Saturday, October 27, 2012

Debating on the Internet

Ah, the Internet debate. So prevalent, and yet so universally despised. An excellent topic for discussion. Or debate.


But first--a pie chart.

 These data were collected (yes, data is a plural noun) by thirty-seven and a half brilliant urologists from Harvard with the help of the Hubble telescope in an international study.

It must be true.

Nice as the color variety may be, the picture is grim. Unfortunately, this chart depicts the current state  of Internet debates quite well. As an avid lover of both the Internet and debate, I felt moved to do something about it.

So I published this argumentative post on the Internet.

We all have our own ways of contributing.

Let us begin with the possible reasons for debating on the Internet. I shall cover the most common.

 Reason One: Persuasion

 This is the most popular purpose for casual debate. Ironically, it is also one of the more difficult things to do over the Internet.

Let me say this and be done with it from the start: the Internet is not the place to be changing people's minds. It's just not effective.

Why is that?

I think the reason isn't so difficult to grasp. A few reasons, actually.

First, change usually requires time. Especially big change. A person doesn't alter his entire outlook on life after reading a few comments on YouTube video. It takes time for us to assimilatify our opinions and beliefs (unless they are all just copied from our parents), and it takes time to deassimilatify them and reassimilatify them in a new way.

Second (and more importantly), we, as human beings, tend to not respond to concepts as well as we respond to people.

An example. College is infamous for perverting the minds of conservative young men and women. But it isn't simply the exposure to new ideas that brings the change. It is the relationships. The people they meet and come to love. The professors who teach them and earn their respect.

They say that people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. This cliche little statement reflects some truth in regards to debating, I believe. People won't care what you think (no matter how well put it is) if they don't respect you. You earn respect by showing respect (or care). And by building it over time. 

In short, persuasion is best done with people for whom you actually give a moldering cowpat. Because they will not give a moldering cowpat for you or your opinions. But that brings me to another point.

Everyone despises preachers. (Well, at least everyone should.) Why? Because they preach. There are many reasons why preaching sucks as a method of communication, but the lack of personal concern (the relationship) intertwined with the condemning tone are the main reasons I see preaching as an almost immoral practice. Avoid preaching at all costs when attempting to persuade; no one appreciates being condemned by some jerk on the Internet.

Reason Two: Reinforcement of Personal Beliefs

I may have said this in other places on this blog, but we humans are selfish blighters. We often contradict others solely so that we might legitimize our own opinions. Debates with this purpose often start when someone says something disparaging about a certain belief/opinion and an adherent of that belief just can't bear that people on the Internet would disagree with his/her enlightened perspective.

A less cynical person might say that this is simply an example of the need for us to practice defending what we believe in order that we might learn it ourselves. That it is just an innocent, natural step in gaining new information.

Of course, you should know by now what we here think of those fools who still have faith in the human race. 

If you are debating because you are insecure in something you believe, don't be pressing others to believe it. Discuss it. Be humble and open about your lack of understanding.

Alternatively, you could just shut up.

Reason Three: Mutual Growth and Understanding 

 Like all selfless actions, this purpose is much more rare. Why can't we all regard Internet debate realistically, with the understanding that the most we will probably do for each other is provide a reasonable contrasting viewpoint that will broaden our experiences rather than completely change the way we regard them?

Probably because we're stupid. That's actually the answer to a lot of my questions, I suppose...

It is important to master the art of simply valuing and discussing the opinions of someone else without feeling the need to change them. In the end, what does it matter if his favorite president was your least favorite? It will not hinder his survival probability. So why not just learn interesting things about a president you may have overlooked in your passion for your own preference?  

Reason Four: Fun

The reason I debate often. It's one of the few good purposes to debate on the Internet, I believe. Which is kind of sad, really. It's hard to go wrong with this as long as the most basic rules for debate are followed. (I shall cover those at the end of this post.)

Remember this, though. Be sure that both parties engaged in the debate are having fun. Otherwise, it will feel like mockery to the person not enjoying the discussion. You may be regarded as a troll, or simply as someone with no sensitivity if you neglect this.

Ahem. Not that I would know this from experience.


Obviously, there are more than four reasons for debating on the Internet. But many will sort of fit under these categories, and I'm feeling too lazy to go into a detailed list. Deal with it.

Whatever your reasons for getting into a debate online, be sure you understand why you feel the need to present point and counter-point regarding some issue of controversy. 

Rules and Suggestions for Awesome Internet Arguments

*Insert long, generic disclaimer about taking advice from people on the Internet*

Yes, I am feeling exceptionally lazy today. Here is a pacifier. Suck it. 

All of this is very basic. But it should be stated anyway, as apparently no one understands them anymore.

1. Know your stuff. If you are unprepared to defend your opinions, don't go broadcasting them for all the world to see and judge. The Great Cave Trolls of Internet Correctness™ are everywhere, and they will kill you. And eat you. And your dog. (You know, dog meat is actually rather tasty. Ahem. Not that I would know anything about that.)

2. In any debate, remember this: EVERYONE is wrong to an extent. Including you. So don't be too authoritative.

3. Reinforce the other person. Saying something as simple as "good point" or "well said" will make him feel respected, and you will have made the first steps in earning respect yourself.

4. Recognize an idiot/troll. Sometimes continuing to argue with a belligerent fool will make you look like one as well.

5. Have sources for stuff that requires sources. Saying things like "I read read once that blah blah... but I don't remember where" will instantly decrease your legitimacy.

6. Perhaps I should have said this earlier, but figure out why the government you have to get into a debate on the Internet before you say anything in the first place. Is the situation appropriate? Is it really worth your time? Is it just going to be disruptive?

7. Approach the debate with a serving attitude. You are there to contribute, to benefit the discussion--not to tear someone down.

8. Listen to the other person. Their position is half of the discussion. Be sure to treat it as such. Heck, go ahead and give them more than half. It will help build the all-important respect.


There is much hyperbole concerning debate. On one side you have the jerks who just want a chance to get everyone in the world to think just like them. On the other end you have the snobs who think debating is useless divisive conflict or that people who get into debates on the Internet are fools. 

Debate is conflict, yes. But conflict is not bad. And just because there is conflict does not mean that there is fighting, or even necessarily competition. Debate is intelligent exchange of contrasting ideas.

Debate is a life skill. And yet it is never taught as it should be. Become a student of debate. And remember to use your powers for good.  
Of course, it could be argued that "good" is relative, and as a relative aspect of existence, it should be analyzed on a situational basis, and ...

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