How We Argue

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.

6 thoughts on “How We Argue

  1. As you requested, here are some suggestions that I hope will prove useful:

    *Take Your Time (But Not Too Much)*

    Similar to what you describe as the method to control anger or emotional reactions, take your time in writing and reading all sides in a debate. You need time to digest what has been said. You need time to figure out what to say. If you find yourself hitting “refresh” on your browser to check for a response, you probably need to step away for a bit. Read the other view completely before thinking of a response. If you have an idea you are afraid of losing, jot down a note and then go back to reading. Digest what the other person has said, completely, before going back to any notes and putting together a response.

    This sort of time-consumptive approach is necessary if you want to construct solid arguments and avoid logical fallacies. It also allows you time to really come to grips with the points and nuances the other people in the discussion are making.

    You do not need to get back to the other person, immediately. The other people in the discussion do not have to get back to you, immediately. In the modern age of instant gratification, instant feedback, and racing discussions, time is your friend. However, too much time can undermine your cause. Not only can you appear to be not taking the discussion seriously by waiting “too long”, you can cause those following the back-and-forth to lose track of the points being raised.

    A good way to address this is by being explicit. Tell people when you expect to respond and try to make it within a few hours or a day, at most. If there are too many points being raised, either by a single person or a group of people, point this out and say that you need time to sort through all the information. In a discussion being held by passionate but reasonable individuals (unless a life is on the line), this should be acceptable to everyone.

    *Enumerate The Points*

    When making points or responding to the points of others, enumerate each one. Break things down in short, declarative sentences and make sure you address each one. This can be time-consuming but it will help you, those you are debating, and those following the discussion, keep abreast of the points being raised.

    Especially online, this is crucial. Not everyone comes to a discussion at the same point. Anyone joining after the beginning will need to back-track the discussion and see clear points being made, throughout. Otherwise, you run the risk of losing both the gallery and those on the other side of the discussion. If things become confusing, everyone loses.

    *Show, Then Tell*

    When discussion the use of logical fallacies, an interesting phenomenon is the demonization of those who are seen to use them. Also, some people may not know (or have an imperfect understanding of) what individual fallacies mean. When saying “X-argument is a Straw Man” it can not only cast aspersions which puts people in a defensive and emotional position but it can also confuse people who may not know the full definition of the term.

    Rather, if debating someone who uses a logical fallacy, it is important to quote the fallacy in its entirety, explain why it is not valid by breaking it down in terms of the definition of the fallacy, and then (only at the end) point out that this is a logical fallacy. At that point, you should even provide a link to the definition on a neutral, third-party publication.

    While this shows respect for both the debate and the debaters, it also educates, provides examples, and helps people learn so they can avoid the fallacies in the future of the argument. This streamlines the effort and helps make sure the discussion is profitable to all involved.

  2. I wish I had the article my therapist gave me an article touching on arguments. I’d post it for you. And why its so damn hard to correct somebody else. I was dealing with harassment at work and a a coworker who would never admit to wrong doings. One thing about being wrong is the moment we are confronted, and especially how we are confronted with being wrong it becomes a subconscious attack on ones self-worth. This is why viewpoints are so hard to change. When we are made to feel bad we put those mental barriers up and defenses up. Lets face it being wrong hurts And you feel dumb and humbled. Being right feels good it boosts your ego and your self image. In today’s online culture being wrong usually means mocking and belittlement. Apologizing can be seen as a weakness. Overall the culture may need to shift about confrontation. Knowing we are all imperfect beings and being wrong isn’t the end of the world. So own up when we screw up. At the same time how we call out and bring attention to an injustice can be a problem. Far too often the fires and pitchforks rise over things before we have the full scope. And things get spun so far out of control we do not recognize the consequences of the debates we open. As you have pointed out before words have meaning, They carry weight and they have incredible power. A simple phrase can save a life. A few hate filled jeers can cause riots. What we do and say out there online and in the real world carries. And we need to understand there is a responsibility with that. Actions and words said have reactions and real consequences. As much as I try ( and fail ) Do not take anything personally. We all know we will take certain things to heart, Lets face it we are a sensitive touchy feely crowd. I commend you for these entries and your calm honest approach. You amaze me. Thank you for all this. Just reading what I’ve read I have shreds of hope for my own struggles with depression.

  3. This is a very solid piece of writing, and I appreciate the points you’ve made about thoughtful disagreement. I’m definitely bookmarking and rereading as needed.

  4. Thank you so much for this amazing piece. There’s one small thing that I’d like to add that I think has particular relevance to (for want of a better phrase) ‘internet discussions’ – that is, the broad social, cultural, and political discussions that rear up across social media platforms especially; it’s intertwined with your first point but somewhat distinct, I think. At heart, it’s just the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It manifests itself in a few particular ways:

    1) Always ask yourself, ‘how would I feel if I were on the other side of this discussion?’ This has a lot to do with the efforts to avoid depersonalization that you talked about, but I think it goes beyond that; it’s an earnest attempt to put yourself in ‘their’ shoes and understand where they’re coming from. Even if you say your opponents are ‘just afraid’, for instance – fear isn’t necessarily a rational response, but it’s usually not one that comes out of nowhere. Understanding the causes of that fear on a deeper level than just ‘well, it’s because they don’t understand’ can lead not just to greater compassion but also to more effective discussions, ones that have a real chance of winning hearts and minds.

    2) A corollary of sorts: if a rhetorial tactic is bad ‘for them’, it’s bad for you too. The ends don’t justify the means. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard ‘yeah, but we’re right!’ thrown at people who tried to point out logical fallacies or suggested dialing back extremist viewpoints. This one admittedly gets fuzzy at times (extremism isn’t a sin in and of itself, to be sure), but I think it’s at least worth trying to hold the principle that what you say isn’t an excuse for how you say it, and that it’s not just enough to claim that you’re on the side of right; you have to show it in your actions and your rhetoric.

    And 3), the flip side of that same coin: if a tactic is fair game in the name of good, it’s fair game for all. The standard example of this that I see is boycotts; I try not to hold someone’s choice to boycott e.g. Starbucks against them, because I don’t want my choice to boycott Chik-Fil-A held innately against me.

    To a great extent, this all really comes down to avoiding hypocrisy as much as feasible – and I’m well aware that it’s more than a little hypocritical of me to harp on them, because I can be as prone as anyone else. But these are the things I really try to keep in mind when I’m in a discussion, and I feel like they’ve really served me well.

  5. Hello rabbit dude,

    Arguments aren’t always seen as black and white. There are many argumentative tactics we can use. For your examples on global warming you took the claim-warrant approach, which is have a claim (global warming is caused by man) and then backing it up with warrants to that claim. Now a counter to this argument might be “well volcanoes aren’t man-made and they release greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere”. To avoid absolutes which make you up for critique you can use qualifiers in your argument. Example, “The average global climate increases X% over the past Y years, this coincides with expanding industry. From this data we can see that global warming is largely accelerated by man-made industry”. The qualifier is the word largely, but in this case the world accelerated is also a qualifier. Accelerates doesn’t discount the fact that the earth has been warming since the last ice age (which might also be used against you like volcanoes).

    A good trick is to word your arguments like some sort of scientific hypothesis, it stands up to critique a bit better than several (ah ha, see a qualifier) absolute arguments.

    I find it interesting how the other person uses “it’s been 10 years since we last talked… they don’t know me” as a warrant to discount your critique on him. By the same logic that this person projects, they haven’t talked to you in a decade as well. Their argument is only based on a “perception” of you that they once knew in a distant past, and therefore should be taken with a grain of salt.

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