Arguing on the Internet

The internet can be a difficult place to disagree with people. In some places (naming no names, YouTube comments…) it can be hard to find civil conversation even when you’re basically on the same page as the people you’re interacting with. I have seen people online talk respectfully to each other, even when they disagree completely with each other’s points of view, but it is definitely the vanishingly small exception rather than the rule.

Phone with an angry face emoji filling the screen.

There are a lot of proposed reasons for people getting carried away with their online arguments. Some people are probably in it for catharsis rather than communication, so a lot of angry caps-lock is just part of the appeal. Others are sharing their opinions more to demonstrate them to people who already agree, a kind of performance argument, and so their objective is to show just how much they disagree with opinion X and not to convince people who think X that actually, Y might make more sense.

There’s also the explanation that I think applies best to the debaters who do want people to agree with them at the end: that people online forget that they’re talking to other people, or that the lack of facial expressions and body language to go with all of the words whizzing around make it more likely that people will misinterpret each other. Either of those pretty much gets you to the same place; people don’t mean to be mean, they just aren’t playing by the usual rules of social interactions. People in this group can end up being functionally indistinguishable from people in the previous groups, even though their goals are completely different. These are people who believe in what they’re saying, and want others to come around to their points of view.

(If you’re interested in a more detailed exploration of ideas about why and how people argue online, I’d recommend this article, which I read before writing this blog post.)

We live in a world where a lot of people disagree passionately on what our biggest problems are and the best ways to go about fixing them. It’s a problem because, if there’s one thing that I think (almost) everyone could agree on, whatever humanity’s major issues are right now we’d solve them better working together. The thing that got me thinking about this was a very interesting video by Hank Green, deconstructing a particularly effective bit of rhetoric around climate change and what we should, or shouldn’t, be doing about it. I’ve linked to the video in question below, essentially he includes a clip of a show in which this discussion is going on and then goes through, point by point, what makes the argument in question so well-crafted and effective.

Video by Hank Green, uploaded by hankschannel on YouTube

I’m a believer in climate change as a serious and human-caused issue, so I found Hank’s analysis interesting on those grounds, but I also think it serves as a really interesting illustration of how to effectively disagree. Even while I was listening to him talking about how carefully the statements he was analysing had been put together, I think it was pretty clear (and I don’t think he would disagree with this) that his response was similarly constructed. He was respectful, he spoke from the perspective of a citizen rather than that of an expert, he avoided hyperbole. He didn’t at any point say that he thought a good point was being made, or that he agreed with what was being said, he was totally uncompromising in his own position. But he was polite about it, and he did recognise the validity of the perspective of the person making the argument. He was able to argue with the ideas without attacking the person making them.

If you’re trying to prove how strongly you feel about something, it’s easy to dismiss everyone who disagrees as an idiot. It’s easy, maybe even effective, to speak in extremes. This is the end of the world! This is the best thing ever! All things are one or the other! But if you want to get others to take you seriously, maybe even come around to your way of thinking, all that’s going to do is alienate people who don’t fully agree.

I didn’t watch the clip of somebody talking persuasively about climate change not being a major issue and come away feeling the same. But I did come away understanding a little more about why other people agree strongly with that position. I don’t know that Hank’s counter-points would have swayed somebody who feels certain that climate change isn’t a big deal, but I hope at least they would end the video with some more clarity on where the other side is coming from. I can’t help but think that if everyone could just back down a little from the extreme, all-or-nothing, ‘people who don’t agree with me are morons’ style of arguing online that you see so often, that maybe we might get a little further with bringing people round to our points of view. Whatever those points of view might be.

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