Have you ever been approached by someone who was extremely polite, only to later realize this niceness had been used to hurt or take advantage of you in some way?  

Me too. It’s perhaps understandable then, that some people recoil when they hear the word “civility,” especially if they’ve had a similar experience with faux politeness covering up harmful intent. 

More and more of us have also seen this kind of duplicitous niceness used to silence dissent and free expression

“Just make sure to not say anything that would offend or hurt someone’s feelings.” 

These kinds of worries hang heavy in the air for many of us today — and they often keep us quiet, even when we might feel a need to raise our voices about a truth that needs advancing or defending.  

That’s why I was so struck by an Aspen Institute retreat I attended in 2017 with a group of congressional staffers, civil servants and political appointees, when we openly explored disagreements honestly, fiercely and respectfully. 

This conversation was a breath of fresh air — a soul-refreshing reprieve from the survivalism that defined my day-to-day experience working in government. For the first time in a long while, I felt able to voice my thoughts honestly and without fear of offending anyone and making myself a target. 

This kind of intimidation is “everywhere,” according to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, telling me in a recent interview that its constant presence is making our liberal democracy go “haywire.” 

I’ve found myself wondering ever since how to better capture the differences between the kind of uniquely replenishing experience — and the many soul-sapping encounters that seem increasingly common. I keep running up against the fact that “politeness” and “civility” have come to be largely synonymous in the minds of Americans today, and even in our dictionaries. 

But in practice, they are not the same. The word “polite” comes from the Latin polire, which means “to polish, to make smooth.” This implies an appearance-centric diminishing of our differences, along the way to minimizing social friction at all costs. 

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By comparison, civility comes from the Latin civilis, which invokes the status, conduct and character befitting a citizen. More than mere conformity to particular rules of conduct, civility is a disposition that recognizes and respects the common humanity, the fundamental personhood and the inherent, irreducible dignity we all share as human beings.

It was this deeply Christian ethos that animated Martin Luther King Jr.’s work years ago. Like him, we would do well to recover this 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.

“A liberal democracy requires at least that we all refrain from intimidation,” Haidt told me — “jostle, persuade, use political pressure, but we never hurt people physically, threaten livelihoods or destroy their reputation.” 

The core question, he added, is this: “Am I going to treat you as a fellow citizen who I must persuade — or as an object who I can beat and destroy?”

Beyond mere semantics, these distinctions around civility could make a difference in real life. For instance, imagine someone you love and respect voices a political opinion with which you disagree. 

If it’s mere politeness you’re operating from, you’d be inclined to “polish” over difference and avoid tough conversations because that is the easier — if not most respectful — course. You might change the subject to something less controversial, smoothing over differing opinions in order to avoid the conflict. 

By contrast, conversations animated by true civility share potentially challenging ideas, but do so in love, care and kindness for the other person. Disagreements are voiced in a respectful tenor, precisely because of the deep sense of worth for others.  

A civil person knows that respecting someone means not patronizing them. And they appreciate that we owe others the truth when we think they’re wrong — even if it risks appearing deeply impolite. 

At the same time, a civil person would know how to gently de-escalate a conversation, as relationships matter more than winning an argument. That’s because there is something even more important than verbal contests for this person — namely, the person who is standing right in front of them. 

Even and especially when we harbor deep disagreements, a disposition of true civility insists on seeing other persons as intrinsically valuable and worthy of respect. 

That word “respect,” by the way, comes from the Latin word “specere,” which means “to look at.” So for anyone we see harshly, respect encourages us to “re-inspect” others — trying to see them again at a deeper level for the persons they really are: beings with innate dignity. 

All of this clearly goes well beyond mere politeness, or external compliance with rules of etiquette, which can be used for good and ill — and just as easily abused to instrumentalize others and promote self-advancement. 

Many modern criticisms of civility should, in fact, be directed toward superficial politeness, which can very much become a vehicle for aggression. But true civility again never silences or steamrolls. In putting the dignity of the other person front and center, it instead seeks to listen and learn.

Baptist leader Russell Moore told me that civility alone may be “too low of a bar” — suggesting kindness as moving beyond just coexisting together, to “actively seeking your own good.” 

“But civility would sure be a great place to start,” he added — which former governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels called a “prerequisite to the peaceful resolution of our differences.”

On the surface, this back and forth between our different perspectives may seem impolite — but is crucial to navigating life together amid deep differences. 

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By comparison, it’s easy to see that politeness alone is unequal to the task of healing our social, political and cultural rifts. 

Let’s go deeper. Politeness may be easy, with civility requiring great effort.

But it’s worth it. There really is no other way. 

Alexandra O. Hudson has a master’s degree in public policy at the London School of Economics and teaches as an adjunct professor at the Indiana University Lilly School of Philanthropy. Her first book is “The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves from St. Martin’s Press. She lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, with her husband and children.

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