Arguing on the Internet

It’s been about four months since I last blogged. I suppose that, as much as anything else, that’s a sign that my life has been a bit of a wreck since January – I often drop the things I actually like doing in favour of procrastination when things are on top of me. It’s one of the reasons I’m trying to wean myself off facebook – it’s a particularly wasteful procrastination tool. The second key reason that I’ve reduced my facebook presence is that the way it’s programmed no longer suits my purposes as a communication tool. But really, I want to talk today about reason number three. Normally I keep myself to a 500 word limit on here, but I want to talk in full about a few issues right now, so my next few posts are likely to be a bit on the long side.

One of the big motivators for me getting off facebook has been simply the way people argue on the internet. For a guy like me, these arguments are starting to become exhausting. I like to learn, and I feel as though I can learn from other people’s point of view. At the very least, even if they’re wrong in their information or at least their interpretation of it, I can learn why they believe what they believe. I am also very opinionated (as my long-time readers are doubtlessly aware). It makes putting forth my own thoughts a hard temptation to resist.

The down side is this: most people who argue on the internet have no desire to learn. They only want to win. Nothing you can say will convince them to change their mind and any attempt at reason or rationality will only result in more bad behaviour from them.

Academic ways of arguing

I have a postgraduate qualification in a text-analysis and interpretation subject from a very good faculty in a very good university. I have been taught by some of the most intimidating and respected people in their field. And I have surrounded myself with similarly educated nerds. We disagree vehemently about some things, but we tend to argue in one of two ways.

Way one is the way we have learned to argue professionally. When asked to by our professors, we produce anything between 2,000 and 20,000 words with each fact or borrowed argument sourced and referenced. Take it from captain last-minute who used to pull all-nighters to produce essays: even if you know what you’re talking about in detail, gathering source material will take several hours, and the writing process with proper referencing will take approximately 6 hours per two thousand words. There is a reason that as academics we do this strictly for course credits or, if employed in academia, to further our research agenda and argue with people whose opinions actually matter. People who will put down an equally well-researched counter argument that we will learn something from ourselves.

Way two is how we argue casually. How we debated on LiveJournal back when we were all on it and how we have debated at pubs and parties when academic types got together. It comes from the tacit acknowledgement that both parties understand what we’re talking about and are capable of understanding what the other is talking about.

One will state an opinion. The other will state a counter-opinion, usually with their reasons. The first will either start to probe the reasons for logical/interpretative flaws or give the conflicting information that they had. Through discussion of the sources, each party will work out who has the better information. Arguments and interpretations will then be dissected and several things will be found: areas of agreement, areas that will have to be left until someone decides it’s important enough to research more thoroughly, areas where the parties will have to agree to disagree, and areas where one of the parties has changed their mind due to new knowledge. Nobody gets called names or has their morality, parenthood, or sanity questioned during this process. I’m stubborn as all fuck, but I do climb down on points in these kinds of discussions with my peers.

Needless to say, argument style One is impractical on the internet. You would have to give a day’s work to each stage of the argument, and the debate would take at least a fortnight (assuming each side only has one day in the week they can give to a political debate on facebook) as each party presented their essays on the subject. It might be worth it if, like in an academic setting, you could be sure that someone who disagrees with you will change their mind if your argument really is that good.

Social media argument styles

It has been noted in the last few years that most people create a bubble for themselves on social media – a bubble of opinion similar to their own. It’s inadvertent: facebook and even google searches track what you respond to in order to tailor content to the things you interact with. But as most people don’t really engage with the implications of that (if they even realise it’s happening in the first place), they fall into the trap of believing that everyone thinks like them because all they ever see in the content-rich environment of their internet experience is confirmations of their opinions. This means that when they encounter a counter-opinion, to their mind the person expressing it must be thinking aberrantly. As an opposing reality threatens the reader’s construct of the world, what matters when they engage with that counter-opinion is not the exchange of facts and interpretations (or even the deconstruction of each other’s information) but rather the assertion of one’s world view. And this is accompanied by the textual equivalent of the shouting and table-banging you would expect from the obnoxious mouthy bloke people get fed up of hearing in the pub.

In the last three months, I managed to get myself embroiled in three rather pointless exchanges on facebook, and they were all eye-openers. Much as I’m tempted to screen-shot them and deconstruct them comment by comment, this post is going to be long enough as it is, so I’m going to reduce to description and paraphrase for the sake of brevity.

Demanding rigour to silence the opposition

The first was kind of amusing. It was a US Army grunt who is known to one of my cousins. The guy called me an idiot because I forgot to specifically fact-check that a single occupation in the US had a gender pay gap. Apparently there are one or two professions where the discrimination legislation is holding up well enough to eliminate the problem. What this guy was doing was arguing pedantic points to avoid the actual point of my original comment – that the original post was a straw man argument.

I decided to keep my interaction with this guy to a minimum because he had already ended up in a set-to with three other parties in the hours between my posting my first comment and my next checking facebook. His attitude was that he was the smartest guy on the planet because he googled things. When I explained that my point was concerning straw man arguments, he even helpfully googled me the definition of a straw man argument, thus demonstrating that he didn’t actually understand what he had read in the original post or my original comment. Or how the definition of a straw man argument fitted with the discussion so far. You can lead a grunt to google but you can’t make him think.

The issue I took with him, and the reason I only commented further in order to tell him that he wasn’t worth any more of my time, was that he was in the course of his conversation with others demanding that they don’t use angry and provocative language, and demanding academic rigour from them that he was failing to adhere to himself. This is reason #1 that most social media debators are not worth my time – demanding rigour as a silencing tactic. They are not trying to raise the tone of the debate; they are making demands on you so that arguing with them takes up more of your time and effort. This increases the chance that they’ll feel like they’ve won because you either decide not to write that fully referenced academic essay and keep arguing point by point, or give up entirely.

(The reason I found Grunt Boy so amusing, by the way, is that he shared his SAT and ACT scores with me, evidently thinking I’d be impressed with his intelligence. Isn’t he adorable?)

The most recent of my three interesting exchanges was in the same vein. I’d written a critique of an article concerning problems that Britain leaving the EU is going to create for the European Parliament. Point by point, I went through the 13 (I think) points the article made and, given that the context of the sharing was among a vocal Remainer’s friends, I critiqued them from the point of view of whether they’re really anything the UK should be concerned about. I’m a Remainer, but I appreciate that the European Parliament’s problems aren’t necessarily our problems.

The truly daft thing here was that another Remainer, who had even commented, “Try having a sensible discussion about this with a Leaver,” proceeded to insult me then demand more rigour from my critique while failing to provide any sort of counter-thought himself. This despite another commenter telling him he was in the wrong for behaving this way. The irony of this guy’s position was clearly lost on him.

What even is evidence? Or argument, for that matter?

The second of the three exchanges told me a lot about the nature of evidence in internet debates. The other two at least had some sense of what academic rigour looks like, even if they’re just trying to use it as a silencing tactic. This other guy, a retired dude who has relatives working in a local hospital, was arguing nonsense about immigration in the UK and the strain it puts on the NHS.

Over the course of the exchange, he demanded evidence from me. I gave it to him. He had said that he voted to leave the EU because of immigration, then denied that he had said that when it was written in black and white. When I said that what he was doing was lying about what he said rather than giving me counter-evidence, he said I was accusing his family member (whose anecdote he had used earlier) of lying. He then even said that he has an anecdote whereas I just have paper.

So this is evidence to this kind of guy. Hearsay is more important than academic studies and fact-finding reports. Worse still, the guy could lie about what he had written mere hours and a few viewable centimetres ago. And then twist my words unsubtly to try and goad me onto the back foot. He also suggested I was a drunk, but that’s by the by.

And so…

This is why I’ve given up arguing on social media. Many who get into these arguments either don’t have the tools for the debate, or they think they have the tools but are using them to beat you about the head with rather than to construct an argument. And all the while they insult you whilst tone policing you if you allow yourself to stoop to their level.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be talking about three emotive current issues: Brexit, Trump and Jeremy Corbyn. I expect that people will have something to say, and I welcome people sharing their opinions and debating. However, this is my blog. I set the rules, and they apply equally to the comments thread under the automated facebook shares on my profile.

The rules are as follows:

1. Be respectful at all times.

2. I am the only tone police. If someone is being insulting, don’t call them on it, just feel free to ignore their comment. It will get deleted tomorrow anyway. Furthermore, you do not get to decide if someone else’s comment sounds “angry”.

3. Do not twist people’s words.

4. Do not use demands for rigour as a silencing tactic.

5. Do not lie about things that you have clearly written in previous comments. (See the main body of this blog post as to why this even needs saying.)

6. Anybody disobeying the rules above will have their comment deleted as soon as I’ve read it.

7. Any comment that looks like the commenter has not thoroughly read or understood the original post or the comment they are replying to will be deleted.


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