Deborah Tannen calls it “argument culture”: a “pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach anything as if it were a verbal fight” (1). I call it “comment section wars”, and I am not immune to it.
I recently read a blog article, written by a Christian brother, defending the contribution of Christianity to science. He had some good points but his tone was, unfortunately, caustic.
You can imagine the shouting match that followed in the comment section.
I scanned through pages and pages of comments, Christian versus Atheist—some well reasoned, others showing high levels of cognitive dissonance, and many containing offensive stereotypes. No one was convincing anything of anything, and the more I read, the more my ire rose. I’m angry about this because a debate like that is so futile, but people keep on starting them as if they’d help. Instead, these arguments only breed greater animosity between parties, fueling the stereotypes they hold of each other.
But, I do believe that ideas should be discussed, shared, and refined by interaction with others. Social media is one of the most convenient ways to do so, and I’ve already been blessed by my online interactions. So, if we’re going to get into comment section debates, lets do it right. Here are three ways to be more effective in a online debates.
1. Lay aside your ego.
Is this about winning, or about discussing ideas? If it’s about winning, you’re probably in trouble.
Why? “You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it. Why? Well, suppose you triumph over the other man and shoot his argument full of holes and prove that he is non compos mentis. Then what? You will feel fine. But what about him? You have made him feel inferior. You have hurt his pride. He will resent your triumph” (2).
If you don’t care if the person walks away hating you, then fine. But I guarantee this: You have lost your chance to influence them.
2. Remember that they are ‘a mother’s son’.
Online it’s more difficult to see, but the person on the other side of the debate is just as human as you. Like you they have dearly held beliefs, which they hold for more reasons than “they’re an ass.”
Give them the benefit of the doubt. They may have put research and considerable reasoning behind their beliefs. They may have experiences under their belt that have led to their conclusions.
Even if they don’t, and their reasoning is flimsy and poorly put together, they are still a human with hopes, feelings and desires, and they deserve respect.
3. Seek first to understand.
On the most pragmatic level, how do intend to demolish their argument if you don’t understand it?
But seriously, the greatest respect you can give your opponent is to hear them out and fully understand their position—as in, you could repeat the heart of their argument back to them. As in real, empathic listening: understanding their frame of reference and how they feel (3). This may require getting them to explain more, rephrasing what they say back to them to see if you understand (“What I hear you say is X. Is that correct?”). You’ll need to pay attention to what they’re feeling and, at times, reflect it back (“I can see this frustrates you”).
Empathy doesn’t mean agreement. It’s not caving, it’s understanding (3). Once your opponent feels truly understood, they are more likely to hear you out.
I love how available information is these days—blogs, YouTube, Twitter. I enjoy the interaction with fellow authors and readers on those sites. But these mediums of communication can’t be used to their full potential if we’re using them to fight.
I recently chastised a fellow member of a Facebook writing group in a comment section. I don’t recommend that. As soon as they’d replied, I was sorry I’d started it. But, in a show of good character, instead of getting angry they asked me what I found offensive about what they’d said. By that time I’d recovered my good judgment and did my best to reply both truthfully and civilly. We ended the debate (as best I know) in good standing with each other, each having learned something.
Following the three things won’t guarantee that your debate ends in agreement, but we will, at least, end the debate with a good conscience, having not hindered the progress of our beliefs. Perhaps an encounter with a respectful, caring individual will go a long ways toward the changing of their mind.
(1) Muehlhoff, Tim and Todd V. Lewis. Authentic Communication: Christian Speech Engaging Culture. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Academic, 2010.
(2) Carnegie, Dale. How to Win Friends and Influence People. Special Aniversary Edition. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1936.
(3) Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Free Press, 1984.