[00:00:00] Speaker A: Hi everyone, and welcome to the 175th episode of the Atlas Society. Asks. My name is Jennifer Anju Grossman. My friends call me Jag. I am the CEO of the Atlas Society. We are the leading nonprofit organization introducing young people to the ideas of ayn ran in fun, creative ways, including our graphic novels and animated videos. Today day we are joined by Alexandra Hudson. We're friends now, so you can call her Lexi. Before I even begin to introduce our guest, I want to remind all of you who are watching us on Zoom, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube. Go ahead and start typing your questions into the comments streams and we will get to as many of them as we can. So our guest today is Alexandra Lexi Hudson, and she is the founder and curator of Civic Renaissance, a publication, newsletter and community dedicated to ennobling modern public discourse with the wisdom of the past. She earned her master's degree in public policy at the London School of Economics as a Rotary Scholar and was named the 2020 Novak Journalism Fellow. Her new book, The Soul of Civility Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves, really impressive blurbs and testimonials from Jonathan Hay, Francis Fukayama, among others, and its aim is to help men division empower readers to live tolerantly with others and debate issues rather than silencing disagreements. Lexi, thanks for joining us.
[00:01:48] Speaker B: Jag thrilled to be here.
[00:01:51] Speaker A: So I've been so looking forward to this interview, particularly since at the Atlas Society, with our subscription to Open Objectivism, we prize tolerance and benevolence as foundational to learning from one another. Tell us a bit about the backstory of this book, having grown up in the courtesy biz, as you put it, as the daughter of Judy the Manners lady, but also how the need to explore this personally and ultimately preach it professionally grew out of your experience in the swamp and your growing disillusionment with the kind of duality of obsequious politeness as well as unalloyed aggression. Tell us a bit about that.
[00:02:42] Speaker B: So I was raised by somewhat of an expert in etiquette and manners. She's called Judy. The manners lady. So I was raised in this environment that was attentive to social norms and social expectations. But this might not surprise you. It's what originally drew me to the ideas of on ran. I am constitutionally allergic to authority. Like, I hate being told what to do, and I'm just skeptical of when someone tells me to do something, I want to know why. And I always hungered for the answers, for the reasons behind our social norms and why do we do things the way that we do them? Why do we set the table like we do? Why do we use forks at all? And I hungered for these answers. And my mother more often wanted to just get us down to eat. She would just say, this is just the way that we do things.
I was always kind of left with these questions lingering in the back of my head. But for the most part, my mother, who taught us the ways and means of courtesy and kindness to others, but who also just models unbelievable hospitality and generosity and graciousness the soul of true civility, as I conceive it in my book. She promised my brothers and I that if we followed the rules of politeness that they would serve us well in work and in life. And she was right for the most part, until I found myself at the United States Department of Education. And there, while I was in government, I saw these two extremes. I saw, on one hand, aggressive hostility, people who were willing to do and say anything to get ahead. And on the other hand, I saw people who were polite and polished. And at first I thought, these were my people. They were the ways and means of courtesy and decency like I was. And I realized that these are the people who would smile and flatter at me one moment and stab me in the back the next. And that really alarmed me. That perplexed me because growing up, my mother had said that manners were an outward extension of our inward character. And here I was surrounded by people who were well mannered enough and yet ruthless and cruel. And that caused me to disambiguate the civility from politeness. That's a core argument of my book, that there is an essential distinction between civility and politeness, that politeness is manners, it's etiquette, it's external, it's polish, as its etymology suggests. I'll get to etymology in a second.
Civility is a disposition. It's a way of seeing others as our moral equals and who are worthy of respect just by virtue of our shared personhood as human beings. And that sometimes actually respecting others requires being impolite. It requires telling a hard truth, engaging in robust debate. And so, really quickly, I like etymology. It's throughout the book. I love the history and the stories behind our words, our vocabulary, but it's also a mnemonic device. So I like to share this because it's a helpful way to remember the difference between civility and politeness. That the Latin root of politeness is Polier, which means to smooth or polish. And that's what politeness does. It focuses on the external. It's superficial. Polishes over difference tends to, at its worst, sweep difference under the rug, as opposed to giving us tools to grapple with difference head on. The Latin root of civility is kivitas, all things related to city citizenship and the city and the citizen in the city. And that's what civility is. It's the duties and habits befitting a citizen in a free society in the civis.
[00:06:31] Speaker A: Well, you also provide various examples of these historical figures going back as far as ancient Greece attempting to pass along advice on manners and mores. When did the genre of writing and publishing about etiquette and manners? When did it really come into its own if there was a golden age, so to speak.
[00:07:00] Speaker B: So I wrote this book now for a reason. Because my book, The Soul of Civility Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves, is about the most important question of our day. How do we flourish across deep difference? That's the most important question of our current moment. It's the question of democracy, of the classical liberal project. How do we do life together given competing priorities and interests? But as I wrote this book, I realized that this is a timeless question as well. It's one we've been grappling with since the dawn of our species. It's the question of our current moment, the question of democracy, but it's also the question of the human species, of the human social project as well. How do we overcome our self love and thrive in community and collaborate and cooperate with others to achieve our potential as a species? And what hammered this home for me was when I discovered that the oldest book in the world is a civility book, the oldest book from 23 50 BC. So nearly 5000 years ago.
It's called the Maxims of Taho TEP, given to us from Ancient Egypt. And Taho TEP was a fascinating guy. He was an advisor to ancient pharaoh and he was someone who had reached the pinnacle of earthly success and political power. He had been in the room where it happens his entire life.
And then he was even offered the opportunity to become pharaoh. But he turned down that opportunity of earthly power and retired to a quiet kind of genteel pastoral life. And he reflected on the stuff of the good life, the stuff of human flourishing. And he wrote this handbook, these 37 maxims, these teachings for how to do life together across difference, for pharaoh's son. And he hoped that his handbook, his insights about human flourishing would help pharaoh's son become a good and wise pharaoh and leader of ancient Egypt.
But these maxims, these teachings were widely read across Egyptian culture and across Egyptian history and even in other parts of the world. For example, the ancient Greeks really revered the ancient Egyptians as well. So it's quite possible they had access to these teachings as well. And what's remarkable about the teachings of Tahote is that they could appear in a advice column.
Know Judith Martin of the Washington Post, for example. You could very well read one of these, see one of these maxims and imagine them being written by her. They're very, very much conventional wisdom. That all these things we've heard about before and our parents taught us growing up and that people have been teaching and reminding us of across human history and culture. For example, Tahotev says do not abuse your authority or power over someone who is less powerful than you. Use that authority, use that power. Well, he says, don't gossip, don't slander others. He has three or four distinct teachings condemning slander and gossip.
He says, be good to your neighbors and your friends, not just when you need something, but all the time, just because they're people that happened to be around you. That we owe people a bare minimum of respect just because they're people and we coexist with them. And what I learned from reading books such as Tahoe TEPS and others like that across history and across culture is that thoughtful observers have come to independently the same idea of human nature, the human condition and the stuff of the good life independent of one another, which I think is really powerful. And they all conceive that we're profoundly social as a species. We thrive in relationship, we become fully human in relationship with others. But we're also defined by self love. And those two facets of who we are are intention. And that's why democracy, friendship and civilization itself are always fragile. They're never a foregone conclusion. And we each have a role to play in choosing to sustain it in our voluntary, everyday interactions with our fellow citizens and fellow human beings.
[00:11:13] Speaker A: It's interesting because and I know you are no stranger to Ayn Rand and in fact have read Alice Shrugged and even entered the essay contest on that.
But I think that where objectivism would take a different perspective and we can civilly debate it.
Yes. Is that self love which is natural? Right. It's part of human nature. We want to preserve ourselves that if it is pursued rationally with a long view, right, not a kind of short term what can I get? Now all of these things would ensue that it is not in your selfish long term interest to be a gossip and it is not in your selfish long term view to abuse salespeople or to manipulate that kind of person that consistently manifests that kind of short term selfish behavior over time is going to end up alone.
Mean these people that these operators that you dealt with when you were in DC.
You didn't think that these were people that you would want to do business with in the future. You came away with a very dim few of them and you decided to surround yourself with people that had integrity. So I guess I think it's almost that when people fail to exercise the reason in order to really understand is what I'm doing going to serve me well? Is it going to help me build a character that is going to give me the strength to achieve my objectives and to live well with others and to attract the kind of people that I want to do when I want to have in my life?
That when we fail to think things through. So that might just be a question of semantics in terms of how we view it, or it may be just a difference in how we view sort.
[00:13:33] Speaker B: Of I 100% agree with you. And I had an entire footnote that ended up being way too long and I unfortunately had to cut it for exactly you and people like you, Jag, who would call me out on that? But that self interest. Rightly. Understood. And I went through tocqueville Bernard Mandeville, Adam Smith, this long lineage of people who understood that as we pursue our self interest, it is entirely possible, it's not either or, it's not zero sum, that we're either all in on society or all in on self. Right? And just for the sake of simplicity of argument, I didn't have that footnote in. And the book is very long, as I learned last week when I had to record my audiobook in studio publication.
[00:14:13] Speaker A: Looking forward to that.
[00:14:14] Speaker B: Which is why I have no voice right now, because it was so long. I'm like, cursing myself. Why did I write such a long book?
But no, I completely agree with you. And that's actually the core argument of my case for civility, that people think that when they are being uncivil, they're winning. Right. Like we hear that rhetoric a lot today, that the stakes are too high.
[00:14:40] Speaker A: You're owning your own.
[00:14:43] Speaker B: That's exactly right. Or that the other side is too bad and the stakes are too high to be decent to the other side. And what we don't realize what people who have that kind of zero sum mentality don't realize is that when they have that mentality, they actually do hurt themselves at a moral level, but also as a societal level, because they're undermining our social fabric and our democratic institutions that rely on social trust and basic camaraderie between citizens. That allows for our democratic institutions to survive and sustain. So it is I think you said it really well, Jag, that it's short sighted. The people who undermine me in government, for example, a colleague one time asked me to help him with a project, and I was happy to help. And he flattered me that day. He said, oh, you look radiant and I'd really love your help. You're so smart. And I was very happy to help. I didn't realize he wanted me to actually do the entire project for him. And I didn't realize he wanted to.
[00:15:42] Speaker A: Sacrifice you to himself.
[00:15:44] Speaker B: Right.
And then he took all of my work and passed it off as his own, entirely without credit, without inviting me to the appropriate meeting, like I had done all the legwork. And what's the result of that? I'm not going to help him again. Right.
[00:15:56] Speaker A: That's right.
[00:15:56] Speaker B: One and done. It's so obvious. That was a very short sighted as opposed to recognizing, we're colleagues, we're going to see each other every day as long as we're both in the building.
[00:16:09] Speaker A: If he was thinking long term, he'd be like, wow, what a powerful ally. She's a hard worker, she got it done, she's benevolent, she's willing to work. Better not burn this girl. I want to be being able to be doing business with her long term. Sure, I could just get a quick hit in this meeting and pass her work off as my own, but, yeah, he missed the boat in that way. I would say that he was acting in a very irrationally not in his self interest in the long term creatures.
[00:16:45] Speaker B: That's part of the problem, right?
[00:16:48] Speaker A: I would disagree with you there, too. I would say that we are distinct in that we must use our reason to survive. We are not little chicks being born or know calves being born with our instincts. So we kind of know what to know. We have a choice to exercise our reason or to not exercise our reason. As Einran used to say, you can avoid reality. In other words, avoid being rational, but you can't avoid the consequences of being real, of evading reality. And it's hard. I mean, cultivating your reason, exercising it, and then having a hierarchy of values to say, oh, gosh, I really would like to just skip out on this promise that I made, but understanding that your reputation, your character, and your community of people is more important to you than whatever you could just kind of get out of cheating for the short term. But you did have one really interesting piece of advice that was very aligned with objectivism, or at least the way I kind of interpret it. In your chapter on freedom and democracy, your piece of advice was, quote, reclaim the superpower of know for whatever reason. My Google is not recognizing that as a word, but I think we need to make it a word. We need to recapture it. You continue to say when someone says something you do not like, reclaim your power over the situation by choosing not to be offended.
So this superpower, of course, will call to mind people who have read Ein Rand's The Fountainhead, including the exchange between Howard Rourke and Ellsworth Tui, in which Tui, who has tried to ruin Rourke, asks, you know, what do you think of me, Mr. Rourke? And Howard Rourke said, I don't think of you. So that was just the ultimate and unoffendability even with somebody who was trying to destroy him. So would it be better to teach young people to cultivate unoffendability rather than to just kind of send them out on this hunt for microaggressions and tell them that they need a safe space, that they're so fragile that they can't even hear something that might offend?
[00:19:29] Speaker B: You know, you're absolutely right, Jag. And I think it's so much easier said than done. Like, here, I wrote for sure this like, I wrote this book, and I believe that. I believe that we each have the power to be unoffendable. And you corrected me a moment ago and I said, we're not rational beings. And I should have said we're not always rational beings. We're all capable of reason, but we don't always act within our own interests and exercising our reason to the fullest. And so there are oftentimes, even this day, I can think of a handful of times where it's like, I got an email and it just rubbed me the wrong way. That was my first impulse. And I have the capability to step back and say, okay, let's reframe.
Let's tell a different story. This is another idea that I unpack in the book, that we're so quick to tell stories of conviction and condemnation, right? There's something in psychology called the fundamental attribution error where we're much more gracious for our own motivations, like why we do things and why we're late and why we make excuses for ourselves. But we are ruthless with other people. When someone else is late, they've wasted our time. When we're late, it's like because we're under the weather and we had a late night last night, we had to get our kids to school. There are a million excuses, but the same is true when it comes to reclaiming this power of unoffendability, that we can tell ourselves stories not of conviction and condemnation, that imbue intent coming from someone else, that instead exonerate them, that tell a charitable story that neutralizes the power, the hurt. Because we can't respond. If we get an email and we're having a bad day or someone says something, it's possible for something to just hit us the wrong way at the wrong time, right? That's our first emotional response. But as human beings, you're absolutely right. We're capable of reason. We're capable of will and self determination to rise above that first impulse and emotional instinct and say, okay, how do I act according to my values and my logic and what's going to both make me happier and what's going to contribute to peace and prosperity in society? And walking around with a chip on my shoulder, choosing to see everyone as out to get me is not going to make me happy. And it's certainly not good for society and social trust either if I'm just like a reactive animal ready to lash out at every moment. And so here I am saying this, and yet it still happens sometimes where something just way and I'm like and I have to take my own advice and I don't perfectly do it. That's what's vulnerable. And I hope that comes through. Jag, in the book that I'm on this journey like this is very much not me on high, having figured it all out. It's hard.
Self improvement, growth, like being a rational human being is hard. Society is hard, right? Sometimes I'm like, why do I even try? Let me just take my family off the grid and don't not see anyone. Sometimes it's like that.
But it is the good life. It is the best life, life in community. And it's worth the effort, I think, some days.
[00:22:34] Speaker A: Yes, absolutely. No, I hear you on know you know, I'm out here in malibu, La. Traffic, people cut you off. And what I try to do is I just tell myself, a know that person just got the worst news of his life. His wife is leaving him, and he's in tears, or he's rushing to pick up a child. That's sick, makes me happier. And not only do I feel better in the moment, but I'm also ready.
I'm ready and I'm clear, and I'm in a happy, buoyant frame of mind for whatever it is that I next have to do to be productive and accomplish my, you know, part of that. And I think, again, this really resonates with open objectivism and with what our founder, David Kelly wrote in the foundational document of the Atlas Society, which is truth and toleration, which is in contrast to this very dogmatic approach. To objectivism, which too often can sort of devolve into.
Often judge quickly that we don't always have all the facts, making sure that we're open to information. As David Kelly says, if we are wrong, we have something to learn. If we're right, we have nothing to fear. So you shared an interesting example in the book about a young woman with down syndrome that you came across in your time working in education, particularly with people with disabilities, where she was called on the carpet for disciplinary hearing because people thought she was being intolerant. It's hard to believe that when we're talking about somebody with such severe disabilities. But tell us a little bit about that and what your takeaway was in terms of civility.
[00:24:36] Speaker B: So one of the greatest privileges I'm happy to talk at length about what I hated about working in government and the bureaucracy, but one of the privileges of working in government and was my time learning from and working with students with intellectual and cognitive disabilities. And so that in this one day during my time in government, I was invited to visit a school that offered a higher education experience for people with disabilities. And for some reason, I was invited to this disciplinary meeting. And this young girl, AC, she was 21, petite, blonde, and she was, like, shivering, literally physically shaking at the far end of this table with all these administrators around her. And I was just standing off at the back, and this poor girl was trembling with fear. And her parents were conferenced in on the call because they were not local.
And the administrator starts the meeting saying there's been an incident. And of course, my heart dropped, reminding me of every single time I was in trouble growing up, like a principal calling me in and wanting to have a serious PTSD. Seriously, that's what it felt like. I was like, oh, no. And they proceed to share with her parents on the phone that the night prior, AC, this young girl with down syndrome had committed an act of intolerance.
She had put a towel on her head and mimicked the hijab the religious head covering of her RA in dorms on campus. And this was not an academic environment, they said, that would tolerate intolerance. And her mother was dumbfounded. But at first, AC breaks into tears. She's like, mom, take me home. This is a mistake. I shouldn't have come here. Take me home. Which just broke my heart because it's know, we're just a few weeks into the school year, and to have this early setback or being made to feel like a criminal, clearly anyway, I don't want to get too far. So her mom proceeds to tell the administrators, we grew up in the Midwest, and there wasn't a lot of diversity here, and what you're interpreting as an act of intolerance was probably more just an act of eboliance and joyful inhibition at meeting a new friend and being curious, an expression of curiosity and wonder at novelty. Like, she's never seen this before. She doesn't know enough to be malicious or intolerant.
And her mom said, to be quite frank with you, this is probably exacerbating AC's lifelong struggle with accepting her disability.
Her mom shared, we're a Christian home, and we have taught AC that God created her just the way she is, perfect as she is. And that's why we wanted her to have this experience in a higher educational institution.
What this experience taught me was that it's entirely possible for people to be on the outside looking in and misjudge people's motives and bring their own biases to what they're seeing, as opposed to seeing for, in this instance, claiming or assuming that a young girl with down syndrome was acting out intolerantly as opposed to saying she just doesn't know. She doesn't have the wherewithal literally serious.
That's right. And conversely, as I learned in government, it's entirely possible to have all the norms and polish and politeness in the world and be ruthless and cruel. So this story illuminated for me this mismatch between inner and outer, between manners and morals, and it reminded me how exacting we are, how ruthless we are as a society with people who are socially atypical.
I muse aloud throughout my book that I make an equity argument like and and egalitarian argument, like, if we want to be an open and tolerant and inclusive society, what does it mean to, you know, let go of some of our attachment to these rules of propriety? And even I don't talk about political correctness, but many other thoughtful people have talked about political correctness as, like, a status marker, knowing which words to use and how to use them and knowing what's politically correct and what subjects are just off the table. That that's a signifier of education, of aerudicious.
[00:29:13] Speaker A: Yes, that's very interesting, because I have run into that over the course of my life, that I'm using a word, and then I'm told, well, no, that's not the word we use anymore.
And I do think that this attempt to control language and to dictate really the manners, the political manners that we're supposed to have is a way of also controlling thought. I've written about this with regards to homelessness. Apparently that's not even the term you're supposed to use anymore, underhoused or something unhoused or whatever, but enforcing, which is interesting because both of them have to do with one particular issue, which is housing, and that this person is outside on the street because it's a housing issue. And that kind of feeds into a particular agenda of people that want to approach homelessness in a certain way. Before we had dozens of words that we could use. Some were probably not very polished or polite, but they may have been more apt. Maybe this was a bum, maybe this was a panhandler, maybe this was a drug addict. And maybe if you wanted to really solve the problem, you needed to look at what this individual was dealing with. But in going back to that kind of you gave us a level set. At the very beginning of this book, there was this great matrix that you had of contrasting the polite response versus the civil response that was here so everybody can see it. Maybe use some of those examples so that we can really understand whether your boss has a bad haircut or what have you. What is polite versus what is the civil thing to do, right?
[00:31:11] Speaker B: So I think I give three examples. I'll share just a few of them. So say your boss comes in to work and has a terrible haircut, but you have your performance review coming up in a few days and you want to collect all your chips and ingratiate yourself as much as possible to your boss in hopes of smoothing things over before your performance review. The polite person, the polite response would be just gush and flatter and say, oh, you look fabulous today, like, oh, you got a haircut looks great. Even though you internally don't believe it, but you're lying because you're hoping for self serving reasons. It's not to actually make your boss feel good, it's to manipulate him and to prime him for the conversation later in the week about your bonus or salary raise or whatever it is. The civil response would be to not lie.
Shakespeare has this great concept called mouth honor and that's outward gestures that don't corroborate internal feelings. And so it wouldn't be to lie and say that you like the haircut that you don't like. You could instead find something else to compliment that you earnestly can and honestly can compliment. But it wouldn't lie. The civil response might just be to stay silent or to find something else that you could honestly compliment.
Another example is you're at a dinner party and the person next to you does the unthinkable and it's a fancy.
[00:32:46] Speaker A: Finger bowl of exactly.
[00:32:49] Speaker B: I know maybe not of all of us have finger bowls at our daily dinner. Table, but the person goes to drink the finger bowl.
The polite person might let that faux paw happen and secretly judge them and feel superior to them because they've exposed themselves as someone who's uninitiated with the rules and because I know that's a finger bowl I'm better than you, and say, letting the rules divide and foster feelings of self righteousness and smugness. The civil person might also ignore it or even correct them privately, say, by the way, this is actually what that is, and make a joke out of it. Make light of it. Make sure that they don't feel like you're pointing them out and embarrassing them, but in hopes of not allowing them to potentially embarrass themselves and make that mistake again. Do them a exactly. Exactly.
[00:33:43] Speaker A: All right, well, the time is just flying by, and we've got a ton of questions that are coming in, so I'm going to put my questions on pause for a moment, and we'll take some audience questions, if that's okay.
[00:33:56] Speaker B: Lexi absolutely.
[00:33:58] Speaker A: All right.
Okay. Our friend Candice Perenna from Facebook asks, where is the threshold, if there is one, for when a person is so radically adversarial that we cannot be civil to them?
[00:34:15] Speaker B: How would you it's a great question.
One thing I talk about in the book is that not all venues are equal.
For example, Thanksgiving is coming up in just a little bit of time.
There's no question and I also talk about this in the book that there's no question that politics has descended on the dinner table.
I know stories, and I personally struggle with people who have ended friendships and family relationships over political disagreements. And my approach to that is kind of jurisdictional that the purpose of a Thanksgiving dinner is not the collective pursuit of truth. Like there's a higher good there the higher good is family and just being together and relationships and bonds and history and just enjoying and gratitude.
Those things in that jurisdiction, that context, are more important than fighting to the death over the most controversial political matter of the day. A university classroom, for example. That is a venue that was designed to have robust debate and disagreement, and there should be a broader allowance to have those kind of debates, even with morally objectionable views. There's this great Burke line, although Mill has many great lines about that know, my adversary is my helper because it refines our own thinking, even if that is totally crazy, like, it can sharpen our own thinking. And just the practice of responding to ideas that we disagree with is healthy, even though it's hard. Right. Klausvitz said, politics is war by other means, and that's a good thing, right? If we're not able to dialogue and do war by other means that does not involve killing each other literally, then we'll do politics war, which is politics by other means. Right? That's the inverse of that. And so having an open conversation with people that we differ from is essential, like to peace and prosperity and flourishing and democracy.
[00:36:23] Speaker A: I couldn't agree more, as I was mentioning prior previously, about the different ways in which some people approach objectivism.
And the Atlas Society subscribes to open objectivism.
And until very, very recently, people who ascribe to another view of objectivism have refused to have a conversation with somebody like me. Because their take is that even talk to somebody who has a different view is somehow sanctioning that different view.
Which is just bizarre because in this case, there's probably very little that we actually disagree about. So. I think I've heard it called the Narcissism of small.
[00:37:16] Speaker B: Exactly.
[00:37:17] Speaker A: All right, our friend Liberty, Shamrocker Girl, is in the house and she says unoffendable, that's going on a love it.
[00:37:27] Speaker B: I love it.
[00:37:28] Speaker A: Let's do it.
[00:37:29] Speaker B: Jag, can we collab on?
[00:37:31] Speaker A: Yeah, totally. Yeah, that would be great.
And then she has, of course, a little mischievous question in talking about that person who kind of double crossed you, had you do his work and then presented it as his own. She asks, was there some part of you that would want to help him again, but with bad info? No, because then he would then just pass it off on her.
[00:37:58] Speaker B: Exactly. I know. So this is also part of my argument that just as, like we talked about it's, self interest misunderstood to be short sighted with others and cut corners and hurt others on the way to gaining our objectives. Because we hurt ourselves. We do hurt ourselves when we hurt others. We're inherently interconnected as a species. And Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He talked about this. Socrates talked about this before him that virtue is its own reward, vice is its own punishment.
Dr. King, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, talked about segregation abusing another human being and segregating them. That hurts them, but it also hurts the soul of the segregator because it's giving the segregator a false sense of superiority, which is deforming of the soul. And there was a whole debate, interestingly enough, during the Civil War period, about whether Southerners who owned slaves were fit as being citizens in a democracy because their souls had been so deformed by owning slaves. There was a whole debate about that to some extent.
I know that that was probably more than Shamrock Liberty was asking for, but a tiny footnote to that.
I haven't historically been very good at that sort of next level stabbing.
I'm way too transparent. You are a jerk. Never talk to me again. I'm way more like, you're dead to me. Like, kind of Mafio so style. But I like your thinking. Maybe we should be friends, Shamrock.
[00:39:51] Speaker A: All right, let's see. James King Kate on Facebook has a question that I was going to ask. So I'm glad he brought it up. And he's asking Lexi, do you think social media has played a role in the increase in uncivil dialogues? Or do you think social media has only amplified what's already there? So, Lexi, back to you. And how does that tie in? The Ring of Gaijis.
[00:40:22] Speaker B: Yes. There you go.
[00:40:23] Speaker A: There you go.
[00:40:24] Speaker B: Yeah. You tell the story ring of so, to some extent, human nature hasn't changed. That's a core part of my argument, that we're the same today as we were in ancient Egypt, as we were in ancient Greece. And that's why and there are these two parts of ourselves, the profoundly social and the self love that are intentioned, which is why friendship, civilization, is fragile and why this is not a new problem. But there are epiphenomena in society that are new and that exacerbate the challenge in our nature in new ways. And social media is one example of that.
The problem I'll tell the story of the Frigging Giant in a second, but the problem with misidentifying one political figure, one political party, one novel, technology as the cause is that you take it away. But the problem is still there. Right. So we have to be clear about what and why. I think it's helpful to be clear about the timelessness and intractability of this issue is that no single policy person intervention, no single book is enough to change it. Right. It's a collective effort of all of us to sustain this thing called a free and flourishing society every day. So the Ring of Jaijis, this is a story from book five of Plato's Republic, and a shepherd named Jaijes was tending his flock and wandered into a cave one day, and he found a skeleton with a ring on it. And he took the ring and he put it on his finger, and he discovered that this ring gave him the power of invisibility. What's the first thing he does, Jag, when he discovers his power? Do you remember from this story?
[00:42:09] Speaker A: Well, I don't know what was the first thing, but I know that he started to do some very bad things when he thought no one was looking.
[00:42:17] Speaker B: That's right.
[00:42:18] Speaker A: Advantage of people. And he stole things and got up into all kinds of mischief.
[00:42:23] Speaker B: Mischief, exactly. When all of a sudden he could act consequence free. He killed the king and married the queen and made himself king.
And so that story, of course, gave life and inspired Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy from Plato originally. But it gets to something that this is glaucon in the Republic, who's talking about human nature, that is like a defining facet of human nature.
If we don't have society and consequences and reputation to harness the worst aspects of ourselves in, then we are capable of monstrosity. So this duality to our nature is core to my vision of the human condition, core to my vision of why it's so important that we each act in ways that contribute to the solution. So, for example, when it comes to social media, I unpack this idea of cultivating our digital garden. And the garden is a metaphor that I unpack throughout the book, the Garden of Civilization. And I'll let you read the book to unpack that even further. But as it pertains to social media, it's so dispiriting often to go online and see the latest incendiary, horrific tweet or the latest mistruth that's being spread, and we can feel really helpless.
But there's a lot more that we can do. For example, just not patronizing the incendiary, like not giving into the indulge to indulge the hate click. Not sharing things that might contain misinformation, different things like that, but also carving out a little corner of the Internet like I've done with my community civic Renaissance and just making it a place of beauty and grace. So I have this newsletter and publication that is dedicated to reviving the wisdom of the past, to help us lead better lives. And that's my tiny attempt. It's just a drop in the bucket, but enough drops in the bucket can make change, can be the critical mass, right? That's right. Cultivate your digital garden.
[00:44:32] Speaker A: Okay, well, we're going to put the links to the Civic Renaissance on all of the platforms. Another key takeaway from your book for me was the importance of separating ideas and the person and maintaining perspective in order to be objective. And you did that with two of your philosophical influences. We certainly try to do that with Ayn Rand. So talk a little bit about that and why it is important.
[00:45:02] Speaker B: Nobody is perfect. Alexander Pope said it well to err is to be human. To forgive is divine. That we are most like the divine, like God, when we are able to forgive. But we live instead of know that spirit of grace and forgiveness. We live in this era of strange perfectionism where we expect everyone, past and present, to have never made a mistake. And we're set up to be disappointed and we're set up to reveal ourselves, to be hypocrites when we're pointing fingers at others, when we're bound to make mistakes and speak out of turn or do things that we're not proud of, right in a moment of weakness or whatever. So I explore this idea of unbundling people, and that is taking the part, the mistake, the misdeed in light of the whole, which is the irreducible dignity and worth the personhood of the human being.
Because today we're so quickly to let the part, the mistake, extrapolate that and let that define the whole, right? And that's why we justify online shaming and cancellation, right? Like we want to destroy people, make sure they're never welcome into polite society again. And it's not just enough to see them reprimanded, we want them destroyed and fired from their jobs. And that is absolutely letting the part obscure the whole and the whole being. Again, the value the personhood of another human being. And so unbundling people is, again, seeing the mistake in light of the irreducible dignity and worth of human beings. And I did that with two intellectual influences. We've talked about Socrates, so I'll explore Jean Benier, who maybe may not be as familiar to your audience. So, Jean Benier, he was a French Canadian who created these communities for people with severe cognitive and intellectual disabilities. They're called Larsh and they still exist. And they're these small, intimate communities that allow people with disabilities to come together in relationship in really transformative and powerful ways. And so he spent a lot of his life living in community with people with disabilities and wrote many books reflecting on the human condition and human nature from that experience, one of which was called Becoming Human. And it was just a really powerful depiction of humanity is vulnerable and frail and afraid of our weakness, but how that's why we're afraid of relationship, but we can but how we all want to be seen, known and loved. And it's just a really high view of humanity and personhood. And it inspired me in really beautiful ways his life's work, but also his writing.
A few years after he died no, he died just a few years ago. And a few months after he died, it came out that he was a serial abuser of women in these communities in Lars, which was just disgusting, because obviously he had lived this double life where, on one hand, he's purporting these beautiful ideas about the inherent dignity and worth and autonomy of human beings, and yet not living up to that in his own life. And I had to reflect on that. Like, does that make me a bad person? Am I complicit in that because I was formed by him, the fact that he did bad things and that I liked part of his work? Am I complicit in that? Or do I need to kind of eradicate purge his influence on my life? Or can we appreciate his art and ideas and the good things that he did in his life and condemn the evil things that he did, which is abusing his power and abusing and abusing women? And so that was my example of unbundling. Jean Vennie I did the same thing to Socrates, and I think that it's a helpful thing for us to get in the habit of doing with other people in our life every day.
We're in this age of perfectionism and duality where it's either all good or all bad. You're a hero or you're a villain, right? You're in group or out group. And that is the enemy of that sort of duality. That dualistic thinking is the enemy of actually respecting the complexity and fullness and fluidity and greatness of what it means to be human. Because what it means to be human is to have free will. And to have free will means to make we're going to make mistakes sometimes.
We're always capable of rationality as Jag wisely said, but we don't always use our rationality well. Right? And so we're going to make mistakes ourselves and know if we're ever in a situation where we're in the public eye for a mistake we've made, we're sure as heck going to want to be unbundled. We're not going to want to be defined by one thing we've done or said, one moment of weakness, so why not others?
[00:49:35] Speaker A: I agree, and I think the other thing is that if you are just going around in life and your priority is to avoid making mistakes, then you're going to deprioritize taking risks. And if you deprioritize taking risks, then you are going to not learn and you're not going to innovate and you're not going to improve. So I think having a bit more tolerance with the mistakes of others, but also with our own mistakes, because that kind of mindset is necessary in order to be able to find new connections and progress. So we're starting to come to all right, we got ten more minutes. I did want to get to this one interesting point I found in your book. You shared some examples of various government technocrats trying to enforce or engineer civility, a couple of which I had remembered, but some of which were entirely new to me. So yeah, bring us up to speed on that. And what are the solutions to preventing or avoiding such government overreach?
[00:50:48] Speaker B: So this is in my chapter on why Civility Supports Our Freedom, which is the first half of the chapter, and then our flourishing, which is the second half of the chapter. So in this section on why civility our voluntary decisions to subvert our immediate desires for the sake of society and community and flourishing? Why it's necessary for a free society and a democracy? And if too many people fail to restrain their immediate desires for the sake of society that autocrats, past and present, have imposed by force just common decency. So this is like a real present threat. And I give several examples, one of which was Mayor Bloomberg's politeness campaign in New York City in the early two thousand. S so apparently the early 2000s were a fever pitch of incivility in New York, and he just laid down all of these laws and fines for common decencies, such as spitting in the street. Sure, that's gross, but fined $50 if you spit putting your feet on the subway seat next to you. So someone couldn't sit down, find $50. If you're a parent at your kids little League game and you're a little too rambunctious. Fined $50 if you're texting in theater, find $50. Like, all of these annoying things in social life all of a sudden became crimes that you could be fined for. New Yorkers did not like being micromanaged managed by their local government, so that did not last long, and it was also entirely ineffective like that the harm of having laws in the books that are unenforceable is that it opens up abuse for power, right? Like selective enforcement of these laws. So it's never a good idea to have unenforceable laws in the books and let alone it's never a good idea to have laws in the books that corrode our autonomy.
The whole idea is that if we are insufficiently in control of our own actions, if we fail to make decisions to restrain the worst aspects of ourselves, our immediate desires that autocrats, past and present, are at the ready to enforce that restraint from the top down. And there are many, many reasons that we should be concerned about that.
[00:53:10] Speaker A: All right, George Alexopoulos, Facebook asks, what do you see the current trajectory of discourse in America. It seems like it's going to be more uncivil as we head towards the 2024 election. Are you optimistic? Maybe pessimistic in the short term, optimistic in the long term. Either way, you're doing something about it.
[00:53:34] Speaker B: I'm trying. Exactly. I think that my theory of social change is very randian. It's very individualistic. It's very at the micro level that we can't change the world, and it's very stoic as well. I kind of borrow from the stoics here that we can't change the world, but we can change ourselves. And that if enough of us choose to change ourselves, that we can change the world. So after a very divided time in government for me, I moved from Washington, DC. To Indianapolis, where I currently live with my family and one of my first friends here, she came up to me one day and said, hi, I'm Joanna. Would you like to porch with us? And I'd never heard the word porching used as a verb before. So we went to her home that day, and I realized her porch is where she's staging this sort of quiet rebellion, this quiet revolution against atomization and the division and loneliness in our world today. And she had curated a shared space across race, across geography, across political divide just to be in the same space, not to have a debate about our difference, just to be friends. And that is her mission field. That's where she's trying to heal the world just from her front porch. And what I learned from her is that you don't need a front porch to do that. It can be a stoop. It can be a coffee shop. It's just about using what you have and how you live your life. Welcoming the stranger, making the stranger a friend, the outsider and insider. I learned that from her. I learned that from my mother and that we can be a part of the solution, too. I learned from government firsthand that there is not a lot of hope there. I don't have a lot of faith in our public leaders right now. And I agree that it's going to get worse unless we do something as citizens. That's what's beautiful about democracy.
The citizen is prior to the state. Also a very Randian idea, and that we elect who's in office, that we can make decisions. And enough of us collective action, as you were saying, that enough of us choosing to make decisions that are aligned with our values, rewarding virtue and public life and punishing vice, punishing malicious behavior, punishing cruelty, abuse of power, that that is how our system of government was designed to function.
[00:55:52] Speaker A: Yeah, it's interesting. I think you talk about some of the timeless qualities of human nature. I think there is also timeless qualities of human nature when in power and when they are in a position to foist their control over other people, and that it is constantly one in which there is a seemingly irresistible urge to tell other people what to do. And I think, just as you mentioned, with our ability, by doing our part, to model the kind of society in which we want to live in, model the kind of behavior that we'd like to see in others, can help to prevent the imposition of mores by petty, bureaucratic tyrants. I think the other aspect of that is kind of for those who are seeking to again, control speech, seeking to control what people can say. They may not like it if people say nasty things, but I think it is almost inevitable that the more you try to control that, people are going to react to it, that there is going to be a backlash against it, which, unfortunately, I think leads to even more kind of hostile and inflammatory speech. So I think a lighter governing touch on all of these things, whether it's speech or bores, is more likely to foster an environment in which people are able to take responsibility for themselves and not feel that they are trying to push back against an overweening state.
Alexandra, we're at the top of the hour. Any other items from the book, important points that you wanted to cover that we didn't get to in closing?
[00:58:03] Speaker B: One idea that I unpacked that's from the second half of that chapter, freedom was the first half. Flourishing is the second. That I think is a Randian idea that would resonate with your audience and that on Rand would appreciate is that there's a sociologist called Ernst Gilner, and he wrote this book called The Conditions of Liberty, and he explored this question. Why, in the aftermath of totalitarianism, after the Iron Curtain fell in Eastern Europe, why was it that Western attempts to just AirDrop institutions of a free society, elections, democracy, civil society, why did all those fail? And he said it's because of a lack of social trust and affection, basic affection between citizens that had been so corroded by government overreach for decades after decades of totalitarianism and oppression that you couldn't just AirDrop those institutions of a free society without the culture and the trust and respect and effect.
We use the phrase McCarthyism, but it was like this you never knew who was going to turn you in for a thought crime or an infraction against the state, like you were fearful of your neighbors, your family members all the time. You couldn't trust anyone. And that social trust, that basic affection between citizens supported and belied a free society. And I love that insight because it's a cautionary tale for us in our own era about how the fragility of our institutions, we take them for granted. We take peace and prosperity for granted. There's war in the Middle East right now, and we're rightly glued to our televisions and radio stations.
We're scandalized by what we're seeing unfold there, and that reveals a privilege in our current moment that peace and prosperity are the norm generally and that times of war are horrible, and thankfully, that they're not the norm. That hasn't been the case throughout human history. Conflict tends to be the norm in human history, and peace and prosperity are only come about by accident when everyone's tired of fighting for a little bit.
I hope that you can read my book and be encouraged by the power we each have to be part of the solution to healing our deep divisions and also in supporting our free and flourishing way of life that we're privileged enough to have in democracy in American democracy.
[01:00:36] Speaker A: A good thought. As we are all looking forward to Thanksgiving next month, I think this would be a good primer to read the soul of civility as you are preparing for what can sometimes be a contentious dinner. When is the audio version coming out? I've already got it on preorder.
[01:00:56] Speaker B: Oh, I love it. I'm so thrilled. Yes. So next week it'll launch. So thrilled about that. And I got to record it as I shared, which I'm really happy about. It's my book and it's my story, so can't wait to share it with you.
[01:01:09] Speaker A: All right, well, thank you so much, Alexandra. I really appreciate this time with you.
[01:01:14] Speaker B: Thanks, Jack, and thanks, everyone for taking the time.
[01:01:17] Speaker A: Yes, thanks, all of you who joined us. Thank you for your great question. Of course, if you enjoyed this video or any of the work that we do at the Atlas Society, please consider making a tax deductible [email protected]
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