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Civil Discourse Leads to Positive Change; Insults Do Not

Zoe Weil

In the past week I’ve seen a grotesque image of Donald Trump as a pig centaur trending on Facebook, and an open letter inviting FB friends to de-friend them if they support Trump. I’ve seen Hillary called every name in the book (newest: Killary), while Bernie is regularly called a communist. No one escapes the insults.

Where does all this spewing of invectives get us? Further apart, more polarized, and less likely to collaborate on real solutions to actual challenges and problems. Sure we’re angry. Personally, I’m furious. I’m mad about so many things, most of which aren’t even discussed by the presidential candidates. As just one example, I’m enraged that we are subsidizing the industry and systems most responsible for premature deaths in the U.S., environmental degradation, and unimaginable animal cruelty. (I’m talking about our agricultural system in cahoots with our political, advertising, healthcare, education, energy, and other systems.) So I get it. We’re angry.

When we’re angry, it can feel liberating to express that rage, replete with profanity for an extra dose of catharsis. So if it really helps (although I question whether it ultimately does), go for it. Shout away. But please do it privately or with a small group of people who feel as you do and who will commiserate. Please don’t do it on Facebook, Twitter, your blog, or in the comments section of online articles.

Then gather up every shred of wisdom you can find within yourself and do the much harder, much more important, and actually effective work of communicating your perspectives calmly, clearly, accurately, and kindly. And then do something even more challenging: seek out and listen to the perspectives of those who have different, opposing views. Listen and allow your own ideas to be challenged. Remain open to the possibility that you might change.

My friend Paul Shapiro used to work for an organization that produced TV ads about factory farming and led viewers to the website After one of the ads aired, Paul received this email:

“Hello, I wanted to says some things about TryVeg. I am a big time meat eater, steak being my favorite food. You guys should seriously stop with this bullshit. Ya, this is a hate mail, you vegetarian motherfuckers. Meat is meat, just fucking eat it!!!! Meat is a big part of my diet, and the ATKINS DIET BITCHES!! So, stop with your bullshit, and if you got some fucking balls, email me back you dumb fucks!”


Imagine getting that email. How do you think you would have responded?

Here’s how Paul responded:

“Hi, thanks for emailing. We appreciate all feedback, even criticism. We need to ask ourselves: If the abuse ‘food animals’ endure is so bad that we can't even watch it, is it something we should be willing to support when we sit down to eat? These animals are abused because we pay people to abuse them when we buy meat, eggs, and dairy products. The only way to end their abuse is not to hide their suffering from the public, but rather to show it to as many people as possible, so we can each make an informed decision about whether or not we want to support such cruelty. I hope this helps. Please feel free to write back. Paul”

Instead of responding with anger – or ignoring the person altogether – Paul wrote respectfully and invited further discourse. Then Paul received this reply:

“Hi, sorry for being so harsh earlier. I understand what your getting at, but eating meat is a part of my diet I cant change, but I don’t even like eggs, and have never purchased a pork product (if that helps at all).”

Their email exchange continued, and by the end of it, Paul received this:

“Thanks for your email, I will think about it, maybe even try it [vegetarianism] for a while. Talking with you has actually changed my whole view on meat eating.”

When Paul shared these emails with me, it forever changed the way I thought about activism and change-making. Civil discourse is not only more pleasant than invective; it results in more open minds, more open hearts, and greater likelihood of changed perspectives.

When we are engaged in civil discourse we are:

• trying both to understand and to be understood by others.

• trying to uncover multiple perspectives rather than become entrenched in either/or thinking.

• trying to collectively improve the critical and creative thinking skills of all involved in the discourse, including our own.

• trying to learn as well as to teach.

• trying to move beyond side-taking and to collaboratively uncover real solutions to problems.

• trying to cultivate greater wisdom, compassion, and kindness.

• letting go of the need to compete or to “win.”

Ironically, it is when we are not competing to be “right” that we are most likely to have our perspectives adopted by others. Civil discourse isn’t just a better path for living and working together peacefully; it is a better path strategically if we want our ideas to be thoughtfully considered and potentially embraced by others.

If you’re really angry and desperately want positive change, then civil discourse is your best path forward. Venting your anger publicly isn’t only counterproductive, it’s also selfish. It doesn’t serve your greater goal; it only serves your most frustrated self. And given all the terrible, destructive, dangerous things that are happening in our society and the world, we need to harness the energy of our rage for positive purposes and meaningful change.

Civil discourse is a practice. It requires deep commitment (and deep breaths). But it works better than anything else to create the foundation for collaboration toward positive change-making that meets the needs of all stakeholders.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Zoe Weil

Zoe Weil

Zoe Weil is the co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE), where she created the first graduate programs in comprehensive Humane Education linking human rights, environmental preservation, and animal protection offered online through an affiliation with Antioch University. She has given six TEDx talks including her acclaimed TEDx, “The World Becomes What You Teach," and is the author of seven books including "The World Becomes What We Teach: Educating a Generation of Solutionaries" and "Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life" (2009).

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