a writer, producer and media development consultant specializing in television and movie projects that uphold positive timeless values, including trust in God.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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