How not to argue on the internet

I've taken the last week or so off from blogging, deliberately so – I've needed to refocus on the web aspects of my business, and Vanessa and I have had quite a few family obligations of late. But I've still been perusing my favorite sites, which are mostly science-oriented blogs like Preposterous Universe, Bad Astronomy, and Neurologica but also includes a few religious oriented blogs on both sides of the pew (so to speak).

In taking a step back and just reading and observing debates, I've picked up on some things that have been on my mind for a while. I've definitely been in the position where I felt that indulging too much in Disqus comment threads can bring out a side of myself I rather dislike, and I've been trying to be more conscientious about my behavior and think more carefully about the types of words I use. It's easy in discussions involving issues about which we feel very passionate to let our emotions get the better of us.

I've come to the conclusion that there are several major mistakes we can make when discussing and debating, and that most all debates are ultimately an endless morass. It's simply human nature to try to "win" the argument, and in all my years of blogging I've almost never seen interlocutors on any side of a debate concede even the smallest point – at least not in the midst of discussion. The reluctance to concede an erroneous argument is only exacerbated by the use of patronizing or antagonizing language, and the language doesn't have to be overtly insulting or hostile to achieve this effect.

This means that while lengthy discussions can occasionally be fruitful, for the most part it's impossible for everyone to track all of the minor points and still maintain a cohesive overall direction. Discussions often end in tangents, or when everyone feels frustrated from feeling like they're repeating themselves ad nauseum. It's my opinion that the best thing to do is to know when to withdraw. Make your case as clearly and concisely as you can. Odds are that the other person will have some counterargument, and you'll likely feel that they misunderstood or misrepresented your argument in some way. That, I think, is when it's time to let it go. No amount of harping is going to change minds. State your case and let it be, continuing only if you feel there is an atmosphere of productive communication and mutual understanding.

Anyway, those things not to do. Well, I was over at Randal Rauser's blog, and I saw plenty of counter-productive behavior. Some examples:

Now, I know I'm kind of picking on Randal here, but I have to admit it's low-hanging fruit – he's got tons of comments like this. He's certainly not the only one of course, though I'm struck by this behavior particularly because Randal himself has admonished it in his own blog.

First, he's expressing exasperation at having to explain himself again. He's telling this person that the reason they have not come to agree with him, or at least concede this portion of the debate, is solely the result of their willful ignorance of the points he has already "succinctly" argued. There is absolutely no concession of even the mere possibility that he could have explained himself more clearly, or that it was he who failed to properly grasp his interlocutor's arguments. He lays all the blame for the impasse solely on the other.

This kind of behavior is antagonizing to the extreme, and frankly it doesn't matter one iota who is right or wrong – he's put himself well past a discussion that might change any minds. As soon as you adopt this sort of antagonistic and patronizing tone, the debate is over. Everyone is just protecting inflated egos.


The statement here that got my attention is "That shows that at best you're a poor listener". As before, Randal is laying the blame for the impasse solely at the feet of his interlocutor with not one iota of that elusive Christian humility (I hear so much talk, but see so little in practice!). But this time he's taking it a step further and making a comment about this person's general character. That's sort of like when your spouse forgets to take out the trash after you asked them to, and you say "Gawl, you never listen to me!"

We ought to be careful about how much we impugn someone's personal character based on discussions on the internet – particularly ones that are prone to impassioned disagreements, and ones in which people tend to be operating from completely different sets of assumptions.

Now, I know I've been guilty of engaging in similar behavior from time to time. Sometimes, frustration just gets the better of me. But that doesn't excuse it, and I'm making a concerted effort to be more conscientious of the words I use in the future. That's not to say that I don't think one can have a spirited debate on the internet, but I think a few rules should be kept in mind:
  • Stay on topic.
  • If you're baited to go off-topic, don't take it – or at least explain how your answer is relevant to the broader discussion.
  • Be as clear as you can.
  • Be concise – show you respect others' time by avoiding essay-like comments
  • Avoid passive-aggressive behavior. Insults cloaked in a thin veil of intellectual maturity are still insults.
  • Never, ever get personal. 
  • If you feel your interlocutor is out to "win" rather than understand where you're coming from, politely end the conversation. You're not going to change their mind.
  • Once you feel you've made your point, you're not obligated to keep re-explaining yourself. If you don't feel you're being understood, yet you sincerely feel you've done your best, let it go.


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