How To Argue Online
Not a week goes by without the appearance of some topic in the news that generates chatter, outrage, and hysteria on social media. At times, the issues raised justify the response. People draw lines and take sides because the subject touches beliefs that in some way define them.
You may have promised yourself not to get involved in debates on such matters. In the near future, however, you may read something that prompts an irrepressible urge to respond. This is perfectly natural. If you are someone who cares about what happens in the world, arguing online is a very good way to express what you feel.
But you should argue in a way that makes the experience at once challenging and enjoyable. Keep in mind that you’re unlikely to change anyone’s opinion by arguing with them. You should also remember that getting involved in online debate is not meant to be productive, constructive, or in any way valuable to anyone but yourself. That said here are some tips to approach the situation intelligently:
It is unwise to weigh in on everything that raises your blood pressure. Most news site comments and Facebook posts you should just read and move on from. Give your opinion only on those which relate to some idea or topic that you’ve thought through and are well-informed about. You should also choose carefully the principle that your argument is meant to demonstrate. This will keep you from incoherent rambling and give you a solid basis upon which to engage those who respond to you.
In connection with this last point, you should be simple and direct. Use plain words and get to the point immediately. The best way to make yourself heard and responded to is to write in a way that is clear, coherent, lively, and logical. Jargon, techno-babble, and circumlocution are boring and will get you ignored. Fragmented and stream of consciousness syntax will also put people off. Don’t use euphemism, call things by their proper names. And don’t overburden your argument with quotes, links, and polling statistics. You will come across as someone who spends a lot of time on websites that reinforce your position but little time actually thinking matters through.
Don’t use analogies. If you find yourself on the verge of alluding to slavery or Nazism to make your point, then you should stop and re-think what you want to say. Most historical analogies are weak because they don’t compare like with like. Even minor ones that use everyday situations are no good for online debate, for they tend to take you off topic. Before you know it you will be bogged down in arguing over the analogy rather than the larger issue at hand.
Asking questions essentially turns the podium over to your interlocutor and should not be done. Socratic Method doesn’t work in an online setting. You should also avoid being led by questions. Most are filled with assumptions that you need not accept. Only answer queries that are relevant to the topic and to the position you’ve taken.
Neologisms such as “sheeple”, “feminazis”, and so on are dull and tiresome. Using them only proves your ability to mindlessly repeat what others say. You may get a few “likes” from people who enjoy that kind of talk. But being popular isn’t the same as being right, and it certainly doesn’t amount to winning an argument.
You may need to refer to a concrete example in order to advance your point. The person you’re debating may then hone in on an individual you mentioned as part of your example and describe something else he or she did that has nothing to do with what you said. This is a common phenomenon. It is an attempt to avoid responding to your point by making a lateral move to a different subject. Don’t let the person off the hook. Re-state the thing you’re arguing over and hold them to what’s relevant in your example. You may also be aggressively pushed to provide evidence for your claims. You need not do so. You’re involved in an informal online debate, not a policy seminar. If you’re comfortable with the facts, then present them as you understand them. It’s up to others to look things up for themselves. If they have evidence that contradicts your claims, let them show it.
Debates can get ugly. Issues related to politics, religion, race, and gender tend to be the ones that generate the most heat. Although blatant racist and sexist jokes are not as common as they used to be, people find all kinds of ways to berate and belittle. I have found that the best response to such behavior is to keep calm and rational. Many times, the person you’re debating needs to empty his spleen before employing his reason. Of course, there are times when you will encounter the irredeemable, unregenerate asshole—or the troll, as he is commonly called. There is no real arguing with such a person, so you should ignore him and direct your comments to those actually interested in an honest exchange.
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About Christopher Reid Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.