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.