ZZ Packer

Civility of Morals and Manners

Air Date: February 13, 2019

Novelist and Hutchins Center fellow ZZ Packer discusses civil rights, disobedience, and society.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. “When is Civility a Duty and When is it a Trap?” This was the thought provoking and insightful question delivered in the New York Times Magazine last year. Its author is novelist ZZ Packer, the author of a story collection, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” fellow at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research and editor of “New Short Stories from the South.” Born in Chicago and raised in Atlanta and Louisville, Packer has taught creative writing at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Tulane, Stanford and Johns Hopkins. “The reality is that our instability often reveals much more profound ruptures and that the obvious kind of civility, the civility of niceness is only the most superficial marker of much deeper moral obligations,” Packer wrote. “This indeed demands us to differentiate between the civility of manners and that of morals after all,” she so compellingly writes, “Deep down we probably all know it’s not just civility we’re missing, but decency.” It’s a pleasure to have you here. Thank you for being here.

PACKER: Thanks for having me here, Alexander.

HEFFNER: Civility. How do you define it?

PACKER: I would say that that’s part of the problem. That in trying to define civility, every person has their own internal definition and so some people believe that civility is how we treat other people. For instance, when press secretary, a White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was at a restaurant, she thought of civility as people allowing her to be at the restaurant and to go almost the same with Kristjen Nielsen, former Homeland Security Secretary and others feel as though civility is something deeper than allowing the surface calm of our daily interactions to continue sort of unmolested. And they believe that civilian is actually more closely related to civic duty. But I feel as though the latter portion of people are kind of few and far between, that we typically think of civility, colloquially as that mannered, polite way in which we interact with others, even if we disagree with their positions. It’s linked to tolerance, you know, more closely to toleration, which has to do with, when we disliked someone’s opinions, but we still managed to …

HEFFNER: Put up with them,

PACKER: Put up with them. So people have the working definition of civility as the polite type.


PACKER: But I believe that it’s undergirding its foundation is actually a sort of civic duty that gives, of which the polite type is the veneer.

HEFFNER: Thank you. Thank you for saying that. And thank you for writing this piece because people don’t think of stability through that lens and you are also sympathetic in this piece and then you’re writing to the idea that there are such things as decorum and manners and that politeness. The way I frame it here on this program, is that I talk to someone each week you have to maintain some of those decorum and manners and diplomacy is civil society. Why can’t we understand civility through the lens of that is how we achieve and preserve civil society?

PACKER: I feel as though right now what’s happening is that you have a kind of rupture, you know, it’s one thing to just have a civil society and be civil to one another when yes you disagree about some kinds of minor issues, you know, in the past, Republicans and Democrats or the right and the left had a similar pathway that they wanted. They wanted America to be good to, for it to be powerful by and large, for it to succeed. But they had different ways of getting there. And I feel as though now we feel as though we have different, not just different ways of getting there, but even different goals, you know, goal posts. So, I believe that that is one reason why it’s become more difficult for people to interact or see that they share any kind of civic…there’s like any kind of continuity with the sort of civility that they share. But I feel as though that then, that if they don’t even try at the veneer of it, the being polite than that, it’s, at some level we then can’t sort of get to the deeper one anyway. So it’s not even just sort of like, okay, only look exercise one, the polite version of civility or only exercise the sort of deeper one, but we have to kind of be doing both at the same time. And if we don’t, we can’t ever kind of get to this middle.

HEFFNER: It’s like a chicken and egg.

PACKER: I do feel as though it’s like a chicken and egg conundrum. Like, well, what do you do first, you know, and who is going to be the one to be the first to do it because that then positions that group as potentially being on the losing end.

HEFFNER: To me, what civil society or civility encompasses are rights, civil rights, civil disobedience, and ultimately civil dialogue?

PACKER: Yes. And I think that one of the problems that when we can’t even sort of acknowledge well, here are our rights. And this is where I wish in the article I could, I allude to in talking to, talking about John Rawls this American philosopher who takes it sort of Kantian position, are kind of a take on, on Kant on the sort of moral obligations that we have in terms of those rights or duties, responsibilities. But other writers also talk about this as well. I think one is Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson in “Why Deliberative Democracy” and “Democracy and Disagreement.” And then some other people like Sharon Krause in “Civil Passions” and what they talk about is this, or at least I’ll start with Amy Gutmann and “Deliberative Democracy” and “Democracy and Disagreements” is that if you have certain not just sort of rights, if you begin from a sort of structure in terms of thinking that the other side has to make your side and the other side has to be responsible for making a rational argument for why you are imposing your will upon this other side in a way that they don’t want, you know. Then why are you doing that, as long as you can give certain kinds of reasons, and she began with, when writing this book or at least in “Democracy and Disagreements” with the idea of George W. Bush taking the nation to war. Well, if the rest of the country isn’t entering into this conversation, then how can this be a valid position? It’s not that saying that war itself is bad and she’s not getting into any of that, but just how can, if you can’t have a rational argument, you can’t bring this argument rationally so that if it was flipped in the other direction on the other side, you would say the same thing and agree and allow them to have whatever kind of position that you want or idiosyncratic position that you would want. As long as we have that structure, then at least we can have some sort of discourse, but without the structure that enables those sort of reason-giving rationales and consent, you know, then we can’t begin to have any kind of civil discourse because everyone can always say or the other side can always say, well, this what I want and so “might makes right” and I’m going to get it. So part of the problem is actually having the space in which those rights that you talk about, and those responsibilities and reasons, are centered in a way in which we can all agree on what those are. But we’ve gotten to the point where I feel as though we don’t do that anymore.

HEFFNER: And because we look around us…

PACKER: At least with this last President. The current President,

HEFFNER: Right, the current president, when we look at the current President and we look around us and we see a universe of fiction.


HEFFNER: Are we desensitized to the point or…

PACKER: Exactly. Your point is that here we’ve gotten into a world in which it’s more like a reality television show, you know, and it has become a way in which yes, this is a, there are real events that are occurring but they’re occurring in a way in which they are not, the facticity of those events is not being honored or acknowledged. So when you have this world in which you know, the next, the next day we’ve, we’ve forgotten what has happened in the previous day. Marina Butina or you know, you’d have someone who is indicted, someone who has been prosecuted and then we move onto the next thing, well in that kind of world there’s the ground or the foundations upon which civility needs to rest, which is a certain type of stability which Hobbs talks about. He’s not necessarily people’s favorite philosopher and he’s considered maybe a little outdated, antiquated, but the idea…

HEFFNER: Very relevant.

PACKER: But very relevant is that right now with something like Leviathan was just to say that if you don’t have any kind of institutions or norms. For him, it was a parliament or a sort of sovereign in which you could have some sort of power and we all agree that when this power says X than that that is not arbitrary, but when you have someone like the current president, Donald J. Trump in which power is used in an arbitrary way and facts and events that have occurred just a day ago are forgotten and replaced with new ones, without any kind of grounding in those previous facts. Then we have, we have become desensitized and it becomes a way in which the very network and the roots of civility are torn asunder.

HEFFNER: Are you afraid of the power of fiction is slipping away because our real life has become something like you say, have a reality TV show.

PACKER: I do sometimes think about that because I, as a novelist and a writer of short stories and a writer of fiction and a reader of fiction, I know that I myself read less fiction now and I’m a writer, then I did under other administrations is simply because a lot of my reading time is taking up by, you know, reading what’s going on in the world today and then actually reading analogs or trying to find analogs to that in the past, and so that I’m reading a lot more political philosophy, nonfiction. I’m not a political philosopher, but nonfiction that deals with political science, but also just current events and then also the presidency and also things like fascism and Revanchism and all these different topics just to try to understand what’s occurring in some people will, will say that they read more fiction because of escapism. But in terms of fiction being a way in which we find enlightenment, you know, and a way to overcome and transcend some of the things that are occurring. I mean, you take someone like Orwell; Orwell is fiction and yet Orwell provides an incredible metaphor for understanding totalitarianism in a way that we might not get if someone just wrote about totalitarianism. No, there’s Hannah Arendt who of course writes very, of “The Origins of Totalitarianism” is an amazing book but we refer to Orwell as sort of with metaphors in terms of “1984” or something being Orwellian “newspeak” or “doublespeak” – so we are possibly missing out on some of the ways in which fiction can be above the fray and actually educate us about …

HEFFNER: Morally transformative. I don’t know if we’re desensitized to a point or if it’s just the same old news that “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Inherit the Wind” or when you think of defining movies that had the effect even incrementally of activating our consciousness, it’s not clear that

PACKER: There’s one coming up. Laughs.

HEFFNER: Right. There have been any in the last however many decades.

PACKER: Well, I think one thing that happens is that it’s sometimes hard to see at the moment, you know, what piece of fiction comes forward to be a kind of a, I won’t say harbinger, because that means sort of a warning or a sort of bellwether of what is to come, but, but kind of symbolic of that age. So sometimes it’s hard to find during the age that you’re living in, what is symbolic of it? Sometimes that comes, that comes later, but I will tell you that I am worried for the state of, I mean all nonfiction seems to be about Trump, you know, and all fiction seems to sort of in some ways want to address some of the issues, you know, like a lot of fiction jumps coming to terms with 9/11 us being in these sort of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the fiction is just coming to terms with that. And some of the fiction is actually probably describing this moment even though we don’t know at the moment that it’s doing so.

HEFFNER: I think that bigotry is the central obstacle to realizing both kinds of civility, the civility of manners and the civility of morals.

PACKER: I would say yes because one of the things that bigotry, an accident of the human brain as it were, rather I’ll go back a little bit, it actually shuts off, you know, the potential for interaction with other people because it only says that people are a type, you know, and not an archetype, but a stereotype. And so in doing incivility, one has to actually, one of the tenants of it is, is addressing your interlocutor or you know, the person on the other side or whoever’s asking questions of whoever is potentially your opponent but not necessarily your enemy as a human, you know. And one of the, one of the Cheshire Calhoun, who is it, I guess I think she would describe herself, maybe it’s a feminist theorist, but also a political scientist and philosopher, one of the things she says, and I quote her in here, is that civility, even if it’s not considered necessarily a virtue, like it’s not a lot of political philosophers don’t consider it necessarily a virtue then what it is, it is a kind of moral language. And that moral language presumes that the other human, the person across from you is human and we’re is worthy of being treated with respect and talked to with respect. And so bigotry erases that, you know, moral sense of that person who is across from you having worth and dignity that you have or that you would give to someone else of your in-group. So I would agree that, you know, when we saw the protest in Charlottesville, which, you know, the riots of right, you know, Unite the Right protest that was bigotry basically saying we don’t care about your feelings, they sometimes swath it in kind of this idea of “PC”. So that’s become taken up as something that’s antithetical to actually real thinking, which I don’t believe it’s the case.

And I actually don’t believe that some people will argue that PC language actually is the opposite in some cases of free speech or civility or whatever. But I would say no, I will say bigotry actually shuts all of that transmission, you know, and cuts it off and it shuts down any kind of conversation. I would also say on the, deeper sense of civility, one of the things bigotry does is it removes the biggest from the moral responsibility of participating in a civic society with others that are not like him or herself. So yes, I would be in complete agreement with that. And a lot of people would say that, and this is a way in which civility is tied to tolerance and toleration, is that if you don’t have a society that’s, you know, we tend to think of it as a democratic society that is promoting tolerance or has as its sort of bedrock value tolerance, then civility is, can then issue forth because if you don’t have tolerance as one of your main tenants and ways in which you treat others. Then civility is impossible. And I would actually say that with no matter how you think about the current president, Donald Trump, to not be able to tolerate the humanity of migrants, you know, allow them to the border whether or not you think they should be here or not or whatever. If you’re a Republican or a Democrat, that inability to tolerate the humanity of those people or to tear gas them or to tear gas children and you know, women and the weak and people who were fleeing gang violence and domestic violence means that we’ve lost a kind of bedrock that civility is built upon. So I feel as though we’re in dire straits right now and not just because of the political, you know, musical chairs that are happening right now, but because of just losing these basic values that are actually related to what a lot of western liberal democracies hold dear.

HEFFNER: A mindset and a worldview.


HEFFNER: And how you explain to people this question of why civility is important. Well, you know, you talk about the Oxford English dictionary definition, but I think that it’s that one needs updating a to consider civilization, you know, if you think it right,


HEFFNER: Because then that gets back to the tolerance and toleration and ownership of a society. And if you’re going to exclude folks, on what basis you’re doing that,

PACKER: You’re precisely right. And I’m going to just say that this is the, one of the, I love The New York Times Magazine and the editors there are great – Nitsuh Abebe – and Jessica Lustig and Jake Silverstein, they’re wonderful. But one of the, you know, just the limits of, of having a newspaper – a newspaper essay, even etymological essay of this type is that you can’t go into all of the definitions. So actually one of my first drafts, I did precisely have civilization in there because, you know, civility is related to civilization and it also really, it was related to the idea of citizen know who’s considered a citizen in that came from the French, I’m going to say this incorrectly, but the French “Citouyen” you know, and that was, that all sort of contributed to the various iterations of civility but in terms of civilization, which also did not make it in there, but there was a sociologist, very seminal called Norbert Elias and he’s not in that, but his book is called “The Civilizing Process” and one of the ways in which he talks about how at least in western Europe, people began to sort of go from just know complete violence, you know, or having sort of a fairly of violent affairs to basically having societies that grew more and more peaceful where these sort of ever-constraining or ever-widening rings of sort of shame, but also rituals, but also sort of a reliance upon other people. So in a way he talks about, you know, this being a process and in the end, I think this was in 1939 or something that it was published, but then, you know, you have obviously just prior to that First World War, you have the Second World War and you have the Holocaust.

And so then, well, what does it mean to call this civilization? And when you can have the Holocaust happen, have you can have slavery occur…

HEFFNER: When you have un-civilizing after you claim to have civilized.

PACKER: Exactly.

HEFFNER: The trillion-dollar question, how do you make people more decent? We don’t like to say, you know, how do we civilize there is a certain connotation.

PACKER: One of the ways that we can become more civil towards each other actually has to do with what you mentioned earlier just at the top of this show, when we mentioned civil disobedience and one of the things that, that does is it kind of operates as a check, you know, even though a lot of at the time, you know, King when he was exercising civil disobedience are Gandhi, or you know, the idea of Emerson, Thoreau, like any type of civil disobedience is basically a way of saying I am taking this, my civic duty seriously and so should you, and when there’s something wrong and you are not being treated correctly, or someone is being treated with intolerance, or if someone is being, you know, in the case of Black Lives Matter, that movement and you’re having people who have been, who had being killed simply because of being black, then protest and civil disobedience forms this check in a way so that we are reminded of our duties. You know, our civil duties and the rights that, the civil rights that others have, you know, which some would argue are an outgrowth of our natural, you know, natural rights. So I think that’s one way and related to outrage. Outrage also has these two capacities in which it can operate one. It’s just sort of the outrage cycle of so and so does something. I started, it does this, and then there’s outrage over, you know, Pete Davidson had Ariana Grande, or whatever know whatever the latest thing is, or Trump does something that’s really silly or whatever and there’s outrage over that. But then there’s this sort of deeper outrage that is once again, a moral outrage.

HEFFNER: There’s a parallel track here, right?

PACKER: Exactly. And it’s our response and so it’s something that I think I may be misquoting Sharon Krause, but in “Civil Passions” she talks a lot about the effective response. And so whereas, you know, Gutmann and Thompson in “Deliberative Democracy” and “Why Deliberative Democracy” and “Democracy and Disagreements” seemed to talk about the rash and rational arguments that we make and give each other to have this discourse, how we make decisions. One of the things she tends to talk about is that, well, you do need a certain amount of sentiment and a certain amount of sort of moral feeling in order to operate. And so our decision is this idea that you could have decisions just be divorced from that kind of sentiment and this idea of sort of pure rationality actually doesn’t necessarily lead you to decisions that are morally just.

HEFFNER: And an outrage that is fleeting and inconsequential versus an outrage that is enduring.

PACKER: Exactly.

HEFFNER: When does civil disobedience as someone who really does respect that and considers that to be part of civility, become indecent?

PACKER: Oh, that’s a good question. Well, I think that at the time of a lot of movements, a lot, the majority of people, a lot of time at the time of a lot of protest movements, the majority of people tend to think that that becomes indecent, you know that’s indecent decent because the norms are that you don’t march, in the march in the street and sometimes even peaceful civil disobedience can be thought of as being awful. But I would say that we kind of followed in the wake of someone like, well, you know, there’s two ways to look at it. Someone like Ling, you know, someone like Gandhi passive, a nonviolence was not necessarily all that passive, you know, it’s sort of like an acting, a nonviolent way in which you were just. And yet you were still protesting and it might have been considered, some actions would be illegal if they say we’re blocking off the street and you go past it anyway, but you’re still not being violent. I would say in others would say that revolutions, you know, and rebellions which can be violent, once they win seemed justified. I don’t know if I would go that far. I don’t know if I would say that it’s, you’re justified in killing someone else or hurting someone else to prove your point, you know. So I would say that if you’re doing what you can, it may be illegal, but it might be right, but if you were following a moral law and under the law that we’re not taking away anyone else’s, their life, their liberty, their rights, then your decision to protest in an act of civil disobedience is a good one and a just one and not just good and just and necessary but, but a moral obligation.

HEFFNER: ZZ, Thank you so much for your time

PACKER: Thank you, Alexander

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.