Arguing about things online has always been a popular pastime. There are so many things that we care deeply about, so many differences we have with other people who are just as passionate, so many ways that people can be wrong about everything. There are certain places on the Internet that seem like years-long shouting matches because of this, and it can be difficult to engage with people especially when things are running so hot.
Over the past two years, I’ve become more and more politically active. I’ve discovered “Black Twitter” and black geek spaces that combine my background with my love of all things sci-fi/fantasy. I’ve opened up to the exciting possibility of exploring my blackness through speculative fiction, and how even in these geek spaces the politics of race and culture can prove to be tricky things to untangle. I’ve seen transgender issues become a more prominent discussion within the furry fandom, surprised that there it’s such a difficult thing to understand because we’re one of the most sex-positive in all of geekdom. I’ve seen how the personal affects the political and vice versa; I’m no longer content to sit on the sidelines.
But in my little Buddhist heart I know that I have a terrible time with confrontation, even when I see it as necessary. This week has been extraordinarily stressful for me, because I’ve waded into a hot issue against one of the most prominent people in the fandom. I wasn’t sure what the response would be. I didn’t know how people would receive my experience and my argument. I had no idea if I was right; I just knew that I was doing something I believed in.
I’d like to take a moment to thank each and every person who has offered me words of thanks and encouragement, who have gone over my arguments and offered suggestions for how they could be improved, who have supported me in both word and deed. I have been absolutely blown away by the love and openness that I have received in response to being open with you. It reaffirms my faith in the fandom, and encourages me to keep fighting to make it a better place.
The next step in that is to pull back from this specific situation and talk about how we argue and debate in general. I know that we will tackle so many touchy, emotional subjects in the future — from comedy to environment to politics and beyond — and I think that in order to navigate through our disagreements and raise the level of discourse to be more productive there are a few things we all can do.
I’m not a philosopher and I am not a debater by trade, so these suggestions are aimed at laymen like myself. If there are further suggestions that someone more experienced in debate or philosophy could add, I’d be glad to hear them. Please leave them in the comments.
WE ARE ARGUING WITH PEOPLE. Before anything else, this is something we should keep in mind. We are not arguing with demons, monsters, assholes without a shred of decency. The people who enrage us are just other people, like us — with their own host of experiences, their own unique personalities, their own thought processes that have lead them to the choices they’ve made. Even in the most heated arguments, it would be great to remember that we likely have more in common with them than differences.
Throughout these posts, I have done my best to attack 2’s ideas, attitude and tactics while avoiding attacks on his person. Even though I have serious disagreements with 2, I recognize that he is a person who loves people, who have people that love him, who works hard at his craft and can be generous, loyal, fun and friendly. I have to honor that.
The same goes for Kage. He’s been pulled into all of this through his defense of 2, and has taken a tremendous amount of heat for standing up for his friend. While I believe that Kage has mishandled a lot in his (and AnthroCon, by extension) official response to this situation, the fact remains that he is also a tremendously loyal, hard-working person who has poured so much of his life into the fandom. We can agree that he’s done a few things wrong, but that doesn’t invalidate the good work he’s done.
We can stand up and say that we will not tolerate certain poisonous ideas and attitudes within the fandom without demonizing and dehumanizing the people who hold those ideas and attitudes. It can be extremely difficult to extend empathy and compassion to people we are fundamentally opposed to, but I believe it is the ultimate expression of an open and accepting community. And that’s the one I want for my fandom.
LEARN HOW TO FRAME AN ARGUMENT. This seems like a simple thing, but it’s often a step that gets missed when we engage in debates. What is it exactly we’re arguing? It’s not enough to say “Telling people to commit suicide is stupid and wrong.” We should be able to make a fundamental assertion that’s supported by facts, logic and other concrete means at our disposal.
For example, say I made an argument that “Global warming is real and it is caused by man-made/industrial activity. Therefore, it’s up to us to change our activity to stop global warming.” There are several assertions I’m making in this argument that I will need to back up:
- Global warming is real.
- It is caused by man-made activity.
- Changing our activities is the way to stop global warming.
- Global warming is something we can stop.
In order to make sure my argument is sound, I will need to be able to back up each and every assertion with facts or at least sound logic. If it sounds like rigorous and long work, well…it is. But if you’re going to step up to make an argument about something you care about, you should at least care enough about it to do it right.
RECOGNIZE AND CALL OUT LOGICAL FALLACIES. These are *everywhere* in Internet arguments. We are guilty of them at some point, and they’re almost entirely present in political discourse these days. I’ve seen so many people with sound arguments get derailed by logical fallacies, and I’ve seen a lot of people use those fallacies specifically to do so, confident that their opponents will not be able to catch what they’re doing or know how to counter it.
It would force discussion to be more rigorous and focused if we learned common fallacies and why they work even though they’re so inaccurate. There are a few comprehensive lists of logical fallacies online, like the ones here and here. One of my favorites is the list of fallacies on the PBS Idea Channel here. Understanding the ways that logical leaps can fail is one way you can strengthen your own understanding of argument.
KEEP YOUR HEAD. The entire reason we get sucked into arguments is someone says something obviously wrong or angering and we just have to respond. Again, if we care enough to speak up about something, we should care enough to do it right — and that means maybe using anger as a tool to motivate you without letting it consume everything you’re doing. If you’re responding purely from anger, you will have a much higher chance of making mistakes, making it personal and misunderstanding the points other people are making. It can warp your perspective to make friends into enemies, or gentle prods for understanding as an attack. If you find yourself in a rage over a comment, walk away from your computer for 10 seconds. Take 10 breaths. The comment will still be there, and you’ll have at least a marginally cooler head with which to respond a bit more soundly.
LEARN HOW TO BE WRONG. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we make mistakes. I know it sucks to have those mistakes pointed out to you in an argument on a public forum, but being a gracious loser can sometimes be more important than winning an online debate. If your assertion turns out to be incorrect, or new evidence is presented that makes your argument invalid, that’s OK. Mistakes are how we learn, and learning can only happen if we let go of our ego long enough to know we don’t know everything. If you’ve done something that hurts or offends someone, it’s OK to apologize; we are in a community, and sometimes showing that you care about the feelings of others is more important than pushing the “unfiltered” truth.
I want so much for the spaces I hang out in to be able to discuss and disagree about important issues without it turning into a giant garbage fire. Being able to really think about what you want to say, saying it as carefully as you can with as much explanation as you can, and remembering that people rarely change their mind when you scream at them and call them names are important ways to do that.
One more folks — tomorrow I’d like to talk about what we can do to help people with depression and other mental health issues. Again, this is from a completely non-professional standpoint, but I’ll try to be as careful as I can.