A response to The Harper Review’s winter 2023 proposition, “Civility is outdated.”
The notion of civility can be stretched out and morphed to take any number of broad meanings. In common language, civility is the practical result of existing among other people and behaving so as not to take up too much space. Its goal is to avoid leaving a lasting impression upon anyone, to be so blank that no one could remember you were even there. Though perhaps this is a pessimistic suggestion to less cynical ears, when society asks for civility, this is unknowingly its demand. It is disrespectful to subject unwilling people to an episode of true humanity. Maybe it’s a relief that after spending our lifetimes creating who we are and living it truthfully, we don’t have to display our deepest self to every person we pass or imbue every public moment with our daily reality. But this pattern of behavior is not born of self-preservation. Somewhere in our socialization, we have come to admire abbreviations of humanity.
In a dramatic, youthful fashion, I often cry on planes. My neighbors sneak glances at me, occasionally turning to whisper among themselves. Their faces morph into curiosity, concern, or discomfort. We underestimate how much other people—their movements, sounds, and supposed opinions—occupy our minds. We are on constant alert to perceive and catalog how a comment or an action made us feel and what it made us think about someone we will never see again. Civility owns us in a way we don’t even realize: the flipside of our perceiving and assessing is being perceived and being assessed. Civility is outdated, but it always has been. It only serves us to shy away from bold authenticity, because we prefer instead to share an abbreviated version of ourselves—one who is smaller, quieter, and more easily forgotten.
If we are ready to burst the bubble of civility, we can create what we all say we want: genuine human interaction. I see this authenticity in children running freely on playgrounds, too young to police themselves around their kindergarten peers, and in the ease with which people start a conversation with a stranger wearing the hat of their college football team. I feel it when an old woman in a busy café asks me what I’m writing about, and when we tell each other our names. It is worth fighting for these moments and the hope brimming in them. We all deserve to have our civility made human and to have a stranger learn your name, remember it, and keep it safe. The best version of ourselves lives in the heart of someone who is no longer a stranger. Let us rush wildly into a new era, where we don’t bother to ask whether civility is outdated, but can say with certainty that it has never been necessary. When we no longer strive for civility, we strive for connection.
Annalise C. Biesterfeld