Trying to Stay Sane: How to Argue on the Internet

Trying to Stay Sane: How to Argue on the Internet

The Internet has revolutionised the way we communicate, right? It’s brought us all together and enables instantaneous knowledge transfer between people who would otherwise never meet? Well, on paper, sure.

In practice, Internet-​​based communication is riddled with the same problems that all previous types of communication also suffered from: psychological ones. Even though talking with someone is now technically easy (send them an email, tweet at them, expertly Google or guess their Skype username and then send them an unsolicited message, etc.), it doesn’t mean connecting with and understanding someone is easier than it was when you had to yell at someone on the street or send them a wax-​​sealed letter containing shaky handwriting to let them know how you feel. Our minds still make this pretty hard for us.

If meeting new friends and romantic partners was the only thing we used the Internet for, this wouldn’t be such a big deal — we’ve been coping with the psychological pitfalls of personal communication for millennia. In fact, you could argue that ambiguity and guessing is part of the fun… to some extent. Romantic comedies, for a certainty, wouldn’t exist without these issues. But no, this goes deeper than rom-​​coms and finding out who likes the same cool bands as you (Björk fans, represent): the world is now, more than ever, relying on debate and discussion of some very important ideas to help solve major social, political, economic, environmental, technological and scientific problems.

To meet these challenges, proper communication between people with different viewpoints is vital, and not just those people with societally-​​granted power, like politicians, CEOs and totes-​​hot celebrities, but everyday people with everyday thoughts and everyday opinions. All day, every day. Yep, I’m talking about online debates and discussions: hashing it out on the Interweb-​​tubes-​​things with people who disagree with you. A pastime as old as… well, as old as the Internet, which is apparently over 8200 days old? Huh, I didn’t know that.

To be honest, it’s not just globally-​​important issues that benefit from improved communication, it’s the little things too — the minor arguments you find yourself having all the time with friends, not-​​so-​​friends, friends of friends, and friends of not-​​so-​​friends. You know how it is. Wouldn’t it be great to reduce the number of awkward arguments you have on Facebook and Twitter? Well, I can’t tell you how to stop them, but I can give you some tips as to how to make them a little easier to deal with.

Also, I’ll try to help with arguments about important things too. Yeah, this piece will solve global warming, don’t you worry about that.1

So, here are some tips and thoughts about how to debate, discuss and disagree better on the Internet. Obviously, I’m not an expert2 and these are just general ideas, so take all this with a pinch of brain-​​salt. Or whatever that’s called, critical thinking or something.

The loudest voices aren’t always the ones you should listen to

You can only ever come into contact with a small percentage of the members of any group of people, because you can only interact with so many people per day. This means for small groups, or groups not well-​​represented in your community or social circle, the number of people you will meet from that group will be very small, sometimes as little as one person. Ouch.

This lack of representation regularly combines with another factor — social loudness — to generate a hefty amount of sampling bias for small groups. The people you tend to hear about from marginalised collections of people (who may or may not have different ideas or opinions about the world compared to everyone else) are angry, reactionary and don’t always represent the average beliefs of that group.

A classic example of this on the Internet is social justice. Many young people online are relatively savvy about social inequality and the massive problems arising from sexism, racism, transphobia and the like, but for many others, especially those from older generations or from communities with socially conservative backgrounds, people who care about these issues might be hard to come by. As such, the only people who find their way into their Twitter or Facebook feeds are those making the most noise — and they can be, well, not particularly pleasant to listen to. This is probably why the stereotype of the “man-​​hating feminist” still has a hold on people who would otherwise agree with the vast majority of feminist thought: super-​​angry feminists who do want to kill all men are the only ones loud enough to get their attention, even though they’re in the minority.

Is everyone who has doubts about GM food as forthright as these people? CC-licensed photo.

Is everyone who has doubts about GM food as forthright as these people? CC-​​licensed photo.

Closer to science, this issue also arises amongst those who dislike the genetic modification of crop plants. While the science about the safety of GM food is currently pretty settled, there’s a substantial group of people out there who disagree with it. For those in scientific communities with strong ties to biology, you might not know many people who belong to such a group, and so the people you tend to hear about in the news are the ones who destroy GM wheat for publicity or think GM food is full of toxins. In reality, most people who have reservations about GM food aren’t that extreme and their beliefs are more about uncertainty, rather than outright strident hatred. If you treat the average GM-​​wary person like a science-​​denying idiot, you’re not going to get very far.

Every group has its extreme members: don’t use them as an excuse to dismiss that group’s ideas out of hand.

Personality issues aren’t necessarily caused by bad beliefs

It’s natural to try and find ways to dislike people who disagree with you. Don’t deny this doesn’t happen! You know it does. But just try to remember that the average person on the other side of the belief-​​fence3 is probably very similar to you, and so any personality problems they may have probably come from their personal life, not their dislike of Apple smartphones, as infuriatingly well-​​designed as those smartphones may be.

This isn’t really a conscious problem, I must admit. We all know it’s not rational to think that someone’s belief about the efficacy of alternative medicine makes them a bad person, but our brain makes that connection anyway. Suddenly, minor slip-​​ups in manner and tone become amplified beyond all reason. They said what?! Well that’s just unacceptable. You know, all those skeptics are all the same, thinking they’re better than everyone else.

You probably agree on more than you disagree

Expanding a little on the previous point, most people are, yes, pretty similar to each other. Even though genetics doesn’t determine your thoughts (for the most part), it’s good to be reminded that you’re likely 99.9% genetically identical to any random person you happen to meet. Socially and psychologically things are a little more complicated, but we at least have the capacity to share the same beliefs, even if you actually don’t.

Our beliefs aren't genetically determined, but the basic structure of our brains are. We all have the potential to (somewhat) think the same way. CC-licensed photo.

Our beliefs aren’t genetically determined, but the basic structure of our brains are. We all have the potential to (somewhat) think the same way. CC-​​licensed photo.

That being said, however, most people share the same basic values: wanting to be included and appreciated, not wanting to see other people be hurt, not wanting to be hurt themselves, loving some crappy pop songs even though you know deep down inside Björk doesn’t really approve of them, etc. I’d probably go even further and say that a large proportion of people share more specific values too, like not wanting the government and/​or large companies to do unethical things, not wanting to see the planet made uninhabitable, and really appreciating a good vanilla slice.

As such, the disagreement you have with someone about nuclear power probably isn’t fundamental. You can get through this. Of course, it’s tough when you both think you have facts on your side, but at least you’re not disagreeing over whether murder is wrong. You both want what’s best — so how can you both come to understand each other’s point of view better to really bridge the divide you’re experiencing? How can you merge your souls together and become one? Surely that’s the ultimate goal here.

Always try to think from the other person’s perspective

The high levels of baseline agreement you have with other people also allow for another wonderful thing to happen, if you let it: thinking from other people’s perspectives.4 This is an extremely useful tool, especially if you’re always surprised that someone could believe something so stupid! Well, they probably have a reason. Try to work out what it is.

Basically, you can’t change someone’s mind if you don’t know what caused their mind to change in the first place. Some people believe things for factual reasons. Others rely more on emotion to lead them to beliefs. Others may use a mix of the two: conspiracy theorists often believe their beliefs in intricate globalist schemes are based on evidence, but a good chunk of the time the most important reason for their belief is mistrust in authority or a skewed perception of human society. To be honest, most of us fall into that third category for most of our beliefs, whether we like to admit it or not.

Understanding someone’s perspective lets you have a feel for how they’re responding to what you’re saying. Why aren’t they impressed by your knockdown argument of their position? How does it sound? What, they don’t agree with something you’re assuming? Well, that’s going to throw a sparrow in the works. Or a spanner. One of the two.

You can practice this by thinking about why you believe what you believe — which is a good thing to do anyway, really. If you can’t convince yourself of something for good reasons, what makes you think you’ll be able to do the same to another person?

Twitter is not a good place for discussion

So far, a lot of these tips have been pretty general — anyone in nearly any argumentative situation could take something from them. This one, on the other hand, is pure Internet, all the way down. Twitter is bad for arguing. Just don’t do it.

See what I mean? Character limits. They’re tough.

But that’s not the only issue with Twitter — the main one, in my opinion, is the ease with which other people can take tweets of yours out of context. Each tweet (in a way) stands alone when you link to it and so valuable context can disappear, especially when you tweet multiple tweets at another tweeter. (Ugh.) And you know that’ll happen, because you don’t have enough space to say everything you want in one tweet.

Sweet, sweet context.

Take it to email. Or blog comments. Blog comments can be surprisingly forgiving, depending on the site.

Actually, scratch that, don’t read the comments

As a rule of thumb, it’s really not a good idea.

Read and engage with the best articles/​arguments/​people against your position

Now that you’ve stop arguing on Twitter (right, like that’s going to happen), you can move into the far more pleasant world of online articles — like this one! Hooray. Argumentation is easier here, because you can actually get your point across without resorting to silly acronyms like “TBQH“5, “IMHO“6 and “HYELTBEBCOGCM?“7. Maybe you were linked to an article by the person you’re arguing with. Awesome. Check it out — they obviously think it’s worth reading. I mean, probably — they could have haphazardly Googled some keywords and clicked “I’m feeling lucky” — but chances are they stand by the content.

If you're an atheist, arguing against the creation beliefs of Kent Hovind is way too easy. CC-licensed photo.

If you’re an atheist, arguing against the Christian young-​​Earth creationist beliefs of Kent Hovind is way too easy. CC-​​licensed photo.

Why should you read what they send you? Well, as much as you probably think you know “the other side”, there’s always going to be something you’ve missed, some detail you’re either not exploiting to your advantage or understanding enough so that you can win the other person over. Unless, of course, you’ve studied the topic for many years, in which case you’re probably sick to death of the drivel that you get linked to on a daily basis. Fair enough. But unless you’re like me and intelligent design, chances are you’re not at that stage just yet. (Hoo boy.)

If you really want to convince someone of your position, you need to go a step further: actively try to find the best cases against what you believe. That could be in the form of an article, a particular set of arguments you’ve never heard before, or a person who seems to be pretty intellectually respectable. For some positions, like vaccine and climate change denial, finding these will be tough, even impossible. But you’ve got to try. Sometimes it’s the intellectual journey, not the argumentative destination, that’s important. Or maybe that’s what I tell myself to get to sleep at night.

Maybe don’t argue on the Internet so much — I mean, it’s a lovely day outside, probably

Yes, the Internet is the new cultural and intellectual battleground — or, in less militaristic terms, it’s where more and more people are learning the majority of their information. Arguing ideas amongst each other can be important. But it’s not always important. Sometimes you’re never going to convince someone their position is incorrect. Sometimes what you’re arguing about really doesn’t matter that much. Sometimes you just get tired of it all.

Stand up. Walk around. Sitting isn’t great for your health. You can always come back to that argument later. Or not. Your choice.

[Feature image: Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by danielavladimirova]

  1. Oh man, it so totally will not. []
  2. At arguing, perhaps, but not at anything useful. []
  3. Wow, Jack, you’re hitting the metaphors out of the park today. []
  4. Wow, I’m on a segue run, aren’t I? []
  5. TBQH = to be quite honest []
  6. IMHO = in my honest opinion []
  7. HYELTBEBCOGCM = have you even listened to Björk’s extensive back catalogue of genre-​​crushing music? []