How to Argue Online
August 12, 2019 | IAH Director Andrew Perrin
A strong public sphere, in which many people have the opportunity, capacity, and tendency to express and listen to differing civic interests and preferences—and to balance them to reach a common good—is an important goal for democracy.
It’s important, in part, because of the inherent value of self-determination, social order, and popular sovereignty, all of which depend on a strong civil society. But, it is all the more important because a dysfunctional public sphere hinders responses to any of the other major challenges that face the U.S. and the world, such as global climate change, sovereign debt, health, food insecurity, or dramatic wealth inequality. If we can’t talk meaningfully and substantively across political differences, we have little hope of addressing any of these urgent matters.
Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that the American public sphere is on life support. A variety of cultural, technological, and political realities mean that most people can avoid meaningful engagement with those they disagree with, and many of us are more than happy to take advantage of that. While most people do know someone they disagree with, most don’t actually talk about that disagreement much.
A lot of the disagreement we do encounter is now online: via blogs, Twitter, Facebook, or —shudder— the comments sections of online news sites (here’s one recent example). Those comments sections can be particularly brutal, to the point where some people to dub them “the bottom half of the Internet.” Many of these forums lend themselves to increasing polarization by allowing people to tailor what they read. And most of the time the goal of comments on these forums are essentially about scoring points: making the poster feel good or superior, or disparaging others on the forum.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that goal, which we can think of as expressivity. The point is to express one’s thoughts, feelings, or ideas, regardless of whether that expression will result in others changing their views. But as a means of persuasion, expressivity is very limited. At best it’s a version of ad hominem argument: “you should believe or agree with me,” it implies, “because I am who I am and I think what I think.”
What should people do if they want to go beyond expressivity, beyond reading what they already agree with and writing for others who already agree? What kinds of online argument carry the best possibility of changing others’ minds, resulting in a better democracy? The humanities and social sciences give us some excellent principles and tools for listening, speaking, and disagreeing well.
Here are a few relevant principles we can glean from the humanities and social sciences:
- Texts are polysemous: they contain multiple meanings, many of which are true. By “texts,” I don’t just mean Hamlet. TV shows, tweets, presidential debates, and congressional testimony can all be understood as texts. Because they’re polysemous, they derive meaning through people actively reading, discussing, arguing over, thinking about, and relating to them.
- However, the fact that texts are polysemous doesn’t mean all meanings (or interpretations) are equally true (or defensible).
- Evidence from texts, their contexts, and the world serves to make some meanings and interpretations more convincing— or more defensible —than others. Evidence doesn’t just mean statistics and numbers; it includes observations, experiences, contexts, etc.
- Meanings and interpretations, particularly in the political world, are most convincing when they are falsifiable. Your argument is falsifiable if you can imagine, or better yet, specify, what new evidence would cause you to change your mind. What would you have to be convinced is true to change your opinion?
I recognize that these principles are not universal. I’m sure there are plenty of humanists and social scientists who would disagree with some or all of them. But they are reasonable principles, and they lead to some important lessons for disagreeing online.
- Listen or read carefully, honestly, even generously. Pause as you take in the other person’s ideas. Ask yourself: what is the other person actually saying? What evidence is s/he providing? Why does s/he believe what s/he does?
- Ask honest questions, the answers to which could clarify the other person’s position or illuminate your own.
- When writing, provide clues for others to answer the same questions of you. Explain: what are you actually saying? What evidence do you have that supports your position? Why do you believe what you do?
- Falsify: what evidence could be discovered that would cause you to change your position? If there’s no such possibility, you’re not really arguing, you’re expressing. As I said above, that’s entirely appropriate, but unlikely to convince your reader.
- Respond in kind: offer evidence that goes to what the other person is actually saying. Offering evidence you think might actually encourage him/her (or others who view/hear, since much of this debate is public) to change his/her mind shows that you’ve listened well and it makes it more likely the other person will consider your thoughts.
- Analyze and identify words, not people. Terms like racist and sexist should generally be used as adjectives, not nouns, and should generally describe words, claims, or arguments, not people. There are good sociological reasons for this, but at a minimum, recognize that you can’t typically demonstrate that someone you know only electronically is a racist, but you can demonstrate that a particular idea is. And yes, I wrote “generally.” There are times when words like these are appropriately used as nouns or as adjectives describing people.
- Hypocrisy is not a particularly interesting or strong claim. Everybody’s inconsistent sometimes, and no two situations are identical. If the only evidence you’ve got is “but you said something else a different time in a different situation,” you’re unlikely to convince others.
- For similar reasons, avoid arguing by anecdote. Any specific situation is, again, polysemous; no one story carries the same meaning for all audiences. Instead, look for and provide evidence of patterns, not cases.
- Be prepared for a stalemate. There’s a good chance you will find you disagree on core values, which are not really (usually) susceptible to an argument. You’ve succeeded if you reach the point of a values conflict, as it means you understand one another and why you believe what you do.
An online source I find useful is http://www.yourlogicalfallacyis.com. Browse the site to understand some of the ways your arguments could be improved. And, you can also use it to provide links to specific logical fallacies to explain why you think an opponent’s argument is flawed.
As a final caveat, I certainly don’t follow these principles all the time! Sometimes it’s just too tempting; sometimes I’m more interested in expressivity than persuasion. But I think these practices can contribute to a better online public sphere. I welcome your thoughts, ideas, and critiques.