The Importance of Being Civil: The Struggle for Political Decency

John A Hall, Author
John A. Hall. Princeton Univ., $29.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-691-15326-1
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In this insightful, well-argued examination of civility (defined as a tolerance and respect for different points of view), McGill University sociologist Hall (Powers and Liberties) argues that civility is the crucial foundation for a successful civil society. For the author, civility involves “respect for the rule of law, attention to empirical evidence, and abhorrence of violence,” while those who practice it have “ironic and affectionate amusement at the foibles of humanity.” He utilizes the works of several philosophers to bolster his thesis, including Montesquieu, whose Persian Letters shows how everything in society, from food and sex to religion and politics, comes from custom with no grounding in philosophical fact; therefore, differences in these are insubstantial and should not be attacked. Some of Hall’s claims will certainly provoke controversy: for instance, his claim that only the West developed the idea of respecting difference, a history not shared by Islamic, Chinese, and Indian civilizations, and which therefore have not cultivated this idea of civility. He also examines several ideas he believes are opposed to civility, among them the demand for “authenticity,” the belief that every person has a “real self” that ought to be actively engaged at all times; this “unrestricted openness… would lead to confusion and distrust.” This is a much-needed book for today’s contentious world. (June)
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