How to argue: a quick checklist for internet kerfuffles
The internet is not the most ideal location for good discourse. Most disagreements quickly devolve into kneejerk defensiveness, name-calling, and far, far worse. The great Monty Python sketch, “The Argument Clinic” was quite prophetic.
Establishing a definite proposition on the internet through argument can be such an achievement as to earn consideration for sainthood. And that’s sad. As I said in my last post, critical thinking is very important to me, even in regards to pop culture. It’s crucial that we be able to consider every aspect, positive and negative, of the art we love, and not simply reject, resent, threaten to murder, and bombard with pornography the Wikipedia pages of those who present ideas that we disagree with.
So I’ve compiled a basic checklist of what I try to consider when arguing.
1: Is the other person’s argument patently offensive?
Sorry dudes, “She’s a feminist and that bothers me” doesn’t cut it. For this step, I’m talking things like “I think puppy-stabbing is a fun, productive activity for all ages”. When the argument transcends political, social, religious, and every other kind of belief, it’s not an argument. The other person is probably trolling and isn’t worth the effort.
2: Am I incapable of being rational with this topic?
This can cover a wide range of territory. On one end, I think “Princess Mononoke” is the best film I’ve ever seen, and I’m not all that interested in hearing negative opinions about it. That’s all on me. Doesn’t make anyone who hates it wrong. It’s one of a few films I’m not rational about.
On a more serious note, this is also the reason juries are vetted and Supreme Court judges are subject to brutal interviews before the Senate. Their abilities to be completely rational and uncompelled by emotion are vital to the law (at least in theory).
On the internet, no one’s compelling you to argue but yourself. If the topic is so close to home that rationality goes flying, acknowledge that before going forward, and at consider cooling down beforehand.
3: Having decided to argue, are my problems with the other person’s argument visceral or logical?
My unscientific estimate is that 91.87 percent of internet arguments are visceral, driven by the guts (often the bowels, looks like) rather than the brain. And that’s fine… to an extent. While everyone vents now and then, it’s important to recognize when we’re venting, and when we’re simply attacking someone without really considering their logic.
Quick rule: if your immediate response to someone’s argument is something like “Well, that doesn’t apply to me so it must be wrong!” or “How dare you go after [insert medium or work of art you love here]!” you’re being visceral, not logical. Of COURSE it doesn’t have to apply to you. Odds are, the author didn’t have you specifically in mind when they wrote their thoughts. So their lack of application to you doesn’t automatically render it false. Likewise, critical thinking about the things you love IS ALWAYS GOOD. Either way, you are simply getting defensive. And yes, that’s a normal feeling to have, and that’s fine. But responding in kind, while an understandable desire and action, is not a valid argument.
4: Am I relying… at all… on logical fallacies to maintain my argument?
Another quick rule: the moment you use a logical fallacy, you lose the argument. It’s like a boxer trying to win with a groin kick. They have no place in discourse. Of course, many arguments consist ENTIRELY of logical fallacies (for a comprehensive list of fallacies, click here).
Some common offenses:
The Straw Man: Intentionally misrepresenting your opponent or an opposing position to prove a point.
False equivalence: Insinuating an opposing point has equal validity, when it doesn’t.
Ad Hominem: Attacking the opponent, not their argument.
Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” In other words, please, please don’t evoke Nazis, unless it’s a historical discussion of Nazism or Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. For political discussions, I’d add Communism to the mix as well. If you ever, ever do this, you lose the argument. Them’s the rules.
It’s amazing how many arguments would never happen if this mental checklist were applied beforehand. I imagine a lot of them wouldn’t even get past the first couple of steps. The last step, however, is the most common offender for any touchy internet topic. Look, it’s no coincidence that this post follows my last one. I’ve never seen an anti-feminist rant on the internet that passed any of these mental tests, and most consist entirely of the last one.
Look, in this great country of ours, you can say what you please and not give a crap what I or anyone else thinks about it. But if you don’t want to write something that would embarrass you in 10 years, at least run these through your mind before hitting “post”.
Because a lot of the time, when you’ve applied these standards and have nothing valid to say, the other person’s argument still stands. And in that case, maybe it’s worth giving them the time of day. Maybe, just maybe, what they said pissed you off because it challenged you, not because it was wrong. And no one is ever always correct. At some point, we all encounter ideas that challenge how we think, and force us to reconsider our positions. Arguing should be one way to help us recognize those ideas, and not simply a way to reaffirm our same old thoughts.
Gaming, Anita Sarkeesian, and the marketplace of ideas
“The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”- Oliver Wendell Holmes
I don’t usually write about gaming, but I’m passionate about it, I’m passionate about feminism and recently, someone I admire came under a sickening amount of abuse for combining the two.
I majored in English largely because I love a good debate. I’m as happy to talk to someone who dislikes one of my favorite films or shows as I am to share the love with fellow fans, and not just to prove them wrong. New, fresh perspectives can shed light on things you’ve never thought about.
That’s why I’m a huge fan of Anita Sarkeesian. I found her Feminist Frequency page on Youtube during a procrastination session towards the end of the spring semester. I ended up watching almost every video of hers in one night.
Her thoughts are challenging and well-argued. She rarely goes after easy targets, and often calls out her own favorite shows and films. She’s exactly what a critic should be, and what they so rarely are: someone who thinks critically about everything she encounters. For my money, she’s one of the best contributors to the marketplace of ideas.
Considering new ideas is always a challenge, but it’s worthwhile. I was initially surprised by her inclusion of Clementine Kruczynki from “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” on her piece on her piece about “Manic Pixie Dream Girls”. After all, I’d wrote the exact opposite in a blog post a few months ago about that film, which is one of my all-time favorites. But then I thought about it. Yeah, while it’s clear that Clementine, as an off-screen human, is meant not to be a Pixie (ie, her “I’m not a concept” rant) she still serves the role functionally in the film’s primary setting (Joel’s memories). More than that, realizing that about the film didn’t make me like “Eternal Sunshine” any less. I was just a bit more aware that even the best films still succumb to tropes like that.
While I don’t agree with all of her assertions, I respect her approach and her arguments. It’s not always about being right, after all, and I have nothing but respect for Sarkeesian’s goals and her approach. Anyone who calls her a “man-hater” is simply looking for something that is not there, like Don Quixote’s giants.
And that’s why Sarkeesian is such a valuable critic. She doesn’t say “Everything I mention is sexist and therefore awful”. She gets into the dirty details of movies and TV shows and how even the best shows, some with superb female characters (including Battlestar Galactica, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) often still rely on sexist tropes. It doesn’t make the shows inherently sexist or bad. It’s just something to think about. And thinking critically about what we watch is always good.
That’s why I was thrilled when I found out she was planning a series of videos on video games. Good lord, does that industry need to sort out its issues. I love video games. But it’s a male dominated industry, and games that don’t rely on sexist tropes tend to be in the minority, and even some of the best games can be problematic in that regard. That doesn’t make all games bad, even ones that contain sexist tropes. Some of my favorite games of all-time are guilty (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, God of War, and the Soul Calibur series come to mind). It’s worth discussing, and Anita Sarkeesian is just the person to discuss it. She’s level-headed, fair, and willing to challenge even the highest mountains of targets. She said she wants to discuss the problematic aspects of Metroid, for example, despite Samus Aran’s status as perhaps the most beloved female character in gaming. And you know what? I really, really want her to. The marketplace of ideas needs challenging thoughts and new concepts.
But a lot of people weren’t too keen about her ideas entering the market. I don’t need or want to rehash the sick, sick abuse she received. You can find it elsewhere. It’s very sad that that in 2012 someone like Sarkeesian would be subject to this level of abuse for merely proposing to discuss the presence of sexism in video games. And it’s absolutely befuddling that those who would deny it would so thoroughly prove Sarkeesian’s point with such astonishing misogynistic ferocity.
Ideas like Sarkeesians are invaluable to the marketplace. And her critics, for the most part, would try to shut her up before she can even put them up for sale.
At the very least, even if you disagree with Anita Sarkeesian, you owe her the ability to present her arguments. And if you don’t think she should’ve taken to Kickstarter for this project, what the hell does it matter to you? Don’t donate any money. It doesn’t matter to you if anyone else does. The marketplace of ideas is just that- a shop chock full of differing thoughts that deserve consideration. Even if you disagree with Sarkeesian when her videos come out, reacting to them with venom is unproductive at best and damaging at worst. In this day and age of partisan news coverage tailored to fit your views, and the ability to create insular worlds where we see and believe only what we want, anyone willing to try and make us think critically about what we love is doing something worthwhile.
While I have no idea how the comments and harassment leveled at Sarkeesian reflect on the gaming community as a whole (I hope it’s the work of a loud minority) the gaming community as a whole NEEDS more discussion about sexism. Check any thread about it on Kotaku and IGN. The threads become hellholes of back and forth spitfire and rage. Hell, look at the kneejerk defensiveness in the comments of this IGN article about the recent Hitman trailer. Seriously, a trailer that bad (not even from a moral standpoint; it’s just a really, really awful trailer) generates pages of instant defense against those creeping feminists, trying to ruin everyone’s fun.
There was, at least, a positive coda to all this. While trolls attacked Sarkeesian with words and Wikipedia vandalism, there was a massive monetary response. Her $6,000 request was met before the hullaballoo even began, and the project ended up grossing more than $158,000 total. Sometimes, money does talk.
When she does make these videos, I imagine that people who agree with them will enjoy them. I also imagine that they’ll make the rounds on the message boards that fueled the hate-parade that descended on Sarkeesian, where they’ll be subject to even more hate. But I hope that some people will have the same view that I did when I first discovered Feminist Frequency: that when someone challenges your thoughts on something you love, maybe, just maybe, it’s good to listen, and think. A little nuance never hurt anyone, but it can do everyone a lot of good. There’s always room for a little variety in the shopping cart.
The shocking video that started the whole controversy
A superb response to Feminist Frequency’s critics