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Importance of Being Civil: The Struggle for Political Decency

by John A Hall Princeton University Press
Pub Date:
Pbk 272 pages
AU$44.99 NZ$46.95
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Civility is desirable and possible, but can this fragile ideal be guaranteed? The Importance of Being Civil offers the most comprehensive look at the nature and advantages of civility, throughout history and in our world today. Esteemed sociologist John Hall expands our understanding of civility as related to larger social forces - including revolution, imperialism, capitalism, nationalism, and war - and the ways that such elements limit the potential for civility. Combining wide-ranging historical and comparative evidence with social and moral theory, Hall examines how the nature of civility has fluctuated in the last three centuries, how it became lost, and how it was re-established in the twentieth century following the two world wars. He also considers why civility is currently breaking down and what can be done to mitigate this threat.

Paying particular attention to the importance of individualism, of rules allowing people to create their own identities, Hall offers a composite definition of civility. He focuses on the nature of agreeing to differ over many issues, the significance of fashion and consumption, the benefits of inclusive politics on the nature of identity, the greater ability of the United States in integrating immigrants in comparison to Europe, and the conditions likely to assure peace in international affairs. Hall factors in those who are opposed to civility, and the various methods with which states have destroyed civil and co-operative relations in society.

The Importance of Being Civil is a decisive and sophisticated addition to the discussion of civil society in its modern cultural and historical contexts.

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

Part One: A Composite Definition

1. Agreeing to Differ 19

2. Sympathy and Deception 38

3. How Best to Rule 62

4. Entry and Exit 83

5. Intelligence in States 105

Part Two: Enemies

6. Down with Authenticity 129

7. The Disenchantment of the Intellectuals 152

8. The Problem with Communism 176

9. The Destruction of Trust 201

10. Imperialism, the Perversion of Nationalism 226

Conclusion 247

Index 255

'In this insightful, well-argued examination of civility (defined as a tolerance and respect for different points of view), McGill University sociologist Hall argues that civility is the crucial foundation for a successful civil society. . . . This is a much-needed book for today's contentious world.'--Publishers Weekly 'The Importance of Being Civil is a meandering tour through centuries of Western history in the company of Hall, a guide who has led such excursions for decades. As a narrative well-stocked with quotes from carefully chosen thinkers--Machiavelli, Adam Smith, and Tocqueville--and analytic observations that Hall has polished to brilliance through repeated delivery, the book will please both political scientists and casual readers with an interest in the tribulations, triumphs, and prospects of civility.'--ForeWord 'Tracing Western socio-structural development that created multiple centers of power, Hall ably presents the work of various theorists in ways that support the book's central theme: the utility and, indeed, the necessity of providing suitable alternatives to extreme reactions in various junctures of social stress and crises. . . . Hall is careful to continually note the fragility of civility, not only as a chosen practice, but also with regard to the cultural and socio-structural backgrounds of various actors, ideologies, and philosophies diminishing the potential for civility. Of particular interest is Hall's skill in melding the micro- and macro-sociological.'--Choice 'The Importance of Being Civil is an interesting and thought-provoking book. . . . t is well worth engaging with this work.'--Andrew Linklater, Human Figurations 'As would be expected from an intellect of such standing, this is a masterful work. It is rich in ideas, and Hall's readings of authors such as Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Raymond Aron, Erving Goffman and Daniel Bell are profoundly insightful. There is little question that the book makes a major contribution to contemporary debates on civility and civil society.'--Jason Edwards, Political Theory
John A. Hall is the James McGill Professor of Comparative Historical Sociology at McGill University. He is the author of Powers and Liberties, Liberalism, International Orders, and Ernest Gellner, and the coauthor of Is America Breaking Apart? (Princeton).