6 tips for online debate

This month marks the 20-year anniversary of me annoying the crap out of people by getting into philosophical debates on the internet. I therefore thought it might be fun to share some of the things I’ve learned over the years about how to cyber-debate… and how not to.

It was the beginning of my Sophomore year in college, in 1992, that I first discovered Usenet. I haven’t been able to dig up any of my very first posts, although I’ve been able to find some going back as far as 1993 and 1994.  As they say, the Internet never forgets.

UsenetLooking back on some of the stuff I wrote back then makes me cringe a little bit. I sometimes came off as arrogant, presumptuous, or mean. Now, to be fair, I’m sure there are some people who say that I still do. You know how it goes: you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and so on and so forth.

But I have learned a little bit, over the years, about how to make conversations a little more productive.  Or maybe just a little less unproductive. (I’m not entirely certain whether those two things are the same.)

So here are my Top 6 tips for cyber-debate, gleaned over my all my decades—two decades, to be exact—of arguing online over pointless philosophical and political things.

1. You’re trying to understand them

You feel like you already understand them… that they are wrong and stupid. Your real goal might be to convince them that you are right, or at least to get them to question their beliefs.

But even if this is what you feel in your heart, it is not the strategic tactic that you should use. Most of the time, if the rhetorical tone that you take is “I’m going to try to teach you something!” then they will just get defensive and dig in their heals.  They will mark you as someone who just doesn’t “get it” and they will hear nothing you have to say.

So instead, as a rhetorical strategy, approach the conversation as though you are a student approaching a teacher. You are trying to learn the depths and intricacies of their brilliant point of view.

When you want to say: “How can you claim such-and-such? That’s obviously ridiculous and wrong, you idiot.”

Instead, try: “When you said such-and-such, I’m not really sure that I fully understand what you mean. Can you explain?”

Or, if you want to say: “Stop jumping around! You keep adding new assumptions into the mix that have nothing to do with one another!”

You could substitute that with something like: “First you said assumption A but then you later said assumption B. I’m sorry if I’m just being slow, but I don’t get how these are connected. Can you spell it out for me?”

It’s important to remember that your questions aren’t demands: they are polite requests for more information.  Even though, in your own mind, you really are thinking, “That’s totally random and out of the blue and unjustified what the hell are you talking about!?!?” the strategic thing to say is: “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite follow how you got to that conclusion… can you walk me through it so that I understand?”

2. Don’t make accusations

This will be very difficult, because your first instincts will always be to call out people when they are being irrational, irrelevant, or otherwise wrong. Certainly, you should find a way to highlight it in the conversation; however, saying point-blank that they are irrational rarely if ever works.  More likely, it will just make them more resistant to anything else you have to say.

So, when you are thinking this:  “What the fuck does that have anything to do with anything, you stupid idiot?”

Instead, you should say this: “I’m a little worried that I don’t fully understand the connection that you’ve made here. A moment ago we were talking about such-and-such… can you explain the connection with what you were just saying for me?”

Or, when you are thinking this: “Where are you getting your so-called facts, are you just making them up as you go along or do the little voices in your tiny little head tell them to you?”

You should try saying this: “Wow, that’s a really interesting fact that I didn’t know. Can you help me out and give me a link or a reference to where you learned that from? I’d love to learn more about it!”

Usually, any time you feel like making an accusation, there is some way to change it into a question or request that gets the point across, but makes it less obvious to the person to whom you are talking that you hate them and despise everything they represent.

3. Point out where you agree

I know that when you are arguing with someone, your instinct is always to focus on the points of disagreement. After all, that’s the whole point of a debate, right? But strategically, it’s helpful to take a moment and point out when you see places where you happen to agree with the other person.

For example, use phrases like these:

“I think you’re completely right that if Assumption A, then it follows that Conclusion B.  That makes total sense! However, I’m still a little unsure whether I agree with Assumption A, though, and would like to talk more about that…”

“I have absolutely no argument on your first three points. I’m totally on-board with all of that.  But I’m still having a little problem understanding where you are coming from on your last point…”

This kind of language serves two purposes: First, manipulates the other person into feeling like you are on their side and want to understand them. This will make them less hostile.  Second, it actually helps to focus the debate. If you clearly define the places where you agree, then it usually allows a more clear focus on what remains: the differences.

4. State your specific goal from the beginning, and stick to it

At the beginning of the conversation, make sure you are clear about the thing you are discussing.  It should be something concrete, like “President Obama has spent more money than any other president in history” or “Moral right and wrong can be objectively defined using just logic and observation alone.”  Once you have defined the topic, anything that can’t be traced back to the original question should be dropped.

This is a difficult one to enforce, because often online debates can go on for a long time and become very complex. In a conversation about moral right and wrong, you can end up talking about things like whether life has intrinsic value or not.  In a conversation about Obama’s spending, you can end up talking about things like how the deficit is measured.  All of these details are fine, as long as at any point you can sit back and think of a direct line of reasoning where the answer to your detailed question really makes a difference to the main topic under discussion.

To drag things back on course, try using phrases like:

“What you just said might be true, but I’m not sure that it really matters to the question of Thing We Are Discussing.  If you want to have a separate conversation about that, I’d be very interested. But for now, let’s get back to Thing We Are Discussing.”

“From the beginning, my main interest in this conversation has been to understand your claim that Assertion X. I’m having a tough time understanding how New Thing You Said really is related to Assertion X.  If it is, then I would love for you to explain it to me! If not, though, I think we should get back to the point at hand.”

Depending on the person you are talking with, you may not be able to drag things back.  Some people use a vague kind of “everything is related” way of arguing, which can be frustrating.  Usually, it is also strategic on their part: many people (consciously or unconsciously) will flip to an unrelated topic when they feel “trapped” or cornered in a particular part of a debate.

Do not let them get away with it. You don’t have to be rude, but you should definitely be firm and point it out: “I would love to talk to you about Topic Y in a moment, but first I really need you to respond to what I said about Topic X. Can we address that first, before moving on to something new?”

5. Sometimes, accept things for the sake of argument.

Sometimes you have to pick your battles, and get past the trivia to really get to the heart of a debate.  If you feel like the person you are talking to is hung up on a minor detail that you disagree on, and that your debate could get a lot further without that hang-up, then don’t be stubborn: just accept it for the sake of moving on.

I’m not saying that you should lie and say that you agree. I’m saying you should say something like this:

“You keep saying Assumption A.  I’m not totally sure that I agree with it, but I’m willing to go with it for the sake of this conversation.  So even if we assume that Assumption A is true, how do you come to the conclusion that Other Remaining Issues?”

This is just a matter of not letting your own ego get in the way. Remember, putting up little roadblocks is often a strategic move on the other person’s part as well: a lot of people who know, on some level, that there is a big flaw in their argument, will absolutely insist that the conversation stay fixed in small, relatively unimportant details… because that is a way of protecting them from ever admitting the “big picture” flaw in their thinking.  If you want to get to the big issue, you have to get past their filibuster.

6. Know when to stop

There are some things out there that cannot be resolved by logic or reason or argument.  Maybe you and your opponent see the world differently: you have some different “instincts” about some fact that cannot readily be measured to see who is right.  In a situation like that, the conversation is effectively done and nothing more can be accomplished.  Politely bow out and agree to disagree.

Once again, you can leave the conversation on a positive note, saying something like, “Well, we just have different instincts about Some Fact Z, and since there really isn’t any data out there we can look at right now to decide, we will have to agree to disagree. It’s been great talking to you, though! Thanks!”


Post Scriptum

I hope you are able to find some of these tips helpful in your future online debates.

One point of interest, though: If you, person who is reading this, are someone with whom I’ve actually had an online debate, then please remember none of the above “tricks” or “strategies” have ever applied to you!

If I’ve ever said to you “I don’t fully understand such-and-such, can you explain?” please rest assured that in your case I obviously didn’t mean, “You idiot that’s obviously wrong.”

That’s just for other people. I promise.