You know what it’s like when you get in a discussion, aka argument, on the internet? Whether it’s about politics or sports or which candy bar is best, it often goes downhill fast. You and the other person are already convinced that you’re right. You are usually so convinced that any seemingly good points made by the other person are just seen as tricks or misappropriation of the facts or use of slanted or cherry picked facts. Therefore you immediately go to countering them without even considering their validity in part or altogether. While that in fact may be the case, you probably don’t know for certain and are just assuming such because, well you’ve known your viewpoint to be true for a long time. (Confirmation Bias)
Now you feel so strongly that you must counter every assertion by your opponent by:
- Looking online for a counter point, often without even reading the article but just using the title which seems to counter your opponent’s assertion.
- Ignoring and discrediting your opponent’s statement because of its source (which could be a website, magazine, news agency, author, etc ) which is perceived as holding your opponent’s viewpoint. Therefore you assume that anything they say or cite must be wrong or skewed because of bias. That may be the case but you often just don’t know and are not going to dare investigate it. (circumstantial ad hominem)
- Finding a minor error in your opponent’s facts or reasoning and immediately claiming that they must be wrong on all their assertions, including the main one, because they were wrong or made a typo or used the wrong word, etc. in one minor assertion.
Eventually one, or both of you, feeling that you are right but can’t seem to get past your opponent’s attempts to twist the truth or stubbornness, decide to utter a personal insult. It may be a curse word, a suggestion to have unnatural or anatomically impossible sex, or a direct or a veiled insinuation of a character flaw.
One or both of you may have, in between punching and counter punching, looked at the other’s profile and looked for fodder such as photos (‘you’re such an ugly MF’er!’, or ‘You must be a perv, cause I see lots of cow pictures on your FB page) or an affiliation ( ‘You’re a Baptist? No wonder you’re such a nut job!’) or material to utter a threat, (“I wonder if your employer, ABC Corporation knows how you feel? Maybe someone should tell them) . Of course once it becomes personal there is no backing down for either of you. It’s not a matter of discovering the truth about an issue, if it ever was. It’s about WINNING, about saving internet face.
Well although these human traits in argument are as old as or maybe older than the invention of language, they are magnified in part on the internet because of:
- Lack of physical proximity. You usually try to avoid going too far when you have to face the other person in real time and real life.
- Lack of time to reflect and to cool off. Internet posting is a relatively fast paced activity. Usually the parties are anxious to reply less their opponent claims the lack of a reply is a victory.
- The ease of access to materials online that confirm your opinion whether they are on point or unbiased or vetted or not. Type in your counter argument in a search engine and you’ll usually find a counter point article even if only the tagline counters your opponent’s assertion. If that isn’t bad enough, search engines, ‘cookies’ left on your PC from downloads or website visits funnel to you not only ads on products that algorithms determine you must be interested in, but information from sources that they determine you favor,
- Increased egging on by fellow internet users. You know those people who feel that they have to comment in support of one of you and throw in nasty side digs such as , ‘BOOM, you showed his sorry a$$!”, or “Hey Bob, this idiot is too stupid to understand’ What started as a simple disagreement ends up a schoolyard brawl.
It’s been, in my experience, a rare, nay a VERY rare instance in which a fruitful, civil, productive discussion occurs on the internet. It’s even rarer than a fruitful, civil discussion over drinks. (although alcohol may well be involved in the internet discussion as well).
How could this be alleviated both in person and on the internet? I’m going to take a few minutes to discuss one old solution to some of the same problems that keep us up way past sane bedtimes, arguing and making enemies.
ENTER BEN FRANKLIN
In 1727, one of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, created a small club composed of friends or acquaintances of diverse backgrounds (a scrivener, a glazier, a store clerk, a shoemaker, a cabinet maker and a rich guy initially). This circle of friends got together in a tavern on a weekly basis and as Franklin stated:
“…required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company; and once in three months produce and read an essay of his own writing, on any subject he pleased.”[i]
The avowed purpose initially was to aid in self improvement. Their debates and discussions were strictly governed by rules:
“Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory; and, to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties. “[ii]
The term ‘warmth’ meant without becoming angry or as we might say now a days, ‘hot under the collar’. The term “positiveness in opinion “ meant without stating things as positively true in their assertion. As Franklin said, in his autobiography”
“While I was intent on improving my language, I met with an English grammar (I think it was Greenwood’s), at the end of which there were two little sketches of the arts of rhetoric and logic, the latter finishing with a specimen of a dispute in the Socratic method; and soon after I procured Xenophon’s Memorable Things of Socrates, wherein there are many instances of the same method.
I was charmed with it, adopted it, dropped my abrupt contradiction and positive argumentation, and put on the humble inquirer and doubter. And being then, from reading Shaftesbury and Collins, become a real doubter in many points of our religious doctrine, I found this method safest for myself and very embarrassing to those against whom I used it; therefore I took a delight in it, practiced it continually, and grew very artful and expert in drawing people, even of superior knowledge, into concessions, the consequences of which they did not foresee, entangling them in difficulties out of which they could not extricate themselves, and so obtaining victories that neither myself nor my cause always deserved.
I continued this method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced anything that may possibly be disputed, the words certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather say, I conceive or apprehend a thing to be so and so; it appears to me, or I should think it so or so, for such and such reasons; or I imagine it to be so; or it is so, if I am not mistaken. This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engaged in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure.
For, if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention. If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others, and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fixed in your present opinions, modest, sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner, you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire. Pope says, judiciously:
“Men should be taught as if you taught them not,
And things unknown propos’d as things forgot;”
farther recommending to us “To speak, tho’ sure, with seeming diffidence.”[iii]
In short, Franklin discovered that the way in which we state a thing can influence the discussion. If we assert things we say as absolute fact, that is with ‘positiveness’ then we often become too embarrassed or too stubborn to back off our assertion even if proven wrong. In fact we may not even consider the other side since we have now stated a thing as positive.
We also anger or create an unwillingness from our opponent to consider our viewpoint or to make civil arguments opposed to it since in their mind our minds are already, unreasonably, made up.
Franklin’s Junto meetings were conducted, to the best of their abilities, under the rules of Socratic Questioning. Socratic Questioning aka Socratic Method, is the discussion of an issue by asking non leading questions in order to draw out the truth in a matter rather than just stating and countering assertions. It involved the often laborious method of breaking arguments into key tenets and gently questioning each. It often results in redefining the original assertion in light of the facts and suggestions brought out in the course of the discussion. It also often results in a state of “Aporia”/ Aporia is defined most often as :
“an irresolvable internal contradiction or logical disjunction in a text, argument, or theory:”[iv]
More easily understood might be that aporia is the state of not knowing the right answer due to contradictory but equal arguments for and against and being ok with that since one has discovered many truths in discussing the issue.
Franklin’s Junto, initially started for member self improvement, became a huge force in shaping the future United States. It produced, directly and indirectly
- The first American Lending Library
- The first American fire brigade
- The world’s first civilian police force (decades before Sir Robert Peels’ ‘Bobbies’)
- The first American Public Hospital
- The University of Pennsylvania
- The American Philosophical Society
…..and numerous other initiatives of public weal.
WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH INTERNET ARGUING?
So how does this apply to arguing about crap on the internet…or at a cocktail party….or a tailgate party….or over lunch?
Well, I doubt most of us are willing or able to keep a long and temperate Socratic dialog going. Here’s an example if you are interested. However if you decide you want to join a group (well I’m the only member so….) that wishes to learn and use Socratic Questioning then consider the Louisiana Junto.
However Franklin’s observations on avoiding statements of positiveness (being hard assed and stating your opinions and supporting assertions as fact) might be very helpful when arguing online or in person. The more humble approach, the more modest your assertion the easier it is to back down if you are wrong and the more likely that your opponent won’t get his/her hackles up. Stating that, “It seems to me that Bob Smith had a good point when he said that …….” Instead of “Bob Smith was absolutely correct when he said that…….” is a statement easier to admit as not correct or absolute and a statement less likely to make your opponent set his feet and vow to retaliate rather than consider.
Likewise Franklin’s advice to avoid ‘warmth’ is seemingly good advice, albeit hard to implement especially when one sided. Avoiding hard, direct terms of derision, avoiding personal attacks are quite difficult to do in an unmoderated setting and nearly impossible if both sides aren’t agreeable or forced to abide. In fact one could say that ‘warmth’ is as much a symptom of unrestrained argumentation as a cause. Perhaps issues that induce such ‘warmth’ should be abandoned when they reach that stage?
LEARN AND AVOID LOGICAL FALLACIES
Beyond Franklin’s Junto, a thorough grounding in logic and recognition of logical fallacies would be helpful. In internet arguing it is common to commit the following logical fallacy that tend to discourage truth finding or simple resolution”
Strawman arguments – A straw man is a common form of argument and is an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument which was not advanced by that opponent.
Reductio ad absurdum – Reductio ad absurdum, also known as argumentum ad absurdum, is a common form of argument which seeks to demonstrate that a statement is true by showing that a false, untenable, or absurd result follows from its denial, or in turn to demonstrate that a statement is false by showing that a false, untenable, or absurd result follows from its acceptance.
False Dilemma – A false dilemma is a type of informal fallacy that involves a situation in which only limited alternatives are considered, when in fact there is at least one additional option. The opposite of this fallacy is argument to moderation.
Third-cause fallacy -The third cause fallacy is a logical fallacy where a spurious relationship is confused for causation. It asserts that X causes Y when, in reality, X and Y are both caused by Z.
Non Sequitor – in formal logic, is an argument in which its conclusion does not follow from its premises. In a non sequitur, the conclusion could be either true or false, but the argument is fallacious because there is a disconnection between the premise and the conclusion. All invalid arguments are special cases of non sequitur.
Argumentum ad hominem – An ad hominem, short for argumentum ad hominem, is an attack on an argument made by attacking the character, motive, or other attribute of the person making the argument, rather than attacking the argument directly.
A good grounding in logical fallacy used to be a part of every high school curriculum. A form thereof is still often taught under the guise of a similar system of reasoning called ‘Critical Thinking”. There are numerous websites with logical fallacy meme’s available for the internet debater (one of my favorite uses referees in sporting events to take the sting out) however posting of such may well make the discussion less civil rather than more civil.
LEARN AND TRY TO OVERCOME CONGNITIVE BIASES
Familiarity with the ‘cognitive biases’ most of which we may all suffer to some degree could help us understand why we are so damned set in our opinions. Some common cognitive biases are:
Confirmation Bias – The tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions
Availability biases – The tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events with greater “availability” in memory, which can be influenced by how recent the memories are or how unusual or emotionally charged they may be or the strengthening of certainty of a thing by the simple act of having seen in it cited or stated over and over regardless of whether it is based on fact or an opinion.
There are literally dozens of studied cognitive biases which influence, usually negatively, our ability to rationally make optimal decisions. These biases are very common on the internet where the very algorithms that funnel us ads,
In review, there is probably no real method of avoiding the reasoning death spiral that is internet debate. Human nature with our inherent biases, insecurities, need to dominate, and the devolutionary society traits of winning or appearing to win at any cost (with winning being the withdrawl or exclusion of the opponent) probably doom un-moderated internet discussion as an instrument to look for truth or civilly express oneself. Perhaps someday a new social pressure to be civil, to listen and question rather than lecture and bluster, to exclude those who are uncivil rather than crown them champion will arise. As the internet seems to imitate life as much or more than life imitates the internet then it may require that as a society we teach civility and respect for truth and respect for an admission that we simply don’t know if a thing is true or false or good or bad at a very early age. It may require that our mass media stops glorifying winning via coalition and pandering and starts glorifying modesty, earnestness and respect. Until then perhaps if you want to seek internet debate without the usual likely disintegration into name calling and clip and paste mania then you may need to form into smaller, moderated groups or if you feel like being a crusader then try to moderate arguments without taking sides when they breakout in your group or forum or social media thread.
Or just post cat pics. That usually makes friends.
[i] The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, originally published in 1793
[ii] The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, originally published in 1793
[iii] The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, originally published in 1793