Alexandra Hudson joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss her book The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today’s show is Alexandra Hudson. She’s a writer, a speaker, and the author of Civic Renaissance, which is a newsletter dedicated to ennobling the public discourse with the wisdom of the past. She’s an adjunct professor at the University of Indiana’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Her writing on history, culture, etiquette, and other topics has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Time, and other publications, including City Journal.

Today, we’re going to discuss her recent book, The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves, which looks at how respecting others is key to building civil society and fostering a more civil public discourse, I guess we would say.

Lexi, thanks so much for joining us on the show today.

Alexandra Hudson: A pleasure to be with you, Brian. Thanks for having me.

Brian Anderson: Many people might not know this, but your mother’s an expert on politeness. Judi The Manners Lady wrote books, she recorded CDs, visited schools to teach kids how to be respectful to others and behave properly during your childhood. You’ve noted that you often resisted the rules of etiquette she imposed, but you later found them valuable as you got older.

While working in politics, though—and you’ve been in the American Enterprise Institute and other places in your career, served in government—you discovered that politeness is not necessarily a perfect good or an unalloyed good in dealing with others. Civility, you say, should be our true aim. So maybe we start there. Could you define how you understand civility and how it is distinct from politeness?

Alexandra Hudson: Thanks, Brian. That’s, you’re right, a core argument of my book, which actually was originally titled Against Politeness, that’s the title under which I sold this book to St. Martin’s Press several years ago. And my editor, bless him, George Witte, he decided to take the book and the project in a more hopeful direction, better to be for something, as embodied in The Soul of Civility, rather than against politeness.

But yes, as that title, the original title suggests I do make this distinction between civility and politeness. I argue politeness is etiquette, it’s technique, it is the external stuff, the behavior, manners, where civility is something richer and deeper, and in my opinion, much more important. It’s a disposition of the heart. It’s our inner orientation, our motivation toward others, treating them with a bare minimum of respect just by virtue of our shared moral status as members of the human community because of our innate dignity. We are each owed and owe others a bare minimum of respect. And that crucially, sometimes actually respecting others, actually loving someone, requires risking offending them, requires being impolite, telling a hard truth, engaging in robust debate.

And I love etymology. The story of our words and our language is throughout, and other languages as well, is throughout my book. It’s often very illuminating. And the etymology of civility and politeness supports this distinction that politeness, the Latin word is polire, which means to smooth or to polish, and that’s what politeness does. It papers over, it diminishes difference, sweeps it under the rug, as opposed to giving us the tools to gravel with difference head on. Whereas the etymology of civility is the Latin civitas, which is the etymological root of our words, citizens, citizenship, city, and civilization, among other derivative words.

And that’s what civility is. It’s the habits, the mores, the conduct, the disposition befitting a citizen in the city that, especially in a democracy like our own, demands robust, lively, open, honest debate, even protest. We’re a country founded on protest, sometimes civil protest, civil disobedience, which I have a whole chapter exploring in my book, is a duty of citizenship in the civis.

Brian Anderson: Now, in the classical understanding, and your book is really a book about education in part, the educational process was meant to refine the soul, to elevate the soul, helping children curb selfishness, orient them toward the good. By exposing students to a broad range of disciplines, instilling them with virtue, the liberal arts curriculum, as it was traditionally understood, was meant to free students from the baser aspects of human nature.

What role, in your view, do schools today have to play in cultivating civility? I’m not sure they’re doing a very good job of it. And how can educators model what, to sound old-fashioned, might be called a noble disposition to their students?

Alexandra Hudson: Yeah, it’s a great set of questions, and there’s a reason, in my book, I profile a public charter school network, the Great Hearts Classical network that serves nearly 30,000 students in four different states across America to show that this kind of education can happen in the public and the public-school setting. It’s not just religious, parochial, classical schools that do this, that have this vision of education today. Because in my mind, this is the education for all persons, for all citizens to cultivate our humanity, cultivate our humaneness, bring forth that which is best and most noble in us, and diminish that which is base in us.

And I talk about Ancient Greece, this notion of paideia, this word for education and culture that had this vision of education as cultivating our humanity and our humaneness by creating well-rounded citizens who were proficient in astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, poetry, art. Again, to bring forth this well-rounded vision of the human person that was well-cultivated in all our different faculties.

And in the Roman Empire, this vision of education was called humanitas, which is the etymological link of our modern word for humanities. And it was the education that cultivated our humanity. And it was the liberal arts, the liberating arts that liberated us from the excessive self-love and baser aspects of our nature that actually enslaved us, and hurt us, and alienated us from this joint project of living well in community with others.

And then fast-forward to the Italian Renaissance, this idea found expression in the idea of civility. The Renaissance humanists, their theory of social change was applying this model of education to public leaders. And having that cultivation of humanity, of humaneness, of virtue of character have a trickle-down effect, a positive effect in society. That was their theory of social change, like change the leaders, the hearts and the minds of leaders, and then elevate society as a whole that way.

So anyway, that’s the vision of education as I link it to civility, this project of, again, cultivating our humanity and our humaneness, our gentleness toward our fellow human beings. And that this is a project that the public, that all schools should have an interest in. And unfortunately, that’s just too often not the case.

But I do have this a section in my book about how teachers can and must not just seek to inculcate and cultivate the value of civility, not just doing and saying the right things in students, although that does have a role, but actually doing and saying the right things for the right reasons because I think as a culture today, we’re far too content with people just going through the motions and just, again, parroting the right gestures, the right words, and we insufficiently care about the motivation behind our actions. And an important way that teachers can do this in the classroom is to model it themselves. It’s a poor model that says, “Do as I say, not as I do,” and that’s a really undermining of one’s message.

So I really care deeply about teachers and supporting them in terms of how they do this in the classroom.

Brian Anderson: Civility requires us to recognize, as you’re saying, the humanity of our fellow citizens. But these days, so many of our interactions are mediated by communications technology, through text, email, of course now social media and other platforms. And by insulating us from face-to-face meetings, face-to-face encounters, I think many commentators have observed that digital communication depersonalizes our interactions. And this, I think you don’t need to spend much time online to see, brings out in many people their worst instincts.

So I wonder how you view the digital realm and what we can do to remain perhaps mindful of the personhood of the people that we are about to hurl abuse at online. Now, I’ve talked with Martin Gurri a bit about this recently on one of the podcasts. It’s a concern of his as well.

Alexandra Hudson: It’s a great set of questions. We could talk endlessly about the ramifications of technology and digitally mediated interaction and how that is unique to our moment.

Part of my book, a core argument in my book is that the human condition, human nature does not change, and that this problem of civility is a timeless problem we’ve been grappling with in all times in all places, as long as we’ve been around as a species because it emerges from part of the human personality that we all share, that we’re profoundly social as a species. We thrive, we become fully human, we unlock our potential and relationship with others. And yet morally and biologically, we’re defined by self-love, and we are geared to meet our own needs before others. And those two facets of who we are, the social and the selfish, the love of others and love of self, these are in tension, they always have been, always will be, so much of that is the same.

And yet, to the topic of what we’re talking about right now, there’s much about our current moment that is different. And I think that just the ubiquity of technology and the rapidity and the interconnectedness, all of it is unprecedented and does pose unique challenges to this timeless problem.

But again, I love to go back to timeless stories, timeless insights to see what they bring to our current moment. And so there are two, I think. There are several core issues when it comes to technology, and social media too, seeing the humanity of the other. One is depersonalization. Like all forms of digitally mediated communication, whether it’s email or text or social media, or even just talking on the phone, when you’re not looking at someone face to face, the personhood of the other and your ability to perceive communication cues and insights about them, that’s all diminished, that we’re missing the personhood of the other is obscured because of the digitally mediated encounter.

And of course, when that humanity and what we owe to others is obscured, we are more inclined to justify lashing out, venting our spleen on someone on the internet or a customer service representative with Amazon or whatever on the phone. And that’s not good when we kind of buy into the story that the other person is somehow lesser and we do things that we otherwise wouldn’t do were we looking them in the eye, face to face.

And then another core issue is this issue of anonymity that when we see less of the other through digitally mediated interaction, but we also feel a little bit insulated from the consequences of our actions through these digitally mediated forms of communication. And in my chapter on technology, I tell the story from Book 5 of Plato’s Republic of the Ring of Gyges, where Gyges is this shepherd who stumbles upon a cave and he goes in the cave and finds a skeleton. On the skeleton, he finds a ring and he puts this ring on his finger and discovers that he’s given this power of invisibility.

And what’s the first thing that Gyges, this poor shepherd, does when he discovers that he has this newfound power of invisibility? Do you remember from the story, Brian, when he does?

Brian Anderson: I forget.

Alexandra Hudson: He kills the king and marries the queen. So this is a very Actonian insight, and this is of course the story that inspired Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But Acton said, “Power corrupts.” Absolute power corrupts, absolutely. And Plato is an allegory and a story that eliminates human nature. What do we do when we are able to act consequence-free? We do whatever the heck we want. We do horrible, monstrous things when our identity and consequence is not attached, and there are no consequences to how we are able to act with impunity. And I think that is often very emboldening to people who act out on the internet. They feel like they’re somehow insulated.

Brian Anderson: They’re invisible in a sense.

Alexandra Hudson: Exactly, exactly. So anyway, much that is different about our moment, technology being one of them, Winston Churchill said 70 years ago that, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on,” that’s even more true now in this era of social media and virality. But again, much that is the same as well about human nature, which is why I think it’s fun to tell a story about Gyges and what that speaks to our current technological moment, a story written 2,500 years ago.

Brian Anderson: You know, self-regulation is a key theme of your book, and you have a striking phrase. It’s, “Civility is the social contract that supports the social contract.” And the point you make about self-regulation I think is, and this is something my old boss, Michael Novak from the American Enterprise Institute used to emphasize in his work a lot, that if there isn’t this kind of self-governance or self-regulation, personal and political freedom collapses, then it’s the government’s job to step in and kind of restrain people, and that of course leads potentially to a massive aggrandizement of power.

I wonder if you could comment on that, how civility, as you understand it, protects us from overreaching government.

Alexandra Hudson: Well, first of all, I love that you knew Michael Novak. I also knew and adored him as well. The last time I saw him before he passed away was, I think it was summer 2014, the summer I was at the American Enterprise Institute, funnily enough, and I know he wrote a lot about morality and conscience as this essential thing that supports a free and flourishing society. And that is exactly the core argument I make in chapter four of my book where I would be remiss if I didn’t tell this story on the City Journal podcast about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s politeness campaign. You might even remember this, Brian. Were you in Manhattan then in the early 2000s?

Brian Anderson: Yes, I was around. I have to say it was fairly widely mocked at the time.

Alexandra Hudson: Well, of course. And now it’s largely forgotten, which is why I think it’s worth reviving in my book. So Bloomberg and his technocrats thought that civility had reached a fever pitch in New York and something had to be done. And so they rolled out this entire legislative campaign criminalizing petty discourteousness and indecencies that had previously been self-regulated. For example, putting your feet on the subway seat next to you, thoughtlessly, rudely, so someone couldn’t sit down, fined $50. If you were texting or taking a phone call during a movie theater or Broadway musical, that’s annoying, right? But fined $50. It was all of a sudden criminalized. If you were at your child’s softball game and were a little bit too rambunctious, a little too enthusiastic as a parent, fined $50.

And so New Yorkers, perhaps unsurprisingly, didn’t quite like being civilized by their local city government this way. It was impossible to enforce. Thankfully, few places in America, no places in America have a police state where there are officers on every corner and cameras everywhere monitoring our micro-level interactions when we’re alone or with others. And so it was impossible to enforce these infractions, and they were totally rejected. People scoffed at them, to your point. I’d love to hear more about your experience living through this in New York.

But what’s interesting is something similar was tried around a similar time in the U.K. Tony Blair’s respect campaign where similar legislative proposals were rolled out, and all of a sudden, common indecencies became criminalized, although this one even went a step further. And if you were deemed by your neighbors and a local body, “A neighbor from hell,” you could have your property taken away from you. You could be evicted from your own home and your own neighborhood.

And the reason I tell these stories is to illuminate this idea that a free society depends on self-governance. It depends on people voluntarily choosing to restrain the worst excesses of our nature for the sake of others. And you’re right, I talk about there are actually two social contracts. On one hand, there’s a traditional social contract we all learned in Political Theory 101, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. It’s where we move from the state of nature where there is no law, no government, into a state of civil society, and we surrender certain rights and receive certain protections. That social contract governs that vertical relationship between citizen and sovereign.

But there’s also the secondary social contract between citizens that sometimes is governed by law, but more often is governed by social norms, and that a free and flourishing society requires that we voluntarily seek the good and go out of our way, sacrifice what we might otherwise want to not inconvenience and make life with others more difficult than it needs to be. And if we don’t do that, what these stories reveal is that autocrats, technocrats will be tempted to do it for us.

So it’s kind of a fun series of cautionary tales. I also tell the story of Paris’s politeness campaign around the same time as well.

Brian Anderson: They do seem incredibly naive at this point in time when so much civility has crumbled and where cities are becoming uglier and more dangerous places, certainly over the last five or six years, maybe the last decade. So it does hearken back in a way to a happier time in New York, despite the fact that the Bloomberg campaign was satirized at the time.

Speaking of the political environment, certainly America is polarized politically in a very dramatic way and a shift has occurred, we think, at City Journal, and we’ve written about this a bit, where people now identify so strongly with their political views that it becomes a kind of identity politics, that your politics are your self, and that this leads to existential conflicts over policy issues.

I wonder, how does civility enter into that scene, and can it perhaps help us return politics to a more restrained day-to-day reality?

Alexandra Hudson: It is such an important question. I explore this exact topic in the final chapter of my book, which is entitled, “On Misplaced Meaning and Forgiveness,” and I observe something similar to what it sounds like you’ve been exploring in City Journal, that as a society, on one hand, we hear a lot about the decline of religion, that the rise of religious “nones,” people who don’t identify with any particular religion. Yet at the same time, I argue that people have become religious about politics. Politics has become a religion for many people that as these traditional touchstones of meaning, faith, family, community, civil society, friendship, have declined in recent decades, that people have increasingly misplaced their ultimate meaning and derived their identity from their views on politics and political issues and public figures. And I argue that is bad for society and bad for our souls.

There are three symptoms of this sort of idolatry of politics that I see. One is that politics is everywhere in a way that is really unprecedented. Even just thinking back a few weeks ago at the Super Bowl, the next day after the Super Bowl, what was everyone talking about? They were speculating whether Taylor Swift was going to endorse Joe Biden and it was like every aspect of our lives is now saturated with politics. There’s a political dimension, a political valence to everything, where we live, where we send our kids to school, where we grocery shop, who we’re patronizing, who we’re boycotting, that there’s just this ubiquity of politics that hasn’t been in the past, which is really harmful.

Another symptom of this crisis of misplaced meaning is the way in which people can be so easily triggered and they go from zero to 60, calm and normal to just irate with just the smallest comment, or they feel like someone has traded with insufficient reverence their sacred cow, their policy issue, whatever it is, and they respond as if their lizard brain is activated and they’re in fight-or-flight mode because it is. They’ve misplaced their meaning in a political issue that you’ve flicked and they respond inordinately. So the rise of these sort of inordinate trigger-happy reactions, that that is really bad and a symptom of this misplaced meaning.

The third is that the tragic number of family relationships, of lifelong friendships that have been severed over politics and political disagreement. That is a prime symptom of disordered love. So we’ve elevated politics to the most important thing in our lives and letting that supplant beautiful, noble, really essential things like family relationships and friendships.

And so I argue it’s not enough just to say, “Okay, we recognize a problem. We love politics too much, and we need to do something about this.” It’s not enough just to say, “Okay. Politics, matter less to us.” “Nature abhors a vacuum,” as Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish theologian, writes in this lovely essay that I reference in this chapter. He wrote an essay called, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” and he’s talking about this exact same kind of ecology of the soul where you can’t just say, “Okay, stop loving this unhealthy thing.” You have to more permanently displace a bad love with a more noble and beautiful one.

And so I talk about encountering the sublime and having these experiences that help us un-self, as Iris Murdoch, the Irish philosopher, said, that kind of just displace our ego for a moment and just give us a sense of reverence, awe, and smallness and fear. Edmund Burke has this lovely essay on the sublime, an enquiry into the nature of the sublime and the beautiful, where he says that we need these experiences. They give us a sense of fear and awe that are really important, and that there’s a whole body of research on transcendence now that supports this, where people are happier, more fulfilled, more joy-filled, having these moments.

I talk about the sublime, the beautiful, having these moments of wonder. I talk about intellectual curiosity. I talk about friendship and other antidotes that we have to recover things in our lives that are relatively apolitical in nature to displace this unhealthy love of politics that is doing a severe disservice to our democracy, and perhaps more importantly, to our own souls.

Brian Anderson: You’re the founder and author of Civic Renaissance, as I mentioned at the outset. It’s a newsletter. It’s a public forum designed to explore some of the themes that you’ve talked about here and in your book. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about Civic Renaissance and how readers can get involved with it?

Alexandra Hudson: I’d love that. Thank you. Thank you for asking.

So Civic Renaissance is my newsletter, my intellectual community dedicated to beauty, goodness, and truth, and reviving the wisdom of the past to help us lead better lives. And over the last several years, it’s grown to a community of 50,000 people around the world dedicated to lifelong learning and curiosity and beauty. And I created this community kind of as a response to my frustration being a freelance writer in the world that we live in now. I felt deeply frustrated trying to shoehorn the ideas about intellectual history, about philosophy into the news cycle. I felt pigeonholed, and I’d have one day to kind of write something attached to a news hook, and then it was old news by the next day. So if one editor didn’t want it, I was toast and I’d wasted a day on this essay.

And so I just said, you know what? I’m just going to focus on writing what I want to write about and the ideas I think matter, and maybe there’s an audience for it. And I’ve started publishing guest writers as well who care about these ideas.

And in my chapter on technology, I talk about this idea of cultivating one’s digital garden. It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed by just the vitriol and toxicity in our virtual lives and on social media, and just how it’s really humbling and actually empowering to recognize we can’t change others. No one’s been persuaded to be more decent and noble online by being yelled at and shamed by someone online. So we can’t change others, and we’re going to waste a lot of emotional energy trying to do so, but we can change ourselves and just choose to see how we use technology, choose to elevate that.

And that’s a reference to many great lines about gardens and insights about gardens. But one line is from Cicero who said, “All one needs to be happy in life is a library and a garden.” I love that line, but also, the final line of Voltaire’s Candide. After Candide has seen the most horrible things in the world, it’s Voltaire’s reflection of theodicy, this question of human suffering and the problem of evil in the world, after he’s seen just untold human suffering, the final line of Candide is, “We must cultivate our garden.” And that’s all we can do. In the face of vast injustice and toxicity and suffering around the world and in our backyards, we should just focus on what is in our backyards and what we can control.

And so Civic Renaissance is my attempt to just bring a little bit more beauty, goodness, and truth to my tiny, tiny, little corner of the internet. So if you care about ideas and learning and intellectual curiosity, please do consider joining me over at Civic Renaissance.

Brian Anderson: Well, thanks very, very much. Don’t forget to check out Lexi’s work, She’s written for us on the City Journal website. You can find us at We’ll link to her author page in the description. You can find her on X @LexiOHudson. You can also find City Journal on X, of course, @CityJournal, and on Instagram @CityJournal_MI.

The wonderful book that we’ve been talking about, The Soul of Civility, is available through St. Martin’s Press, on Amazon, and at most bookstores. As always, if you like what you’ve heard on today’s podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes.

Alexandra Hudson, great to have you on, and congrats on the book.

Alexandra Hudson: Such a wonderful chance to speak with you. I’m a big fan of City Journal. So thanks for having me, Brian.

Photo: mgstudyo/E+ via Getty Images

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