What to do when internet arguments suck you in

It’s happened again: someone’s made an inflammatory comment on what’s clearly a totally reasonable Facebook post, and you feel your face start to flush. You have two choices: let them have it (“it” being a polite and measured rebuttal, of course) or walk away. The problem is that neither approach is really satisfying.

The problem with engaging

About a decade ago, I used to get in a lot of arguments on the internet. Back then, the debates I dived into were mostly academic, like whether a “neutral” English accent exists, or whether a plane really could take off from a treadmill (the latter, ironically, on the xkcd forums). The amazing thing is that even when you explain to someone that they’re wrong, why they’re wrong, and how they can be right in the future, they still don’t change their mind! They can even seem more convinced of their own position than when you started. So why engage when it’s a waste of time?

The problem with ignoring

There’s one obvious problem with walking away: someone is still wrong on the internet. But there are subtler problems too. When we pay more attention to content with a worldview similar to our own, algorithms like Facebook’s are designed to show us more of that. And when we see less and less of people who disagree with us, it’s easier to reduce their views in our minds to simplified caricatures, really held by no reasonable person.

“You don’t decide what gets in. And more importantly, you don’t actually see what gets edited out.”

But we don’t even need an algorithm for this to happen. Even if we like having a mixture of perspectives in our lives, a slight desire not to be the odd one out can cause us to naturally segregate ourselves—for an interactive blog post on this idea, see the Parable of the Polygons, an allegory of small individual bias leading to large-scale intolerance.

I wonder whether these effects have to do with the rising levels of political polarization in the U.S. over the last decade.

So what can you do? If ignoring people creates division, and engaging doesn’t necessarily help either, what’s left?

Listen

It’s easy to skim and jump straight into respond-mode. It’s harder to pause and ask yourself what’s going on in your friend’s head—are they feeling angry? Frustrated? Hopeless? Even better: make a guess, and ask if you’re right! “It sounds like you’re worried that… Is that right?” You may find that there’s something else going on than you thought.

And sometimes, showing that you’re willing to hear their point of view means that they will spontaneously reciprocate. Since I resolved more often to reflect the desires people were expressing, I was surprised how often I found out they already were considering the viewpoint I’d wanted to share.

But since that doesn’t always happen, I like to let go of the idea that victory is making sure your view is the last one heard. If everyone has that goal, no one wins. Instead, reaching a target of just one moment of understanding—even if it’s you understanding them—is satisfying and leaves the internet a better place.

If you still feel the need to respond…

Okay, so sometimes you really, really want to make sure your views are also expressed. How can you do that without escalating to frustration?

  •  Dress your opponent as Iron Man

A straw man is when you attack a weaker version of someone’s argument, so that you can win more easily. But the point is not to win, the point is to be right—so what’s the rightest version of what they’re saying? Show them that you get it, that they don’t need to pull out the rhetoric in case you haven’t heard it before.

  • Share information, not counterarguments.

After you’ve shown them that you understand where they’re coming from, only then are you in a position to explain why you disagree. But in the spirit of honest communication, don’t just pull out the standard rhetoric of your side. Better is to share the facts that caused you to join that side in the first place. After all, that’s what convinced you.

I came across a nice summary of this conversation style in a blog post by Eli Dourado on why experts don’t always agree:

Someone who is really seeking the truth should be eager to collect new information through listening rather than speaking, construe opposing perspectives in their most favorable light, and offer information of which the other parties are not aware, instead of simply repeating arguments the other side has already heard.

And while you’re at it…

Part of the reason these techniques are so effective—listening carefully to the emotions underlying differing viewpoints, rephrasing your opponents’ arguments to sound as honestly convincing as possible, and sharing information that might shed light on why we are disagreeing—is that they have the uncomfortable benefit of making it more likely for us to change our own minds in the process. Because we all have to be willing, at least a little bit, to change our minds, if we want our friends to do so too.


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