Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Cancel Anytime
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

McGill University scholar John A. Hall says civility is the glue that holds society together.

John Martz/The Globe and Mail

There is more to civility than simply saying hi to your neighbour or declining to discuss religion at a dinner party. In the grand scheme of things, McGill University scholar John A. Hall explains, civility is the glue that holds society together.

A historical sociologist, Prof. Hall argues in his new book, The Importance of Being Civil: The Struggle for Political Decency, that civility goes well beyond good manners; it can save lives.

In a conversation held just after his return this week from Turkey, currently the scene of much civil discord, he describes what makes civility so vital – and why governments ignore it at their peril.

Story continues below advertisement

What is civility on a grand scale?

Civility is that moment when two groups who have been fighting for a very long time reach a stalemate, so they decide to agree to stop trying to kill each other and live with each other. To allow a certain measurement of disagreement. More than anything, it's the idea of toleration.

What role can government play?

It's totally important for government to behave in a civil way. If the state is very harsh to a society, it breeds a reaction. And it was very noticeable in Turkey, and the sudden move on the part of [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan to water-cannon and tear-gas protesters produced a very, very strong reaction.

Talking is crucial because, if you talk, you make people more reasonable. Civility on the part of government is absolutely vital. It's always dangerous if states think they can ignore the people because, if ignored, the people could turn against [the state] in a striking way.

How does a government encourage civility?

Normal politics. Not excluding people. Civil rights. Listening to people. Rule of law. Those things make a society work more easily than trying to be very tough and harsh, which produces harsh reactions. The rule is that, if you're authoritarian and people can't talk to you, you'll get a reaction from a group that is also tough and vicious. Viciousness breeds viciousness. Decent behaviour breeds decent behaviour.

Story continues below advertisement

Is civility, then, at the heart of democracy?

Not necessarily. Democracy, in theory, could be the rule of 50 plus one. In those circumstances, 50 plus one could be very vicious to the 49 per cent. And that 49 per cent could start fighting back in a serious way. An example of this is, say, Northern Ireland. Protestants in control were very harsh. They controlled the state, they controlled the police force, so eventually this bred a reaction that was very tough indeed. They had 20-odd years of killing and mayhem and horror. At the end of it all, a perfect example of my thesis: Neither side could really win. They moved toward a stalemate, where they decided to live with each other. At that moment, it felt like a sour-grapes sort of deal, but what happens in that political situation is that sour grapes become something people hopefully like and prefer.

Why is civility so fragile?

It rests upon toleration. Every now and again, you get groups who think that they can order a world that is clearer and better. That is threatened by rising inequality, I think. An element of civil society is the possibility to participate in society and, inside Anglo-Saxon societies, rising inequality is stunning.

Why is rising income inequality a threat to civility?

Because it's horrible; you're left out. [Philosopher and economist] Adam Smith was an important precursor of the idea of civility. He was always very firmly in favour of the view that the success of capitalist societies depends on the ability to barter and exchange – to be in society, to participate. The richness of society depends on high measures of human capital.

Story continues below advertisement

I think the Occupy Movement is longing to find a way to reduce inequality. I don't think it's been very successful, but the desire to produce a more egalitarian capitalist world seems to me to be admirable.

This inherently makes society more civil?

When people talk about civil society, they also imagine a movement from below is going to be a good thing, and will increase the value, strength and depth of the civil society. That's not the case. There are movements from below sometimes that are deeply uncivil in their aims and practices. Civility is something that is more complicated, more sophisticated, more fragile. It's not perfect, in the sense that it doesn't have a single moral code that everyone is going to obey. It regards life as slightly ridiculous. It doesn't warm your blood. But it's the best we've got.

Speaking of warm-blooded, do you consider the House of Commons especially civil these days?

I don't really know. I don't have the historical perspective to know whether it was in the past. So I'm going to pass on that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies