386 reasons not to argue online
xkcd 386, that is.
I’ve been meaning to write about this subject for a while, because I think it’s an important issue, but I’ve got round to it now because it’s all been going off online, with huge and messy arguments raging across blogs, Twitter and seemingly the whole of cyberspace between (among others) Rebecca Watson, PZ Myers, Thunderf00t and Coffee Loving Skeptic.
I’m not interested in thrashing out the arguments involved, because they’re readily available elsewhere if you’re interested. And I have absolutely no desire to get involved in the argument because it’s got far too deep into who said what when, I don’t really identify as either a sceptic or a skeptic (although I consider myself a fellow traveller) so my opinion isn’t worth squat, and I think the whole situation is unlikely to benefit from anyone else taking sides. For now, my interest is limited to the question of how and when to argue online, and some of my thoughts may or may not apply to this situation.
First, an admission: I have a temper on me. I do get angry and sarcastic when people I’m debating with argue dishonestly, malign or misrepresent me, and that goes double in the blogosphere, where this can be the reward for putting a lot of thought and effort into what I thought was a carefully crafted post. I find it useful to keep this xkcd cartoon in mind, remember Wheaton’s Law and Sayre’s Law, and generally take a step back whenever the situation starts to take on more significance in my mind than some people sitting at computers and exchanging different views. I’m very far from perfect, and this is written for my benefit as much as anyone else’s.
It’s a given that no two people will agree on everything. It’s important to air that disagreement as part of our shared quest for truth, but it’s also important to consider how we’re most likely to persuade people that we’re right, to recognise and acknowledge the things we have in common, and to govern ourselves accordingly. Angry, aggressive retaliation to perceived wrongs can feel satisfying, and it will probably entertain our own side, but it’s almost certain to alienate those who disagree, have mild concerns, or are just undecided. If we want to persuade, rather than simply win, it’s not a great approach.
Of course, it’s a judgement call. Just as people will be bound to disagree on the right answer to a question, they’ll also disagree over how important that question is, and how much fuss it’s worth making when this person or that person disagrees. I have no intention of telling anyone what they should or shouldn’t consider an important issue, or how they should argue their case, but I hope to offer a note of caution. There are plenty of issues which are worth making a fuss about, but it would be ridiculous to start a war over which end to break our eggs if we generally agree on everything else.
This is especially true when the people who are arguing share an obvious common purpose. For example:
There are reasons why they’re fighting, and I’ve got no doubt that both sides believe they’re clearly the good guys. Maybe if you spent a long time listening to both sides putting their case, you might decide that one side or the other was in the right, but the number of people who’ll ever do that must be vanishingly small. To everyone else, this is just a load of clergy having a big old ruckus. The rights and wrongs are long forgotten, and all that remains is a bunch of Orthodox priests fighting with brooms. The one thing that suffers is the reputation of the church, the thing they all have in common and ironically something both sides would want to protect.
If we want to avoid harming the very thing that we have in common, the thing that brought us together in the first place, maybe we all need to be careful to ensure that our disagreement is measured, proportionate and respectful. That doesn’t mean all arguments should be conducted in the detached beard-stroking style of an academic symposium – there will always be people who need a brisk smackdown – but if one of my friends said something that could be construed in a racist way, my first response wouldn’t be to shout them down or tell them to go and join the BNP, but to check exactly what they mean by it.
Because I have common ground with my friends. I don’t want to fall out over something trivial, and our friendship means that I’ll take the time to listen, and possibly to talk it over. It might be that at the end of that discussion I’d feel that the comment revealed genuinely racist sentiments, in which case I’d end the friendship or at least make it a fair bit more distant. But I’d check first, and while I’d make my views clear, I wouldn’t give them a mouthful of abuse, in recognition of the things we agree on and the hope that I’d eventually persuade them to think again.
Maybe I’m just being naive and idealistic, but I’d hope that it’s possible to let go of the idea of “winning” an argument and cut each other a bit of slack. If the things we agree about are too flimsy to make for a meeting of minds, or our differences are too glaring to be pushed aside, at least it should be possible to deal with the facts and give each other the benefit of the doubt, rather than leaping to the worst possible conclusion and letting fly with both barrels. It’s possible to be respectful even while disagreeing, and at the very least we can all aspire to be free of dickishness.
It’s very easy to get drawn into a flame war where the need to win eclipses the initial reasons for the argument, but if that flame war goes nuclear, there are no winners, only survivors.