Arguing Alone: On Alexandra Hudson’s “The Soul of Civility”

Alex Bronzini-Vender considers Alexandra Hudson’s “The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves.”

Arguing Alone: On Alexandra Hudson’s “The Soul of Civility”

The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves by Alexandra Hudson. St. Martin’s Press. 416 pages.

AS FAR AS our cultural understanding of “civility” goes, we live in strange times. George W. Bush’s presidential library implores us to “engage in civil dialogue.” Mike Pence rails against his ex-boss’s “siren song.” We are called to remember the likes of Ronald Reagan as one of the last leaders of an era of bipartisanship, honor, and civility. When politicians invoke civility, it’s usually cynically, as they aim to whitewash their reputations, or worse. To heed this crowd’s exhortations toward civility would be, by any just standard, uncivil.

I understand why many find civility a deeply questionable—if not totally worthless—discourse: cries for civility are often just attempts to silence desperate demands for justice, cloaked in the language of liberal rationality and tolerance. As Martin Luther King Jr. himself famously put it, civility is too often a weapon of the “white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Many of us are skeptical when someone brings up civility, and for good reason.

Nevertheless, I found Alexandra Hudson’s new book The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves unexpectedly compelling. Civility, as Hudson rightly defines it, does not preclude, and even requires, conflict. Hudson writes that civility is rooted in “shared humanity.” To truly recognize someone as your equal, you must be willing to tell them hard truths. And rather than merely bemoaning the loss of vaguely defined civility in American culture, Hudson offers a deeply informed, cross-cultural study of what civility is, and, arguably even more importantly, isn’t.

Civility is not politeness, which, Hudson writes, often runs counter to civility because it serves to mask misanthropy on both the interpersonal and political level. Indeed, politeness derives, as Hudson notes, from the Latin polire: to polish, to make smooth. (In her earlier career on Capitol Hill, Hudson encountered no shortage of co-workers who smoothed over their Machiavellian ways with superficial politeness.) She mines sources ranging from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Guy Debord, crafting a deeply informed definition of civility that avoids clichéd liberal pitfalls about the virtue of tolerating repellant beliefs.

Civility, of course, doesn’t emerge from nowhere. The Soul of Civility isn’t just about theorizing what civility is; it is also about the spaces that nurture it, an intervention in a dialogue that often frames the United States’ present incivility as an en masse moral failing rather than a symptom of deeply atomized times. The country’s slide into populist resentment politics hasn’t been the result of individual moral failings on a mass scale but the controlled demolition of the American public sphere. As Robert Putnam noted in his seminal study, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), Americans are far less likely than ever to spend time socializing as members of community organizations.

In the absence of shared community spaces, it should shock no one that the civility Hudson writes of has been supplanted by resentment politics. Too many people felt an inchoate sense of not belonging anymore. This, though certainly among many other factors, produced the resentment politics of the Trump era and, previously, the racially charged vitriol of the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton years.

The incivility of the Trump years, unfortunately, was not as exceptional as many believed it to be; we often forget Clinton’s racist use and abuse of Black “superpredators” and “welfare queens,” as well as the frighteningly successful 1990s presidential campaigns of Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, and KKK grand wizard David Duke. Right-wing nationalism is hardly as recent a phenomenon as many would like to believe.

Yet Hudson’s approach to the topic is structured by neoliberal assumptions. Though Hudson promises a wide-ranging defense of a value “essential to our democracy, to our freedom, and to human flourishing across history and culture,” her analysis fails to probe the more controversial ends of why civility is in such short supply to begin with. Hudson devotes laudable attention to the spaces that nurture civility, but she doesn’t analyze why those spaces have vanished. The decline of American civil society didn’t happen spontaneously, and, in neglecting to acknowledge the structural forces that caused it, The Soul of Civility fails to realize its full potential. In doing so, she risks portraying the United States’ present incivility as a moral failing en masse rather than the result of discrete political-economic processes.

It is hardly coincidental that the crack-up of American civic life coincided with capital’s offensive in the 1980s. Unions—the cornerstone of working-class civic engagement and a strong predictor for a general positive attitude toward democracy—were the first victims of the neoliberal revolution, and their near-total obliteration precipitated the radicalization and alienation that has driven the working class into the arms of the populist right. Even right-wing political organizations haven’t been spared: as Tariq Ali noted in New Left Review, even the British Tories—like the old Workingmen’s Associations—have become a fractured, demobilized specter of themselves in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s market reforms.

This choice is no mere oversight. Instead, it reflects the most questionable facet of Hudson’s worldview: she is deeply skeptical of mass political action and rejects politics wholesale as a means toward change. “We can’t change society,” Hudson writes, “but we can change ourselves and how we operate in the world around us. And if enough of us decide to change ourselves, we might be able to change the world we live in, too.” It sounds inspiring, sure, but the notion that the only way to change society is through collective self-help—and the implications that this belief has for the value of democratic participation—becomes more uncomfortable the longer one thinks about it. In another passage, Hudson writes, “It’s easy to look around us at the divided state of the world and blame our public leaders, the media, our education system, and more. But that’s not a productive way to spend our time. Instead, we should focus on what we can control. Us.”

Beyond its questionable implications about democracy, this logic seems to affirm the same ideas underpinning the decline of American civil society. If we can only change ourselves, and must divert our critical gaze away from society at large, then what’s the point of joining a union, or a political party, or any of the myriad organizations whose existence is predicated upon demanding civic change? Isn’t the whole point of community to share responsibility for each other, rather than focusing solely upon ourselves? Further, much of the populist right pitch centers upon the notion that working-class solidarity and mass political action are pointless, and only a strongman like Donald Trump can protect hardworking Americans. By disowning mass action and pushing the premise that “we can only change ourselves,” Hudson affirms the logic that has reinforced the United States’ atomized, uncivil state.

Though restoring civility to American society cannot be a technocratic project, community institutions, as scholar Tyler A. Harper points out, do not thrive without a government that funds and defends them. A low minimum wage might force people into working several jobs, time that would otherwise be spent among friends, teammates, and congregation members. A town without strong schools and libraries won’t have lifelong readers and therefore book clubs, and a state that permits union busting won’t have unions. Though any of us could individually start book clubs, or organize unions, or join churches, the premise that vast swaths of Americans can be convinced to do so overnight is plainly utopian.

If we are to challenge incivility, we must challenge the neoliberal paradigm that has pulverized American civil society. What will it take? Not useful advice alone—though it has its role—but also the mass political action that Hudson seems to disown. American civic life didn’t collapse spontaneously, and it won’t be rebuilt spontaneously.

LARB Contributor

Alex Bronzini-Vender is a writer living in New York. His writing has appeared in Current Affairs.


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