I recently got into an argument on Facebook and remembered keenly why I used to have a policy of cutting arguments short.
It had been a while since the last time I’d argued online (since Steve Pavlina’s forum shut down basically) and I suppose I thought I could stay calm better than before. Perhaps I was also interested to use my knowledge of some of the argument fallacies I’d read up on (ad hominem, strawman, etc). I thought I might bat down my attacker’s arguing flaws and thereby present a good case.
But this didn’t work; I got drawn into a stupid argument which went no-where (as arguments always do) and worse, got drawn into feeling bad because of it.
My dueling opponent had drawn me into bad feelings online once before. I had thought of blocking them then, but didn’t. This time, as the argument drew to its shuddering end, I decided that no online friendship was worth this and blocked them.
From now on I’m resuming my old policy of cutting off arguments in the bud, should I see them starting to happen.
Arguing Online Vs. Real Life
I’m not a big arguer in real life. I think people see me as a very calm, even Zen person. I don’t know what it is about online media that gets the best of me like this. I’ve seen it in other people too.
In fact, my recently blocked opponent is completely different in real life as far as I’ve seen. The first time I met them, I was expecting a shitstorm to break out at any moment from my online experience with them, yet the entire weekend (it was at a convention) passed without incident and they seemed really pretty calm and reasonable.
I guess the internet lacks certain natural checks that stop this happening. Maybe something communicated through body language and voice tone stops real life becoming a shitstorm so often as online discussions. Or maybe it’s just that there are more repercussions in real life.
Whatever the reason, I think if we engage in online discussions we need to work out new ways of keeping things chill.
Cutting Off Arguments
My technique for nipping arguments in the bud is this.
First, I’m very clear on my position. I believe arguments, or debates, which I see as the same thing, are always unproductive.
Why? Because when two people are trying to disprove each other’s point of view, they are closed. They are not intending to change their point of view. The opposite, they are intending to hold on to it. That is the opposite of what you need to do to learn or expand your perspective.
I’m also clear on the alternative to arguing, and firmly communicate that I’m interested in only engaging in that and never in engaging in debate/arguing.
The alternative to arguing is simply discussion, where both people are open enough to think the other could contribute to their point of view even if it’s different to theirs. They can doubt and question each other and even disbelieve what the other has to say, but always with the intent of learning what they can, not of “winning”.
Calling Them On It
So when I perceive someone as attempting to initiate an argument, I call them on it.
I say something like, “Are you really asking/saying that because you are curious about what I have to say and are interested in seeing if it might be useful to you, or do you just want to attack it?”
Or, I can flat out say, “I don’t see that you ask that question from a place of real curiosity, so I’m not going to answer it.”
Or, “Your tone suggests that you’re trying to debate with me, and I firmly believe that debate closes minds rather than opens them, so I’m not going to engage with you right now – at least not in this way. Thanks.”
(Feel free to copy and paste these if you want to).
Or, if someone asks for proof (in a challenging, debatey way) I can simply direct them to learning resources as if they had been interested in simply discussing – but wasting as little energy as possible in doing so. My words are usually, “If you’re interested in learning more, you can look at these.” Behind the simple suggestion, you are calling them on their non-open stance in the discussion. Obviously, they are not interested in spending the time it’d take to really read and consider a long text. They just want to prove you wrong.
Another phrase I can think of is, “My opinion is this, and I disagree with your opinion, but I’m not interested in engaging in debate about it, just talk with people about it in a neutral way.” This would be good when it’s necessary to assert your opinion without entering debate.
You have to detect when debate is happening quickly, and it can be subtle. Often people start off appearing to be actually curious or open before pulling out the big guns. Just be alert and cut it off in the bud. If you get drawn into arguments, that’s okay. You can still recall yourself and choose to cut it off there. Do it as soon as you notice.
What’s always good is: “I don’t like debating, so I’m not going to continue this discussion with you. I’m only interested in sharing my viewpoint with those who are genuinely open or curious about it. Thanks.”
They will probably object to it, but you can just be firm, “No, you don’t seem to be genuinely open or curious about my viewpoint, you just seem to want to debate it. That’s not what I’m here for. Thanks.”
Cut them off. It’s so tempting to reply to their points, even just one or two of them, but that just draws you in. Everything you say gives them material to reply to, and thus prolong the debate. So leave your sentences short and to the point, and talk about ending the discussion only.
When You Want To Defend Your Viewpoint
What I find hard about staying out of online conflict is that oftentimes, an conflictive communicator’s attack makes your viewpoint look weaker, and while you have no intention of “winning” an argument against them, you still want people to be able to see and respect your viewpoint.
Note that people can post opposing viewpoints – or just other viewpoints (maybe they don’t have to be opposing) in a harmonious way and that can create an excellent non-conflictive conversation. However, when people present opposing viewpoints with the intention of drawing you into a conflict, I see that as a problem. I think two people with different agendas should present their cases civilly and not use any tactics to silence or underhandedly discredit the other. Perhaps some formal debates are like this, when they are created as a way of showing two viewpoints so that the audience can decide. It’s not how things normally play out, though.
Let me illustrate a little.
The biggest running debate in the Steve Pavlina forum was meat eaters versus vegans and vegetarians.
I believe in veganism and consider it my duty to spread word of it (in a non-conflictive way, spreading the message only in places where it is appropriate and people have a choice to engage or not).
The forums were a public place for discussion, and appropriate for expressing such a message. People didn’t have to read what I said.
However, whenever I or other vegans (there were quite a few) wrote about such things, the meat-eater brigade would jump in and tell everyone how wrong we were. They would attack our messages with as many statistics and studies they could find, assuming an aspect of authority this way. Or they would drown out what we wrote so that it would be harder to see our message.
We could have replied in the same vein. Some did. I did for a while. Still, it irked me that the person who was loudest, best at twisting statistics to their own ends, and most aggressive should be heard. So, I started to develop my technique for cutting off arguments while continuing to post my opinion for the benefit of those genuinely interested, as I didn’t want to be cowed into silence, but also didn’t want to get into these useless squabbles.
I am certain that their attacks did weaken my and other vegans’ attempts to get the word out.* One effect that seemed pretty clear to me was that I believed one of their arguments.
*They have a right to propagandise just as I do, of course. My point isn’t that they don’t, but that arguing, while negative, did something for their cause.
Everytime someone mentioned The China Study, they would attack it, arguing their case or posting links to a popular critique of the book. It became impossible to talk about that book without someone, or several people, loudly saying how proven wrong it was. Their arguments seemed so self assured and so ubiquitous that I became convinced that, even though I was vegan, I couldn’t support the book.
I finally read the book, much later than I would have if it weren’t for them. When I did, I realised that this was a supremely important book. I also realised that no matter how much seeming authority the meat-eater brigade had effected, this book showed a lucidity and credibility far beyond anything they had said. I could literally feel how true it was.
Defending Against Attacks To Your Message
So the meat-eater brigade did manage to skew things in their favour by engaging in conflictive dialogue. What, then? Should I engage in conflictive dialogue back, for the sake of my message?
How do you deal with conflictive communicators trying to silence you? How do you spread word about a cause without getting into arguments?
That’s my big paradox and I haven’t solved it entirely.
I think some of the time, you may have to answer some of the main points of your attackers for other people’s sake.
Perhaps, you can manage to ignore them as much as possible, and cut off conflictive dialogue with them, but keep posting information with your readers in mind. As their attacks mount, you may have to post some debunkings of major critiques, or “Q&A”s where you answer the doubts which they may have instilled in their readers’ minds. As always, though, the focus is on presenting your message and helping readers who are open to it and not on fighting those who are closed and combative. By making your critiques general rather than personal, you can avoid engaging in conflict with any one person.
It can be hard to see where the line is between posting your information in a harmonious way, despite the desires of some bullies, and actually engaging in conflictive dialogue. It can also be hard to see where cutting someone off is legitimate or where you’re just using it to try and end an argument on the upper hand. If in doubt, I guess humility and good manners would help keep the tone right (“Look, I know I’ve been arguing with you, but I’m remembering how useless arguments always are, and if you want us to explore our perspectives in an open manner we can talk, but I don’t want to keep engaging you in this way. Thanks.”)
In general, you should find your centre, Zen style, and post things when you don’t feel like you’re pushing against something, just freely giving. Feel into your body to see what’s happening when you write. Your mind may fool you, but your body won’t.
It might also bear mentioning that if there are too many people attacking you in a certain place online, you might want to look for another place to spread your message where there is less interference. Maybe you’d rather not bend to their intimidation, but sometimes you have to pick your battles. Your call.
Non-Conflictive Doesn’t Mean Closed-Minded
I know a lot of readers will think that there is something closed-minded about refusing to debate.
Though I’ve explained what I think is the better way of communicating already, I would like to directly address this concern here.
Refusing to debate doesn’t mean refusing to consider other viewpoints. It means refusing to engage in dialogue in a way which is unproductive and hurtful.
If anything is closed minded, it’s debating. A debater pretty much never changes their viewpoint while debating. They put up walls and their every intention is to prove their viewpoint right. I can’t see anything more closed minded than that.
You can assure a debater that you’re willing to consider their viewpoint, but not when you are being engaged in such a manner.
That’s the truth: your intention is not to filter out viewpoints, but filter out communication styles.
Choosing How Open Minded You Want To Be
I think it’s also fair for someone to work out how closed-minded or open minded they want to be.
Depending on how much research you’ve done on one opinion or another, you may be more or less sure of it.
Sometimes you may have only a tentative idea, or no idea at all, and you’re seeking input.
Sometimes you may be fairly sure, so you’re ready to express your ideas, and you’re also open to input.
And sometimes you’ve read enough of all different opinions on the topic, and questioned and tested yourself enough, to be sure that it would take something pretty massive to change your mind at this point. Here you’re not so open to opposing views, just because they are not so interesting for you anymore. You might be interested in “new news” but not the same ideas you’ve heard a million times.
Perhaps you’re even invested in the idea you have, you’ve already started a path based on that understanding, and changing your mind or becoming doubtful at this point could disrail you or bring instability into your life. Depending on your situation, it can be legitimate to filter out opposing viewpoints, at least in the short term. (If it had to be long term, and the evidence against starts to mount, perhaps you should work on your courage to change your path, though).
What I’m saying here is that it can be legitimate to be to some extent closed minded sometimes. I think it’s best to always maintain some doubt about everything, but you can also say, “no, right now I’m not interested in challenging this belief, thanks.”
That is legitimate. It doesn’t mean that you’re closed minded as a person, it just means you made a choice about what information you were going to let in at the moment. Information filtering is, after all, a skill.
What this means is that no-one has a right to force you to confront their opposing opinion. You have every right to say, “no, not right now, thanks.” Besides, if someone was operating in a non-conflictive manner, they wouldn’t need you to hear their opinion like that. Non-conflictive people offer their opinion when they think it would be welcome and useful.
All of this is trumped by the fact that conflictive discussion isn’t intended to introduce a new perspective for your benefit. It’s intended to tear you and your opinion down. Nothing more.
When You Want To Hear An Opposing Viewpoint
As I’m an open-minded person (I think I can say this reasonably) I sometimes find myself in the position of trying to get useful information out of someone’s attack.
I recently learnt not to do this. The trouble is, when people engage in argument, the information they give is kind of a poisoned gift. It contains all the bad feelings and negativity they are trying to push on you. Maybe it’s just me, but when I try and filter the words of someone who was attacking me verbally for truth, I find I start to feel all of that negativity and end up feeling really bad.
Sometimes people can attack you with viewpoints that are interesting. I think it’s best to cut them off and ignore what they say – and then, if you desire, seek out similar viewpoints that come from a co-operative and not conflictive communication model.
Remember ignoring what they say doesn’t make you closed minded. You have a right not to think about a certain thing if you don’t want to. If someone’s negativity happens to inspire you to question yourself, you have a right to seek out better sources of information than them.
No-one can force you to think about something. No-one should use force.
Deflecting arguments, as you’ve seen, is a skill. Perhaps as well as debating competitions, we should have non-debating competitions where the person best able to avoid being drawn into conflict is considered most skillful. Call it “verbal Aikido” perhaps?
So, I’ve explained how I believe arguments are always unproductive and negative. I’ve explained my method for deflecting arguments. I’ve explained how to spread a message in the presence of bullies without engaging in conflict with them. I’ve made it clear that ignoring someone’s input doesn’t make you closed-minded necessarily. And even that we can choose how open minded we want to be about different things.
What do you think? Is this a new viewpoint to you? Do you agree that arguments are always negative? (Don’t worry about having a different opinion to me, I just don’t want to engage with it conflictively :)) Do you have your own techniques for deflecting arguments?
The “Finding The Truth In A World Of Lies” Series: