What if we all learned to think in paragraphs?

So much of political discourse happens in oversimplified slogans and labels. Longer, more nuanced discussions bring common ground.

Courtesy of Professor Jonathan Jacobs
Professor Jonathan Jacobs with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

As a philosophy professor, Jonathan Jacobs wants his students to think deeply – but not just about the ideas of Kant, Descartes, or Nietzsche. They need to be able to articulate their own thoughts in nuanced ways, he says.

So he pushes first-year students in his classes at John Jay College of Criminal Justice “to go from the blurt, to the sentence, to the paragraph, so that by the time they graduate they are thinking in paragraphs,” he says.

That’s a lesson we could all learn from, he says. So much of political discourse happens in oversimplified slogans and labels. “That unfortunately makes it very easy to turn disagreements into hostility and hostility into distrust and distrust into an unwillingness to compromise,” Professor Jacobs says.

That kind of thinking has produced a society where people see each other as villains and victims, he says. But when we allow ourselves to engage in nuanced discussions – to think and talk in paragraphs – common ground emerges.

One root of the problem, he says, is a shift away from a collective understanding of civics. Rather than focusing on the shared values that underpin our institutions and societal norms, we have become caught in a zero-sum game of politics.

Part of the blame lies with politicians themselves, he says, “because what they have found works for them is pressing the frictional buttons rather than finding a shared landscape” of common concerns. 

But citizens have a role to play here as well, he insists. American society is built on a shared understanding of civic duty to order and to each other. Part of that commitment includes being willing to approach our fellow citizens as compatriots rather than political adversaries. 

Take the current debate over policing. On the one hand, the divisions are stark. When viewed through the simplistic lenses of “defund the police” and “blue lives matter,” the gulf can seem unbridgeable. But do the ideals of public safety and social justice really have to be in opposition?

“The values that these allegedly opposing groups endorse as fundamental and as crucial to civil society, these values are not automatically or intrinsically frictional,” he says. “They should be values that the society should be striving to realize, recognizing both [sets] of them as vitally important.”

In truth, there are many shared principles that bind us together as Americans. We prioritize them differently, but freedoms of expression and association, ideals of integrity, fairness, and justice, are universally shared. It is from here that Professor Jacobs sees hope for the future.

Despite bitter discourse, “American political culture does have resources of resilience,” he says. “It’s not because we are better or exceptional. What matters are the values that we are talking about and how genuinely people endorse them.”

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