Saturday, June 25, 2016

There are plenty of reasons why such a large portion of all discussion on the internet is nothing more than vacuous bullshit, rote recitation of talking points, and "witty" insults.  There's the fact that the people who feel the need to make every conversation about their pet interest tend to have the least nuanced understanding of that interest, and the least tact.  There's the fact that, because anyone can (and feels compelled to) chime in, any specific issue turns into an us vs. them referendum on a major socio-political issue, even if that issue was only tangential to the original point.  But those of us who are annoyed by this can't stop other people from spending more time complaining about something than actually learning about it.  (I've watched people spend hours arguing about intellectual property law, with arguments that entirely depend upon not having even a surface understanding of the difference between copyright and trademark.)  But there is a mindset we all too easily slip into, one that exacerbates the situation.  Basically, we treat any internet discussion not as a discussion, but as debate club.

Why is this a problem?  Well, how do you win a debate club debate?  The entire purpose of the debate is to convince a third party that your side is right, even if you don't believe your own arguments.  At best, it's organized sophistry. The goal is not to engage with the person you're debating, but to demonstrate to the spectators how wrong he is.   I see too many people I know repost or share things whose message I agree with, but which contain utter bull, who mistake clever one-liners for serious rebuttals of complex opinions, who, in short, focus more on convincing people they are right than arguing in good faith.  Not only is this exasperating, it's also counter-effective.

First we need to honestly appraise what our purpose is in any online argument.  Is the goal to put forth clearly our point of view? To convince the person we're arguing with?  To convince the spectators of the argument that we're right?  And then we must ask "Is this the best way to do this?"  The answer to the latter is usually "no."

One thing that we need to acknowledge is that every group sees itself as not only correct, but as being attacked by social and political forces.  Whether or not this is true is beside the point, but whether we're talking about atheists or fundamentalists, pro-choice or pro-life, conspiracy theorists, laissez-faire capitalists or socialists, civil rights activists or hate groups, all see themselves as fighting against a larger tide.  What I'm about to recommend should be understood to apply only to online interaction, and to have an exception for public figures.

  There's a quote I like from Browne's Religio Medici that is relevant here: "[W]here wee desire to be informed, 'tis good to contest with men above ourselves; but to confirme and establish our opinions, 'tis best to argue with judgments below our own, that the frequent spoyles and victories over their reasons may settle in our selves an esteeme, and confirmed opinion of our own."  It feels good to argue against people who are clearly half-wits.  But does it do any good?  Generally speaking, responses  that are hostile or condescending or contemptuous are going to have the opposite of the effect that you want.  If the point is to persuade people to your way of thinking, does tearing down people who have no interest in the truth accomplish anything?

I should clarify that last statement.  When I say "no interest in the truth," I don't mean anyone who disagrees with you.  Different positions on a lot of major issues boil down to a difference of priorities, or an honest disagreement over an ethical point.  It's entirely possible, and common, for people to look at the same set of data, consider it honestly and with an open-mind, and come to different conclusions.  People who have "no interest in the truth" are disingenuous and they make no attempt to  even understand the position of those they disagree with.  I'll give two common examples:

If humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?  Checkmate, Atheists.

If god knows everything that's going to happen, then there can't be free will.  Checkmate, Christians.

Both of these are disingenuous, because spending five minutes looking for an answer would show that the other side has actually thought about this. (Says the atheist who quoted Thomas Browne a couple paragraphs ago.)  All this is to get to the point that arguing with people who are disingenuous does more harm than good.  It's not going to convince the person you're arguing with.  If they actually cared about understanding opposing opinions, they wouldn't be disingenuous.  But who watching this is going to be convinced?  There's an adage I like, "Never argue with an idiot.  He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience."  People who agree with the idiot won't change their minds, because they've either heard what you have to say or don't care to find out.  At best, you'll bat .500 with people who are on the fence.  These, after all, are the people we're trying to convince, right?  If you're hostile, or condescending, etc., you'll lose a lot of them right away, especially if you're on a site that primarily caters to the position you're against.  This goes back to the sense of victimization that every group has, deserved or not.  People on the fence, especially in fringe communities like conspiracy theorists or MRAs, tend to join these groups in large part for the sense of community.  They feel like outcasts, and they may not agree with everything these communities claim, but anything that they regard as an attack will lead them to close ranks.  Attacking makes people defensive, including people on the fence.

Those who are disingenuous, or delusional, will have a response for any claim you make, regardless of how well-phrased and well-researched it is.  Research and clarity hold no sway, so you either have to disengage (e.g., they think they won because they got the last word) or allow yourself to be dragged down to their level, where they will beat you with experience.  So what, then, is the proper response?  Silence.  The approach of making other groups look foolish, to bring them down with ridicule, only serves to push people away from the center, to increase an us vs. them mentality.  Responding to a disingenuous and intentionally provocative comment, post, tweet, etc. doesn't help.  Spending hundreds or thousands of words explaining why the second law of thermodynamics doesn't disprove evolution won't do anything, because the only people who believe that are the ones who don't have a desire to actually understand it, and further, it gives credence to the disingenuous person because it seems like there's actually an argument to be had.

If a person makes a facebook status and no one comments, if no one retweets or shares, if a reddit comment is downvoted with no responses, this is more damning than any amount of criticism and argument.  What we must do, to improve the state of public discourse, is condemn dishonest argument, condemn disingenuousness, and refuse to be dragged down to the level of idiots. This includes people on our own side.  While none of us want to be "that guy," there are people on Facebook that I can go to and say, "I agree with the sentiment of that infographic you shared, but the facts are wrong."  Posting stuff like this, as funny and satisfying as it may be, only serves to misinform the people we agree with, and diminish our credibility with people who aren't on our side. The only people that this will convince are people who don't bother with fact checking or critical thought, and who will be drawn back to the other side by something equally dishonest.

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