Political debate online is all too often far too cancerous to be of any good to anybody, including most of all, the fully grown adults who are probably very nice, normal, intelligent, and rational people in their daily offline lives, but bring the online discussion down to the level of intellectual rigor and emotional effusion of a toddler.
Sociologists have studied the phenomenon of online debate and how the medium can incline us toward this nasty outcome, but the good news is it doesn’t have to be this way. We can make online a very nice place if we want to. We can make it a lot of fun too.
And we can even make it a powerhouse engine of thought and idea development as the result of a collaborative effort of millions of people to think out loud together, to explore ideas, and to embrace controversy and disagreement, leaning into the clash of ideas and hugging it close without getting burnt, because we’ve established a steely framework of mutual respect and the basic, simple rules of intelligent argumentation.
1. Don’t kick the dog
Many people enter an online political debate with hostility from their very first comment. They come in swinging: “Of course your argument is stupid and so are you, dummy!” And that was the highly unusual G-rated form of this approach. You know what I mean. It’s really unfortunate to see people going at perfect strangers like this and attacking them to start off with. They don’t even take it from a 0 to an 11 on the aggression scale; they lead with an 11.
Honestly what’s the point of that? Frankly it’s abusive behavior. This is the kind of person who cusses out the driver in front of them while battling their way through rush hour to work in the morning, then they come home stressed about their lives and their jobs, and instead of kicking the dog, this is what they do. They abuse other people online under the cover of righteous indignation about politics. If you are that person you might be happier and mentally healthier if you cut out politics completely.
It’ll be fine without you, don’t worry. You’re not adding anything good to it. But if you can’t do that, I challenge you to pretend the stranger you’re talking to online is a dog and see if you would actually be nicer to them in your comments. “Who’s a good boy! Who’s a goo’boy! You’re a goo’boy! You just need to get your facts straight about health care, but you’re still a sweetie!”
2. Ask questions
Another way to approach a debate online that may help you strike the right tone and actually connect with another person even over your disagreement on a controversial topic, is imagine you’re friends, and you’re hanging out at a cool bar or something, and one table over is an attractive member of whatever sex you’re attracted to.
That will hopefully keep you on your best behavior because you’re trying to enjoy the moment with your friend and maybe impress someone you’re attracted to. You might even crack a joke or two and approach a difficult subject with delicacy, finesse, and nuance. One way to keep a good conversation going and to actually listen to and understand what the other person is saying– which is the first step to having a real debate– is ask questions.
Too many online debaters who think they’re like warriors or something come in to a comment thread swinging with argumentative claims: “That’s wrong.” “You’re stupid.” “That politician’s an idiot.” “That news source is communist.”
Those people are just annoying.
A truly skilled debater asks good questions that make the person they’re debating with defend the substance of the claims they’re making and explore a topic or idea in greater depth.
3. Give props
Debating and arguing are not really the same thing. Sometimes people get stuck in argumentation mode in an online political debate and they just disagree with every single thing the other person is saying. It’s easy to let the inertia of argumentation push you in that direction, so it’s understandable why this happens, but if you can step back and keep yourself from becoming ego invested in the debate and enjoy the flow of ideas, something really cool might happen as the conversation unfolds.
Don’t reflexively resist each and every point someone makes when you debate online. Consider each thing they’re saying on its own merits and be willing to give them props for an idea that makes sense or a factual claim that turns out to be correct upon using the Googletron or your Wikipedia powers to investigate. Props means proper respect. Give the person and their arguments proper respect when due, and evaluate that as objectively as you can.
4. Be reasonable
In too many online debates, the participants aren’t trying to reason, they’re trying to “win” the debate, and they’re willing to do this on the most specious grounds– that is– an argument that maybe sounds good, but isn’t really on solid ground. I suspect the debater in many of these cases– especially if they’ve proven themselves to be an intelligent and educated person– knows that this is the case, that they’re kind of twisting things to make their side look better.
The fingerprints of specious reasoning are all over partisan political debate, because each side calls the other out when they do this, and yet both sides keep doing it. There is an enormous amount of power, like cosmically enormous, available right now to anyone who is willing to unlock horns and look at everything fairly with an objective eye, and only claim ground that they know they can firmly stand on, not precarious ground that looks good for a minute, but where they can get knocked down by others or lose their own balance.
5. Don’t feed the trolls
Trolls are people online who get their claws into you and know how to string you along into a protracted argument by saying things that are calculated to prick your pride and play off your other emotions, causing you grief while keeping you arguing with them late into the night. These are sad, lonely people who think they have too much free time and they are time wasters. Don’t feed them. This is one of the oldest rules of the Internet.
If you’re one of these trolls, I tell you that you do not have as much free time as you think you do. Life is short and almost never sufficient for any of us. Time is precious and you shouldn’t waste a moment of it. You can make mud pies on the Internet and fling them at passersby sure. But the fact that you’re on the Internet doing anything at all, even making trouble, means you’re probably one of the most intelligent and capable creatures to ever exist in the entire universe. You could make something beautiful.
As a side note to feeding trolls: I want to mention strawmans. A strawman is the weakest form of an opponents’ argument you can come up with to make yourself seem right by comparison.
It’s a form of specious reasoning. It’s called a strawman because it’s like beating up a scarecrow instead of a real man of flesh and blood who could fight back. You might be able to beat up a scarecrow, but that doesn’t really make you any good. It’s just some clothes full of dead grass.
Well both sides in political arguments now frequently find the worst example of the other side they can and say that worst example represents the other side. This is actually causing both sides to degenerate because it’s elevating the worst within them.
Trolls are realizing they can get vast amounts of the most precious resource there is– attention– by putting on the straw man’s clothes and letting the other side beat up on them. Don’t fight strawmen and don’t feed trolls, or you’re going to start a zombie apocalypse and there won’t be anything funny about it.
Your homework assignment is to find an online debate somewhere and take the opposite side of what you really believe in. Make the very best case you can for the opposite side, and represent it as well as you can with the best personality you can and the best facts and arguments you can muster. You need to experience this ego death to advance to a higher level of true objectivity and critical thinking.
And don’t be surprised if it’s the most fun you’ve had talking about politics online in a long time. Second part of the assignment, and if you do the assignment you can’t skip this part: I want you to report back to the comment section here and describe how it went. Feel free to leave screenshots or links to the debate.