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Jonathan Zimmerman

Jonathan Zimmerman is Professor of History of Education at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. A former Peace Corps volunteer and high school social studies teacher,[…]
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Institute for Humane Studies
  • There are a basic set of rules you can use when talking with someone who believes different things than you do, says Jonathan Zimmerman.
  • Statements like, “You’re a blankety-blank” close discussions rather than open them. Instead, say, “You know, that’s interesting. That’s not the way I see it. Tell me more about why you think that.” Being more open about your intentions can help, too. Tell the person that you see the issue from a different angle, and ask them what they think of your view.
  • A key rule for civil discourse, especially in this political climate, is to recognize the difference between emotion and argument. The depth of conviction with which something is said is not a substitute for argument quality or truth.

JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN: It seems to me that in order to be civil, you do have to follow a certain set of basic rules about human dialogue and discourse. So if you begin with a statement, and I say, "You're a blankety-blank", that's not going to further the discussion. It's probably going to end it. A more civil response would go something like this: "You know, that's interesting. That's not the way I see it. Tell me more about why you think that." So civility, for me, connotes the rules of decent and polite behavior That we need to follow in order to have a reasonable discussion and disagreement. Another really interesting one is just to say, "Listen, I just want to tell you that I see this differently. And I'd like to share that with you to see what you think." That is prefacing it by saying, acknowledging right off the bat, that you see things differently and asking the person to react to what you're saying. Something else I've seen that I think works really well is, "You know, I think we come at this from different places. Would you like to talk more about it?" Just ask the person, because sometimes the answer is going to be "No". I would say other important rules, for me, are don't be afraid of emotion but don't mistake it for argument. There's nothing wrong with being emotional. Frankly, I would say at this moment in political history, if you're not emotional about something, you may be a sociopath. I mean, it's an emotional time. It's a brittle, a troubled, and emotional moment, so it's fine to be emotional. But don't confuse emotion and argument. The depth with which you feel something is not an indice of its strength as an argument. All the worst and most awful bigoted, racist, hateful people in history have felt what they felt very deeply. But the depth of their feeling shouldn't be seen in any way as an indice of its truth. So it's fine to have deep feelings and emotions. I do. But don't mistake them for argument.