Civil confrontation

Is civility outdated? A letter on confronting the humanity of others.

Anna-Sofia Hobaugh

January 13, 2023

A response to The Harper Review’s winter 2023 proposition, “Civility is outdated.”

Dear editors,

Civility can be called “outdated” no more than respect can be called “obsolete.” The two are inextricably linked: civility is a mark of the respect that serves as a foundation for any healthy human relationship. While expressions of civility may have evolved over time, civility itself remains as crucial to human interaction as the so-called Golden Rule: treat others the way you wish to be treated. Indeed, this injunction lies at the core of civility, for it entails the broader commitment to recognize and honor the dignity of another individual.

The relationship between civility and respect is an intuitive one. We tend to treat people we respect with a greater degree of courtesy and kindness than we do those we do not. It is a pillar of our personal relationships and an oft-besieged bastion of our social cohesiveness. Perhaps the source of the notion that civility is outdated is that civility is not limited to particular behaviors or adherence to a particular brand of etiquette. Genuine civility makes itself known by intent and action, not imitation or affectation. Fundamentally, it is the means by which we demonstrate our respect for the humans around us, whether in guarding their vulnerabilities or extolling their excellence. There is nothing more civil than ensuring that every person around us is feeling as comfortable and respected as ourselves.

Civility is evident in our concern for the feelings of our friends and families and in the actions we take to help individuals become the best versions of themselves. In the modern era, it can easily still include traditional expressions, such as holding the door for others or sending thank you cards upon the receipt of a gift. But it can also be found in everything from making space for others to speak to including content warnings in media. Civility may not be expressed in the same way by every person; some may prefer more archaic forms, like waiting to be invited before referring to someone by their given name, while others may offer less formal civilities, like asking someone for their pronouns. Yet in every case, civility comes from a place of respect and compassion for others, and it centers on a desire to do and be better, and to help others do so as well.

Acting civilly is an endeavor that is fundamentally rooted in the capacity, or rather the necessity, of looking outside of oneself to see the dignity of the human. Civility can be a tool to encourage people to exercise their empathy; by framing certain actions as more or less civil and emphasizing the former as better behavior, selflessness can be ingrained. In being forced to behave with respect and civility, we are forced to confront the humanity of our fellows. Civility is an exercise in acknowledging that there are other people who matter besides ourselves. It is the fundamental rejection of a self-centered existence and, as such, is irreplaceable in our lives.

Anna-Sofia Hobaugh

Anna-Sofia Hobaugh is a second-year undergraduate in the University of Chicago’s Fundamentals program.