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Could a ‘civic renaissance’ heal our society? Alexandra Hudson on the pressing importance of civility

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features Alexandra Hudson, a writer, commentator and founder and curator of Civic Renaissance, about her new, must-read book, The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on AcastAmazonAppleGoogle, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Alexandra Hudson, a writer and commentator who’s recently published her first book, The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves. I’m grateful to speak with her about the book, including where civility comes from and how we can rediscover it. Alexandra, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

ALEXANDRA HUDSON: Thanks, Sean. It’s great to be here.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with a definitional question because I suspect many people have an instinctive understanding of civility, but you make the point that civility is distinct from politeness. What’s the difference, and why is civility better in your mind?

ALEXANDRA HUDSON: So, part of my story, Sean, is that I was raised by The Manners Lady. So Judi, the Manners Lady, is my mother. And I was raised in this home that was attentive to social norms, but also my mother’s incredibly kind and generous, and hospitable. But I remember always being skeptical of the social norms that she expected my brothers and I to comply with. I’m constitutionally allergic to authority. I hate being told what to do. I hate arbitrary rules. So I always got to question these social norms. But she promised me that if I followed them, they would generally serve me well in work, school, and life. And she was right. So I followed these norms despite always harbouring questions and resentment towards them. And she was right, until I found myself at the U.S. Department of Education. I was in government 2017 to 2018. And I saw these two extremes while I was in government.

On one hand, there were people with sharp elbows, and they were willing to step on anyone to get ahead and gain their objectives. On the other hand, at first, I thought the second contingent were my people. They were polished and suave and poised and polite, but they were the people who would smile at me and flatter me, and then stab me in the back the moment that I no longer served their purposes. And I was puzzled by this second contingent, because my mother had said growing up that manners mattered because they were an outward extension of our inward character. And yet, here I was surrounded by people who were well-mannered enough and yet ruthless and cruel.

So at first, I thought that these two modes were complete opposites—opposite poles on a spectrum. But then I actually realized that they are two sides of the same coin; both see others as means to their selfish ends, that the hostile contingent saw other people as people who should just be stepped over in order to gain our goals, one’s old goals. And the other, the polite contingent, saw people to be manipulated in order to achieve one goals but neither sufficiently respected the dignity and personhood of the other. So, seeing this mismatch between manners and morals, inner motivations, outer conduct, that helped clarify for me this essential distinction between civility and politeness. So, politeness, I came to appreciate is manners. It’s etiquette. It’s technique. It’s external. It’s behavioural, superficial. Civility, by contrast, is internal. It’s a disposition of the heart that sees others as our moral equals and treats them with the respect that they deserve. In light of that, in light of our shared moral status as members of the human community, and essentially sometimes actually respecting someone, actually loving someone requires being impolite. It requires telling a hard truth, engaging in robust debate, breaking the conventional rules of politeness and etiquette for the sake of friendship, for the sake of actually respecting someone. So, in short, to answer your question, politeness is manners. It’s etiquette, external, superficial. Civility, a disposition of the heart that actually respects people, and sometimes requires breaking rules of politeness, requires being impolite in order to actually respect someone.

SEAN SPEER: Building on that answer, Alexandra, make the case for civility. Why is it a normative good? Why is it something that we ought to aspire to individually and collectively?

ALEXANDRA HUDSON: Civility is both an inherent and an instrumental good. It’s an inherent good because treating other human beings with respect and that they’re accorded by virtue of their human dignity, that is a good thing in and of itself, regardless of any external benefit or gain. But it’s also an instrumental good because it can lead to important externalities such as promoting equality and justice, and freedom for all. I have a whole chapter in my book on protest and civil disobedience that goes through several examples from across history, from Gandhi to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Edward Coles, an unsung hero of a protest in truth-telling in American history. But these people who, through their words or actions that were deeply impolite, like breaking rules of propriety, like a protest isn’t polite, but especially for Dr. King, for everyone who wanted to be part of his peaceful nonviolent resistance during the civil rights movement, they had to undergo what was called purification. And that was a purification of self.

They had to not just release any anger they had towards the bigoted and the racist people they were protesting; they had to cultivate love for them and respect for them. That was the purification of the motives. The internal had to be in place before Dr. King would let them engage in protests or sit-ins, or any of these other forms of, again, not polite behaviour but deeply civil behaviour that sometimes that’s the duty of citizenship. And of course, we see how remarkably successful it was. It pricked the conscience of America that was confronted with the ugliness and the brutality of segregation and of racism in this country. And it helped promote we’re not perfect in America today by any means, but thankfully, it’s not as bad as it once was. We’re not in Jim Crow America anymore, thankfully. So it’s both an instrumental good. It can help us and have important conversations. It can prick the conscience of people and confront them with hypocrisy and ugliness. But it is also outside of any external gains and inherent good to treat others with dignity and respect just because they’re people.

SEAN SPEER: One thing that I wondered about as I prepared for a conversation is whether we’re hardwired to be civil or confrontational. If one goes back to our evolutionary roots, is civility our natural state, or is it the exception?

ALEXANDRA HUDSON: There’s a duality to our nature as human beings. We are profoundly social as a species. We thrive in relationship and community, and friendship with others. We become fully human only with others. We achieve our potential in relationship. And yet, morally and biologically, we are driven to meet our own needs before others. We’re defined by self-love as well. And those two foundational aspects of who we are—our intention—the social and the selfish. And that is why I’m skeptical of people who claim today that America or our world is the most uncivil. This is not a new problem. It’s not a now problem. It’s not an America problem. It’s not a Donald Trump problem. This is a problem of the human condition. It goes back to the origins of our species. And that is why we have to keep that in mind, because it gives us humility.

Like no one public policy, no one politician, no one book, for that matter, is going to eradicate this civility crisis. I think it requires us to be humble about it. But I like to say history: looking back at our evolutionary roots and past and distant and more recent history, is both caution and comfort. On one hand, we’re not on the precipice of a civil war. We’re not a mid-civil war right now. We’re not in Jim Crow America anymore. We don’t have slavery. We don’t have overt racism in the ways that we have in the past, thankfully. But it has been really bad before, and that’s cautionary to us. It’s been bad before. It can easily get bad again. Friendship, community, civilization itself is fragile. It is never a foregone conclusion. Why? Because of this inherent tension in our nature. It is never a foregone conclusion. It requires vigilance of each of us at the individual level through our daily actions to act in ways that affirm the dignity and humanity of others through our civility, which in turn gives us all collectively the motivation to do the tough stuff of life together. Life together is hard. It’s the best life, but it’s not a foregone conclusion. And it’s hard. It requires work. It requires effort. The moment you put a friendship, civilization, a marriage, which is at its core, friendship, on autopilot, that’s its demise. You can never take it for granted. It requires the vigilance of each of us, of each party to sustain it.

SEAN SPEER: In a recent episode of Hub Dialogues, one guest noted that people respond more to negative political ads than positive ones. What explains that in your mind? And what might it tell us about the challenges that you and others face in making the case for civility?

ALEXANDRA HUDSON: I think that gets to this duality in our nature. There’s a duality between our social and our selfish, between love and fear as well. Those are two equally primary motivating factors. Machiavelli and his prince said it’s better to be both feared and loved as a leader to have your subjects fear you and love you at the same time. Sorry, I’m laughing because I have Michael Scott’s words in my head where Michael Scott says, “I want my people to fear how much they love me.” Sorry. You’re probably like, “Why is she cackling?” Anyway, Machiavelli says, “If you have to choose, choose fear.” Fear is a powerful motivator, which is why negative ads are incredibly effective. They’re reliably effective. Fear of the other, right? That’s why we see it’s useful to our public leaders to instill fear in their supporters towards an outsider.

They’re fearful of an outsider. In the American context, the most coherent times of national unity have been in times of war, profound fear of the other, of the outsider. There’s an external threat that binds us together, temporarily puts our internal petty squabbles on hold because now we have a bigger other to fight against. So it’s an incredibly powerful motivator. I think that the duty of our leaders today that unfortunately we don’t have a lot of leaders who are models in this way right now in our world—is to not wield that powerful motivator of fear for their own benefit. Like having an other is an easy way to consolidate power and say, “Look, I’m your saviour. I’m the one that’s going to protect you from this fear, manufactured or otherwise.” So I think that’s one explanation for why we see negative ads, why they’re incredibly effective. They always will be.

But I mean, also in the American context, that the American founding fathers distinguished between liberty and license. So liberty was a virtuous use of our freedom, license was a vicious use of freedom. And I think that distinction applies to citizens, like how are we choosing to use our freedom in ways that are positive and pro-social and promote unity and social trust. But that applies to leaders as well. Are our leaders using their power, their rhetorical persuasion, their megaphones, their platforms? Is it liberty, or is it license? Is it for the good of their subjects—not subjects, sorry, this is a democracy? Sorry, Freudian slip. Are they using it for the good of their citizens or is it for their own gain, where they are able to do more and say more and get away with more and consolidate power using the fear of others as a tool to do that?

SEAN SPEER: In addition to evolutionary forces, there’s also the role of institutional and societal incentives at play. One gets a sense these days that even if civility might be good for the soul, confrontation pays better. Even in the world in which The Hub exists, websites that are more combative and confrontational tend to do better than us. Talk, Alexandra, about the incentives that push back against civility.

ALEXANDRA HUDSON: It’s so true. On one hand, human nature doesn’t change. We’re just as much defined by our social and selfish parts, components, today as we were the dawn of our species. In fact, that’s why the oldest book in the world is a civility book, which I’m happy to talk about, or you can buy my book and read about it. But there are very many important differences in our own moment versus past eras. And one of them, as you rightly noted, is our media culture, the ubiquity and the ease of information, and the sensory overload at all times. And the way in which one person’s anger or misinformation can go viral like that—what’s that great Churchill line that the lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on?

And we said that was in the ’50s. The 1950s. And that’s even more true in the era of Twitter and TikTok. So what do we do about that? I thought about that deeply as I wrote this book. How do I embody the ideas that I care about, which are decency and civility and temperance and moderation across difference? And in an era defined by extremes, how do I embody that while also being commercially viable and actually selling my book? And it’s a handicap. It is being decent; yes, in this world we live in, that rewards the vitriol and the incendiary. It is a handicap. But one thing I talk about in the book is that Socrates said, “Virtue is its own reward, vice and viciousness is its own punishment.”

Like people who do the right thing for its own sake, they comprise healthy and just souls. And that’s its own reward. People who are vicious towards others, they hurt themselves, and they also—those are the actions of someone who has a sick soul, Socrates says. And those people, they don’t deserve our scorn. They deserve our compassion because, as they hurt others, they hurt themselves. They deformed their own soul. And Dr. King said this as well about segregation. He said in his letter from a Birmingham jail that segregation is mutually disennobling. It hurts both the segregated because it gives them a false sense of inferiority and the segregator, giving them a false sense of superior. And it hurts both parties. Same is true for incivility and indecency, and cruelty to others. We don’t realize that often the kindest thing we can do for ourselves is to be kind and good to others. That we never feel good. We never feel good when we’re cruel to others. But we deform our own soul. We degrade our own humanity. We become less humane, but also less human, when we do that. So when in doubt, cite Socrates virtue to its own reward advice. It sounds professional.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a strong reaction. I would just say parentheses civility with private jet and extra homes would be nice too, but I take—

ALEXANDRA HUDSON: Yeah, exactly. No complaints.

SEAN SPEER: I want to come back to your experience in the Department of Education because I think it’s an insightful one. One sometimes hears the argument that while civility is nice, it’s actually confrontation that can contribute to progress. I listened somewhere, for instance, recently that Steve Jobs’ number two at Apple said that Jobs was a son of a bitch, but that if this other individual had led the company rather than him, we may not have gotten the iPhone or the iPad, or other technological breakthroughs. You hear this about Elon Musk too, as someone who doesn’t seem to value civility, or maybe, as you put it, politeness. Now, if one’s goal is human progress, can civility actually be overrated?

ALEXANDRA HUDSON: So civility, as I define it, it encompasses confrontation. It encompasses robust truth-telling and having difficult conversations. Again, even the civil disobedience tradition, taking to the streets, protesting sit-ins, letter-writing campaigns—those are actions that are driven by respect and love for the others. So I like to say civility, it offers parameters for our conduct. Sometimes it demands conduct. And again, this is what Dr. King and his purification and his nonviolent peaceful resistance campaign and movement, it like: in his mind and the minds of his supporters, taking action and protesting was the civil thing to do; that was the loving thing to do. So sometimes—and it was the duty of citizenship too. Tiny footnote just to—it’s a fun trivia but also a mnemonic device to help remember this distinction.

The etymology of these two words, civility and politeness, supports the distinction I make. So the etymology of politeness is the Latin root polire, which means to smooth or polish. And that’s what politeness does. Again, it focuses on the superficial, the external, the behaviour. The Latin root of civility is civis. So all things related to the citizen, citizenship, and the city. So civility is the duty of the citizen in the city. And again, that requires having a debate, especially a democracy, truth-telling, taking action. And so back to Dr. King, civility in his instance required protests. It was the duty of citizenship to protest because there was unequal access and unequal treatment under the law for American citizens in that instance. It was a system that degraded the dignity of the human personality and that demanded action.

And that was, in fact, an act of love for country as well. Like, look, America, you’re imperfectly living up to the ideals of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for all. But civility also takes certain conduct off the table. So sometimes it demands conduct. On the other side of the spectrum, it takes certain conduct off the table, for example, ad hominem attacks, violence. Anything that degrades the dignity of the human person. For Dr. King and many other effective changemakers and abolitionists. If there were ever a time that we could even entertain a conversation about departing from decency and civility, it would be in the fight against slavery and abolition and Jim Crow. And so there were other many abolitionists who understood that in their pursuit of equality and justice for all, they couldn’t undermine their ideas of equality and justice for all by engaging in violence or dehumanizing conduct towards the slave owners or the segregator, as the case may be. And so they knew that the best way to honour and embody their principles was to stay true to those principles, but let those principles guide action that again demanded action, but took also some action off the table.

SEAN SPEER: You and I have travelled in different political circles in Canada and the United States, and one argument that you might hear these days is that the stakes are too high for civility. That if we’re fighting over questions of culture, identity, or even life itself, civility has to be subordinated to winning. Maybe I’ll just have you elaborate, Alexandra, on why that thinking is wrong.

ALEXANDRA HUDSON: I love the story of Edward Coles to illustrate why, even when the stakes are high, civility still requires us to do some action, but it takes some action off the table again. If there’s ever a time to justify, or even infinitive justifying a departure from decency and civility, would be in the debate about slavery. So Edward Coles is this unsung hero in human history because he was a generation after the founding fathers, but he was in the same social class as the founding fathers. He was a neighbour to Thomas Jefferson and an aide in James Madison’s White House. And he, early in his life, came to the conclusion that slavery was a moral evil and that it should be abolished everywhere in the world, especially in America.

And in fact, he waited until his father died, and then, as soon as his father died, he inherited all his slaves and immediately manumitted them and ended up moving to Illinois and ran for governor on an abolitionist campaign. So just an incredible person, undersung hero in world history. He, while he was an aide in James Madison’s White House, so like early 1800s in American history, wrote a letter to his neighbour, Thomas Jefferson, who’s this old senior statesman who had been architect of liberty, father of the revolution, father of America, one of the most prominent powerful people in the country. And again, he is this young politico who has a lot to lose, not a lot to gain, right? But he decides while he’s working in the White House to write a letter to Thomas Jefferson, calling him right out for owning slaves while being the architect of liberty.

He says in this letter to Thomas Jefferson, “Look, you own slaves, and you wrote these words like, ‘just join us,’ just renounce the past, and we need your help.” Edward Coles says, “Your assistance in the abolitionist cause would be invaluable.” And amazingly, Thomas Jefferson responds, he says, “Edward, great to hear from you. Thanks for your note. I hear what you’re saying, and you’re absolutely right.” Jefferson says, “It’s clear that history is going in the direction of abolishing slavery.” Jefferson says, “Look at the Haitian Revolution. The Haitians won their freedom like that. This is where things are going; you’re absolutely right. But you don’t need me,” he says. “I’m too old.” Jefferson says, “It’s going to happen anyways with or without me. I’m too old. I believe in what you’re doing. Good luck. Goodbye.” Edward Coles writes back to Jefferson and says—every excuse Jefferson gave, hammers it right back. Answers it.

Like Jefferson says, “I’m too old.” Edward Coles says, “I mean, look at Benjamin Franklin. He’s not exactly a spring chicken, and he’s on our side; he’s helping us. He’s helping us too,” and says, “Look, live up to your ideals. Don’t just write down values like such as life, liberty, inequality for all; embody it. Live it out in your life.” This is one of the only instances that we know of where Jefferson was actually confronted with this internal incoherence and hypocrisy. Jefferson never responded to that final letter from Edward Coles. But we have that correspondence that is just extraordinary for so many ways. It was risky for this young politico to take on the American statesman.

Jefferson could have gone like that and destroyed his life and career. He didn’t, but it was risky to speak truth to power in that way. But he was so convinced that that was the right thing to do that he risked his life and career—not life—his career to livelihood, maybe, to do it. And there are two reasons I like that story. One, again, it shows how civility requires truth-telling and speaking truth to power. And secondly, it gives an answer to those—there are many today who feel the need to reconcile or to justify all things American founding era to justify all things America. And they say, “Oh, well, those men, they were products of their time. We should hold them to another moral standard because that was so long ago.” And I love stories like Edward Coles.

He was not the only one, by the way, of this founding era that saw the moral abhorrence of slavery. I love the story of Edward Coles, who saw the moral error of slavery and did something about it. In his lifetime, he confronted Thomas Jefferson and then moved to Illinois and helped end slavery on an abolitionist platform rather. And he was really influential as a statesman on Abraham Lincoln. So with his life, he made a big difference in this conversation. And so I think that his life and story is an answer to people that want to excuse the moral failings of people of past eras because there were people who saw and did the right thing.

SEAN SPEER: You are an American-Canadian dual citizen, currently living in the United States. I’m a Canadian citizen, similarly living here in America. Do you think there’s such a thing as a collective civility? That is to say, are there societies that tend to be more or less civil? And if so, what might one attribute that to you? Is it religion, culture, demographics? What would explain it?

ALEXANDRA HUDSON: The test of true civilization as I define it. So a civilization is comprised, as Samuel Johnson, the author of the first English dictionary, said, “of people who care about the needs of the vulnerable of the oppressive society.” That was Samuel Johnson’s line, that the test of a true civilization is how well they care for the vulnerable and weak in a society. So I like this idea of a civilization at a macro level reflecting the character of people at the micro level. And I have this defining metaphor in my book of the garden of civilization. So the garden of civilization is this flourishing ecosystem of birds and bees, and diverse plants. And it’s all just working together, and it’s beautiful and abundant, and flourishing. And this garden of civilization is made up of individual plots of land. That’s every single citizen in a civilization; all they have is an individual plot of land. And that’s all we can control.

But we can control what we plant. In our little plot of land, are we going to plant seeds of kindness and of decency and of charity and hospitality and compassion, and empathy? These seeds that grow crops that nourish with their roots, the entire soil, that plot of land, but nourish other plots of land as well. That create abundant fruits and vegetables, and that create beautiful flowers. Or will we sow seeds of malice, of accusation, of judgment, of cruelty that become invasive species that zap nutrients from the soil that become thistle weeds that are invasive then that literally corrode and encroach upon the soil, those around us?

I like this metaphor because it gets to this deeply interconnected nature of what we as citizens, as human beings are, of what a civilization is, that all we can control is our one plot of land. But what we choose to do with our lives, with our plots of land that has serious consequences across the garden of civilization, and what we choose to do, either supports and contributes to this flourishing and diverse and abundant beautiful ecosystem of civilization, or it detracts from it. Our decisions have big consequences. How we choose to act in every interaction with our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings, every day has big consequences for whether we become actually of civilization or devolve into barbarism. And barbarism is cruelty and malice, not just to the other, but to our own as well.

SEAN SPEER: Historically, Alexandra, how individuals have thought about those two paths for themselves has been informed, at least in part, by religious views or religious foundations. Is there a risk that the secular world doesn’t provide that same guide towards civility?

ALEXANDRA HUDSON: So there’s no question that the Judeo-Christian worldview transformed life as we know it. There’s a great secular classicist; his name is Tom Holland. He’s based in the U.K., and his book called Dominion, talks about how Christianity in particular transformed the morals of the world as we know. We love human rights today. We take them for granted. Human dignity, take it for granted. It’s in constitutions around the world. Those ideas, human rights and human dignity. Those have explicit roots in the Christian tradition, the tradition that—the Judeo-Christian where all persons have value, have worth. That has not been an assumption that other cultures have assumed. And so anyway, all that to say, yes, to some extent, this universality of what we are owed and owed to others that has roots in explicitly Judeo-Christian lineage.

What I think really is interesting though is that even in the pre-Christian world and in other cultural and ethic traditions, and I get to this in my chapter on hospitality, that there is this beautiful tradition and ethic of what we owe the stranger in need. Just because they’re a human being that might otherwise die if we don’t help them. And I tell the story of Eumaeus from Homer’s Odyssey, and, of course, this is a pre-Christian epic from 800 BC in ancient Greece, where Odysseus has been tossed about by fate for a decade. And he comes home to his native Ithaca, and he can’t wait to finally be home to his wife, to his family that he hasn’t seen for so long after leaving the Trojan War. And the first person he sees is his prior servant, Eumaeus.

And Eumaeus is a very underprivileged person. He’s someone who doesn’t have a lot in the way of material wealth and life. And yet Eumaeus sees someone—Odysseus who’s dressed as a beggar. He sees someone who he deems is just less fortunate than he is. And he invites him in, offers him a meal, offers him a bath, offers him new clothes, and treats him incredibly well. And Odysseus is overjoyed by this act of kindness and hospitality, and generosity by his former servant, who didn’t even know he was doing it to his former master. And there’s this beautiful reunion, and it’s just beautiful story. But this trope, there’s this motif of the strangers in disguise across history and across culture. It’s in the Hebrew Bible. It’s in 1,001 nights—this collection of Middle Eastern tales.

It’s in the Odyssey. And we see it across time and place that has the moral that you treat someone well because you never know who they are and just because they’re people. It could be a god in disguise. That’s something we see a lot in the ancient world, like a god, a deity in disguise, or angels in disguise. And I think that’s really beautiful that yes, there are certain things that we explicitly attribute to the Judeo-Christian tradition and explicitly the Christian tradition. Human dignity, charity—those were foreign concepts to universal human dignity, charity, foreign to the pagan world. You barely owe charity to your fellow citizen, to your wife, let alone a stranger like a barbarian, right?

But it is nice. I really enjoyed surveying ancient literature, these civility, handbooks across history and culture, ethical handbooks. These stories and these handbooks are important to look at because they have encoded within them ethics and worldviews that we can drive from. And that was their purpose then they were meant to instill a worldview in the people who heard these stories and read these handbooks. And even in these handbooks, we see a sort of lay ethic of treating the other with decency and respect and kindness, and hospitality, sometimes even when it’s risky to do. So taking someone into your home, a complete stranger, that scandalizes us today, we would never do that. We’d refer them first to social service, right? But is it true to say that we’re less hospitable than past eras? I don’t necessarily know that’s true. But anyway, all that to say, yes, to some extent. To answer your question, yes and no.

SEAN SPEER: A penultimate question: do you have reason to think that there’s a public appetite for a civility renaissance? How do we overcome the loudest voices in our societies that can distort the public conversation?

ALEXANDRA HUDSON: I do have good reason to believe that there’s appetite for a civic renaissance because I’m starting it and I’ve witnessed it. So when I left government in 2018, I moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, with my husband, who’s from Indiana originally. And one of my first friends here, her name was Joanna Tab, she came up to me one day and said, “Hi, I’m Joanna. Would you like to porch with us sometime?” And I had never heard the word porch used as a verb before, but I was curious, and we didn’t know many people here. So we went to her home, and we sat that afternoon with Joanna on her great, big front porch. Her great big front veranda with people we didn’t know that she had intentionally curated from across race, across political divide, across geography. On one hand, human nature doesn’t change, but there’s a lot, as we’ve noted in our conversation so far, that is different.

And one of those things is the way in which it’s so easy to just go from work to our car to home and back again. That’s our cycle. And we don’t really have to be in proximity with people that we don’t like or don’t know very often if we don’t want to. So I realized that Joanna is staging this quiet revolution from her front porch—this quiet rebellion against our atomized and divided status quo—by using her front porch as this incubator of social trust, of friendship, and of social healing. And I realized that there are people like Joanna across the country—tens of thousands of them—who recognize that they cannot change who’s in launch that building or in Ottawa, or they can’t control the scandal of the day or what’s going on in our nation’s capital. But they can change how they interact every day. And that they’ve chosen to double down on their sphere of influence, reclaiming their sphere of influence and making their families stronger, their communities better and more beautiful.

And that is changing the world. I call it the porch and revolution, even though people who are part of this are doing this, even if they don’t have a front porch. It’s not about whether you have a front; it’s about that attitude of wanting to make the outsider an insider—the stranger, the friend. It can be a front lawn. It can be a coffee shop. I’ve met people who hold court every day from their coffee shop, right? They don’t invite people in their home, but that’s like their quasi-civic, their quasi-private public sphere. And so it’s not about what you have; it’s about having that orientation to want to use your life as a tool of healing, of reconciliation, of unity. And that porching revolution is and will change our world.

SEAN SPEER: Final question: for those listeners who are inspired by your message, besides porching, what can they do to advance the value of civility?

ALEXANDRA HUDSON: Yeah, so again, with or without a porch, reclaim civility, decency, in our own lives, making our family stronger. We can model it. For those of us who are parents, we are our children’s first and best teacher, most important teacher. And how we live our lives is like part of that teacher, modelling that for our children or for the youths in our lives. That’s essential thinking to ourselves when we’re interacting with others. Am I being polite here? Am I being self-serving? Am I being content with the superficial? Or what would the actually civil thing to do be to do here? And I’ll tell you a story that is really helpful for me to clarify the distinction between civility and politeness.

I love the story of Queen Victoria when she had the queen of Persia to her home for a state dinner. And again, Victorian England is called Victorian England because of these norms of propriety—very elaborate, ornate, arcane rules of etiquette and propriety. And the Queen of Persia sits down, and she does the unthinkable. She takes the bowl in front of her, meant to wash your hands, and she drinks it, tips it to her lips and drinks it. And the room was still—they couldn’t believe that this had happened. And everyone watched to see what Queen Victoria would do. And everyone was surprised. She did the exact same thing. She tipped the bowl to her lips and did exactly what her guest had done. She broke the rules of propriety in Victorian England. Why? To make her guest feel comfortable at ease, and for the sake of friendship, for the sake of community.

And so that is what I hope this distinction, incivility, and politeness can help cultivate in us the wisdom to know when should we break the rules of propriety for the sake of friendship, for the sake of authentic community and relationship that can actually strengthen. Conflict can strengthen relationship. That sounds really counterintuitive today. It doesn’t matter where you are. Conflict’s hard, but it’s not about avoiding conflict; it’s about doing conflict well. Keeping the respect for the other, front of mind, as we work through a really urgent, pressing, uncomfortable topic together. But there is hope to do that again if we choose to focus on civility, actually respecting others, and not being content with politeness, which just pretends often to respect others.

SEAN SPEER: That’s a brilliant place to end our conversation. The book is The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves. Alexandra Hudson, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

ALEXANDRA HUDSON: Thanks for having me, Sean.