The art of being civil

If politeness and manners can mask ill intent, what is true civility and why does it matter?

Editor’s note: This story is part of Deseret Magazine’s January/February double issue addressing political polarization.

In fall 2017, I joined a group of congressional staffers, civil servants and political appointees from across the political spectrum on a weekend retreat along Maryland’s Wye River at the invitation of The Aspen Institute, a D.C.-based think tank. The majestic trees, the crisp air, the ripples of the river and the whispers of the clouds elevated our minds from the mire of Washington, and provided an ideal backdrop to our exploration of the weekend’s theme: challenges to civil discourse in America, past and present. 

Our country was founded on protest and revolution. Could these modes ever be civil? Is civility always good — or are there times when departing from civility is justified? And what is civility anyway? The disagreement was honest, fierce and respectful. Our conversation about big and important ideas was a soul-refreshing reprieve from the survivalism and animosity that defined my day-to-day experience in government. For the first time in nearly a year, I felt able to voice my thoughts honestly and without fear of offending anyone and making myself a target. It was a breath of fresh air, and invigorated my soul.

As our group discussed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” I recognized three insights about civility — the “why” behind civility and our duty to respect others that I had longed for my entire life — which I had not fully appreciated before. The letter, directed at fellow clergy who criticized King’s civil disobedience approach, helped me understand why I was dissatisfied with the two extremes of aggressive hostility and duplicitous politeness so pervasive during my service in government. It also reminded me that it wasn’t just government that struggled with instrumentalizing others. Doing so was part of the human condition, and could happen within any vocation, in any environment, in any period of time.

First, King’s letter taught me that there is a moral foundation for civility. Treating others with decency, dignity and respect is nonnegotiable, because they are our fellow human beings. When discussing the evils of racial segregation, King invokes Martin Buber’s I-It and I-Thou distinction. It is wrong to use others, because this treats a person — a “thou” — as though they were a thing — an “it.” Why? As King said, human beings share an irreducible, equal moral worth. We have dignity, King noted, which is why he dedicated his life to creating a world without the evils of racism, and “in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”

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King’s words helped me realize that the defining ethos of my time in government was instrumentalizing others — seeing them as a means to an end instead of beings with dignity and moral worth, and as ends in themselves. But this tendency is not unique to politics or D.C. It can surface anywhere, anytime, because it emerges from part of the human personality that we all share. Human dignity was the moral bedrock for King’s battle against racism. It is also the moral foundation for civility and any environment of human flourishing.

The two extremes of aggression and faux niceness, present during my government service and in our public life more broadly, corrode human dignity because they instrumentalize human beings — treating them as “its” and not “thous.” Those who are hostile and demeaning to others see people as mere means or obstacles to their ends, to be degraded and discarded along the way. Those who weaponize politeness — putting a polished exterior over malicious intent — view human beings as pawns to be manipulated. We must recover King’s view of personhood and human dignity — a way of looking at others that sees them as ends in themselves, and worthy of our respect. King’s philosophy of personhood helps us recover the moral foundation of civility: the basic duty we have to all people, including those who are unlike us, who disagree with us, or who can do nothing for us in return.

Second, in the same way that there are just and unjust formal laws, there are just and unjust informal laws. Informal laws include mores, manners and social norms. King’s letter offers a litmus test for how to distinguish between just and unjust laws. A just law is one that uplifts human personality, while an unjust law degrades it. King writes, “All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”

Civility is much deeper, richer and of greater import than politeness, or external compliance with rules of etiquette.

His framework also applies to norms of civility, and can help us distinguish between just and unjust informal social mores. To paraphrase King, any social norm that uplifts human personality is just, while any norm that degrades human personality is unjust. A just social norm is rooted in eternal and natural law. Social norms that divide, silence and oppress distort the soul and damage the human personality — that of the person being oppressed, but also that of the one who does the oppressing.

Our task is to continue King’s work, elevating norms that affirm the dignity of the human person and the unity of the human community, and devaluing norms that degrade personhood and divide us. King knew that not all laws, formal or informal, were equal, and that even laws formed with good intent could be applied in unjust ways. I found this to be true in government when I saw people use norms of common decency and courtesy as a means of disarming and undermining unsuspecting others. Even well-intended norms can be applied in ways that instrumentalize others and can therefore be harmful. The motivation behind our compliance with social practices matters. It can transform a just law or norm into an unjust one. Blindly following hard and fast social rules — like unthinkingly following the blunt instrument of law — is not enough to promote justice, and can sometimes lead to injustice. Our loyalty must be to the “bedrock of human dignity” — the moral foundations of all just formal and informal laws — first.

Third, there is a fundamental difference between civility and politeness. People tend to use these terms interchangeably when referring to all things to do with mores, manners and etiquette, as well as to general standards of social propriety and living well together. But not all social norms are equal — or desirable. Civility — the motivation behind our conduct that sees other persons as our moral equals and worthy of basic respect — is much deeper, richer and of greater import than politeness, or external compliance with rules of etiquette. Politeness and manners are the form, the technique, of an act, but civility is more.

King’s letter helped me realize the need to identify and name the way of being that allows us to navigate life together amid deep differences. This is civility. Instead of focusing on the form alone, civility gets to the motivation of an act. Civility is a disposition that recognizes and respects the common humanity, the fundamental personhood, and the inherent dignity of other human beings. In doing so, civility sometimes requires that we act in ways that appear deeply impolite, such as telling people difficult truths or engaging in civil disobedience — the example that King uses.

History is peppered with brave individuals who stood up to the authorities of their day out of commitment to a higher moral authority. King gives the example of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s rejection of the laws of King Nebuchadnezzar, or early Christians who were willing to face the lions rather than renounce their faith, and even those who participated in the Boston Tea Party — the act of disobedience that instigated America’s war for independence. Protest and civil disobedience, I came to realize, epitomize the soul of civility — the disposition and conduct befitting a member of the civitas, or the city and political community of citizens. Life in human community requires that we have a basic respect for our fellow persons.

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This fundamental respect for the personhood of others empowers us — and, in fact, obligates us — to be civil, not polite. We owe others the truth when we think they’re wrong. We owe our fellow citizens and community action in the face of injustice. I realized that the tradition of civil disobedience is central to reviving a more accurate understanding of civility in our own era, and to recovering a mode of interacting that can enable us to navigate profound disagreements.

Finally, I realized that when we are uncivil to others, we hurt ourselves. King wrote that racist laws gave the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Like segregation, incivility deforms the soul of both the abuser and the abused. Also like segregation, incivility often originates from an inaccurately low view of personhood. Often, people lash out at others because of their own inaccurate view of self. This can manifest in their deriving their validation in abusing others; but harming others only makes them feel lesser. Appreciating the gift of being human — and realizing that when we hurt others with our incivility, we hurt ourselves — is central to reclaiming basic decency in our world. 

From “The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves”’ by Alexandra Hudson. Copyright © 2023 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

This story appears in the January/February 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.