By Alexandra Hudson
A rather raucous 2020 has come to a close.
2021 is a new year that offers a fresh beginning—and, potentially, an era with a bit more civility.
Civility is a rather elusive democratic virtue that seems to be lacking in modern American public life, but it is also one that most Americans—93 percent to be precise—still evidently care about.
So, here are a few ways for Hoosiers to bring a bit more civility to their 2021.
- Remember what civility is.
Civility, as the word’s etymology suggests, is the conduct befitting a citizen, a member of the civitas—Latin for political community. It is disposition of fundamentally respecting the personhood, the dignity, and the irreducible worth of our co-citizens and our fellow persons. The inherent value of every human life means that we owe a basic level of respect even to those we disagree with, those we do not like, and those who are different from us, and those who may not be able to do anything for us in return.
Without civility— this fundamental disposition of seeing the value of every human life—our democracy, our free society, our flourishing, and our very civilization falters.
- Remember what civility isn’t.
It is important to remember that the essential disposition of civility is different than technique of mere politeness. Politeness is the style of an act. Civility is the substance of it.
Politeness is The Rules of manners, decorum and etiquette. Civility is disposition of respecting people. This means sometimes flouting The Rules of etiquette because respecting people means taking their ideas seriously, which means telling them when you think they are wrong, or even risking offending them by relaying a difficult truth.
Politeness comes from the Latin word that means “to smooth” or “polish,” which is precisely what politeness does. We all know that it is possible for people to be polished and polite but also completely cruel and ruthless. It is possible to be polite without being civil.
Remembering that civility isn’t politeness—and choosing to actually respect people with civility instead of merely pretending to—is a recipe for a better, not to mention a decidedly more civil, 2021.
- Civility starts at home.
It is easy to turn our national conversation—talk shows on cable news, or national print outlets—and feel despondent about the state of civility in our republic.
Despondency is an understandable response—but it is not the only response. We can channel that discouragement into a resolve to be part of the solution by re-asserting control over our spheres of influence, and deciding to conduct ourselves with more civility. Civility is equally as essential to the conduct of citizens in the everyday as it is to the functioning of our democratic institutions and the lawmaking of our nation’s public leaders.
Having a more civil 2021 starts with each of us choosing to be more civil in our everyday.
Civility is a social virtue, meaning that it’s not necessary if we live in isolation. But civility is also a virtue that works best on the individual level. Each isolated interaction we have with others—with our neighbors on the street, with our cab driver, or with our barista— is a chance for us to practice the disposition of civility, which involves seeing people as persons first, as essentially more like us than unlike us, and therefore worthy of being treated with a basic decency and respect.
Happy new year, and wishing you a great, and a more civil, 2021!
Alexandra Hudson is an Indianapolis-based writer currently writing a book on civility for St. Martin’s Press. She is the curator of Civic Renaissance, a newsletter and intellectual community dedicated to moral and cultural renewal. Follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson.