Coping: How to argue with civility, the Thomas Jefferson way

Adopt artificial good humour (if that’s the best you can do), and don’t take the bait

My partner came home, dejected, after a conversation with a group of colleagues last week.

They had been discussing a divisive political issue, and one colleague had become very angry. It was as if, my partner said, she was offended by the idea of anyone evaluating evidence and coming to a different conclusion. She insisted in various ways that he simply didn’t understand the issue being discussed – anyone who understood would agree with her. In other words, anyone who disagreed with her did so not because they thought differently about the problem, but because they were stupid or bigoted.

We all encounter this: people associating their own view with being moral or good, and an opposing one as inherently bad or damaging. To point this out in conversation is a way of shutting down discourse; to suggest that a perspective is in itself bad without querying the reasons behind it is to refuse the opportunity to test your own view, or to learn whether and why you are wrong.

If a person holds a view that I don’t agree with, even one that could limit my freedom, such as the view that abortion is never acceptable, it isn’t because they have bad intentions or are some sort of degenerate. They have come to a different conclusion on the issue. Only through rational discourse can we hope to have a thorough debate. If my position is sound, their critique won’t tear it down, and vice versa. I think they are wrong, but this doesn’t justify insulting or dehumanising them.


Thomas Jefferson Hour

As my partner slumped on to the sofa, I remembered Clay Jenkinson, a respected American academic. He hosts a podcast called The Thomas Jefferson Hour. In it he assumes the persona of the third president of the United States (on whom he is an expert), and in a comfortingly deep and articulate voice he brings Jefferson back into modern relevance, articulating his views on incredibly varied topics, from philosophy and modern politics to gardening.

A few months ago I was sitting on a bus gripping a letter from an Irish Times reader that graphically expressed what a poor calibre of human being I am, written in response to some criticism I had made of the Catholic Church in Ireland. As I held the letter, Jenkinson's voice came through my headphones for the first time – my partner had sent me episode 904, "Civility", in an attempt to help me out of the funk the tone of the letter had put me in. The podcast contained such pragmatic, stoic advice that it helped me to conquer my sense of despair at the general lack of civil dialogue between people. Since then I have tried to adopt a Jeffersonian attitude to discourse, but Jenkinson's advice is invaluable to everyone.

Generous spirit

Stop waiting for your turn to speak during a disagreement. Listen to the other person. We should enter into these sorts of conversations in a generous spirit; what is there in the other person’s perspective that you can concede? What is there that you can agree with? If you can find it, perhaps you can answer the question together instead of shouting at one another.

A difference of opinion isn’t always a difference of principle. That one is important. Stop attaching moral value to opinions or ascribing intent to others’ ideas.

Most importantly of all, adopt artificial good humour (if that’s the best you can muster), and don’t take the bait. I sent a polite response to that pretty vicious letter, addressed and took seriously all of the points the person had made, and finished it by saying that it would have been easier to engage with the person’s ideas if they had just been a little more civil. Three weeks later, I received a letter of apology from the writer, saying that they had never thought I would make a genuine effort to understand their point of view.

That’s the best thing about the Jeffersonian attitude to civility: once you adopt it, it makes it much harder for people to be rude.