In This Review

The Importance of Being Civil: The Struggle for Political Decency
The Importance of Being Civil: The Struggle for Political Decency
By John A. Hall
Princeton University Press, 2013, 272 pp

Many see civility as a sensible but superficial quality of people and groups that although divided by class, culture, or political ideology can nevertheless agree to disagree. But Hall finds a deeper idea about the importance of being civil embedded in the Western liberal tradition. Civil society flourishes not when differences are eliminated but when people decide to live together with a richness of diversity. Hall notes that there are limits to how diverse a stable and well-functioning society can be: some minimal agreement must exist over certain essentials, such as respect for the rule of law and an abhorrence of violence. Nonetheless, what Hall calls the “civilized acceptance of difference” is an essential precondition if liberal societies are to endure in a world fractured by class, religion, race, and national identity. Hall shows that the enemies of civility have often had the upper hand, a fact reflected in the West’s violent history of imperialism, war, and ethnic cleansing. Political orders of toleration are not unique to the West, Hall makes clear, as India’s remarkable society demonstrates. But China’s conception of a more homogeneous national identity is less promising.