Friday, 13 January 2017

Objectives in Online Argument: Why We Fight

     Last post, I talked about how formulating your goals properly can help to improve your patience and endurance in rhetorical conflict. But improving your endurance only matters if you actually have some reason to engage in an argument in the first place, and I often hear it said that getting into arguments (especially on the internet) is a waste of time and effort. I'll admit, as someone who often does get into arguments on the internet, that it can become quite frustrating, and in those moments it's easy to succumb to the belief that it's all futile and you should just never bother messing with the idiots.
     In this post, I want to argue that it is important to engage in debate, even with idiots, and I want to share the five objectives (in rough order of importance) I have every time I respond to some inane Facebook meme or comment on a blog or news item somewhere.

1.  Show up.
     It's been said that success is often just a matter of showing up, and this is true in rhetoric as well. If there's a contest, and only one person shows up, that person wins, no matter how inept or terrible they might be at whatever skill the contest is nominally intended to test. So if someone posts some argument online before an audience, no matter how flimsy a house of cards it may be, it stands if no one knocks it down.
     This may not seem important, but it is. There's a subtle but powerful psychological phenomenon at play here. If you're at a meeting, and a particular claim is repeated three times, you're likely to come away from the meeting with the impression that it was the consensus view, even if only one person repeated it three times and no one else was convinced. Imagine that. 10 people attend a meeting, and nine of them come away thinking they were the only ones who disagreed with the consensus view. And later, chatting with someone else from the meeting, you're maybe just a bit deferential to what you believe is the consensus, qualifying your comments with "I know you'll probably disagree with me here, but..." or maybe you won't bring it up at all. (Note that even if your friend agrees with you, the fact that you expected her to disagree actually reinforces the presumption that you two are in the minority, and everyone else still agrees with the original speaker.)
     Pay attention to this. It's why demagogues so often try to portray their opponents as unpopular losers, and why they so often couch their claims with phrases like "Everyone knows" or "Everybody says so" or "A lot of people are saying..."
     So my first objective in responding to something online is simply this: to foil the attempt to establish something as the conventional wisdom by showing that there's at least one person who doesn't actually agree.
     And it's worth noting that this objective is really easy to achieve. It doesn't call for any special skill at rhetoric, no special background knowledge. Just the ability to say, "I disagree," or even "I'm not sure I agree..." That's all it takes to prevent a stupid idea from winning by default.

2. Normalize disagreement.
     There's a widespread belief in many cultures, including ours, that it's rude to contradict someone. And while there are certainly many situations in which it is better to politely nod and smile, that's simply not the case when someone is trying to propagate ideas to the public (or semi-public circle of acquaintances). As I've argued before, there's a big difference between respecting a person and respecting their beliefs, and in fact, I think they're actually incompatible; it's disrespectful to a person's intellect to treat their beliefs as exempt from critical scrutiny.
     So one of the things I am trying to do by refuting things people post or share online is to show that it's okay to disagree with ideas, and that you can do so in a respectful manner. In particular, I want to convey the message that it's okay to disagree with me; if you think I'm wrong, I really do want you to tell me so and why.
     This objective is a little harder to achieve than the first, but only a little. It requires a bit more tact, because simply hurling out "You're WRONG, you idiot!" doesn't help to create a culture of reasoned discourse. And, if you're going to do it right, you really do have to demonstrate a good faith willingness to be corrected yourself, to admit when you're wrong and acknowledge when someone else is right. But these are things we should all be striving towards anyway, and so I think we should strive to model the behaviour we want to see in others. That means making it okay to argue.

3.  Improve your own understanding.
     Nothing teaches you a subject so effectively as trying to teach it to others. The process of trying to explain your position, or your doubts about someone else's position, is extremely helpful in clarifying your own understanding. And engaging with ideas you disagree with is especially good for this.
     Rhetoric, understood here as the art of reasoned debate, improves with practice. As with martial arts, there's much to be learned from facing new opponents, whose techniques may vary somewhat from the ones you've trained on. I learn something from every debate I have with anyone. Sometimes it's about the subject matter of the debate itself (and I end up having to revise, refine or even abandon my position on it entirely, which is "losing" the debate but winning in the bigger picture). Sometimes it's about rhetorical technique itself. But I always learn something.
     Note, by the way, that this applies not only to your own personal understanding but also to that of your allies on whatever issue you're debating. In martial arts, you can learn a lot also by watching others fight, and the same is true of rhetoric. Even if everyone in the audience is already on your side, they can benefit from watching your argument, learning perhaps new turns of phrase or analogies to support their position, or recognizing and learning from your missteps, so that when they find themselves in debates with other opponents elsewhere, they'll be better prepared.

4.  Win over the audience.
     Most people, when they get into any kind of argument, instinctively think that the objective should be to convince their opponent. This is quite natural, and indeed correct when you get into a face-to-face debate with your spouse about where you should go for dinner, or when you're trying to convince your boss to give you a raise. But in a typical internet debate over politics or vaccines or chemtrails, what's at stake is what beliefs prevail and become widely accepted, and your opponent is only one person out of potentially many in the audience. It's a numbers game, here: if there's just one undecided lurker and your opponent and no one else, and you manage to convince the lurker, you win 2-1. And usually there are more than just one lurker in the audience.
     Winning over the audience is not just more important because of the numbers; it's also much more realistically achievable. Both you and your opponent have invested quite a lot in publicly stating your positions, and however open minded and virtuous a rhetorician you might be, it always stings a bit to acknowledge a defeat (though it gets easier with practice). You cannot always rely on your opponent arguing in good faith and being a good sport. But the people in the audience, especially if they haven't spoken up, can change their minds more easily without losing face.
     The audience is always my priority in any online debate (outside of private email, of course) for these reasons, but also because it is another way to keep my cool. I keep reminding myself that however viciously ignorant my ass of an opponent is, there might be someone in the audience who innocently and sincerely thinks maybe he has a point. And so, rather than angrilly lashing out at my opponent for his stupidity, I have to address his arguments seriously enough to respect the intelligence of that undecided and presumptively reasonable lurker, to explain things clearly and persuasively enough to convince them, not my opponent.

5.  Win over your opponent.
     This objective is listed last, for reasons I've already mentioned in the previous entry: It's just not likely enough to be worth the effort. But it can happen, and when it does it's quite satisfying; there's a reason this is what we think of when we think of winning an argument.
     It's tempting to think that this is just icing, and it mostly is, but in the war of ideas, a decisive victory in one battle can be strategically important, because that's one fewer person who will be showing up for the other side, one person who won't be repeating that same lie three times at the meeting. It's one more demonstration for all to see that disagreement is okay. It's a sign you've improved your understanding as well as that of your (former) opponent, and perhaps a blueprint for your allies to follow to similar victories. And finally, it's a good indication that, if you've persuaded the person with the greatest motivation to oppose you, you've very probably won over most if not all of the audience, too.

     So, these are the objectives I have in mind in every online debate. I have found that it's extremely helpful to keep my mind focused on what I am trying to accomplish. It helps keep me from being distracted by irrelevant ad hominem attacks, to maintain my patience, and to better exploit weaknesses in my opponent's position. What's more, they're also useful in helping to decide when it's appropriate to just walk away from a potential argument.

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