stop arguing in bad faith on the internet

The internet has become intensely contentious over the past two years. While the web has never been a bastion of fair arguments (because few places are… ever), there has been an especially vicious vibe in online chatter since then-candidate Donald Trump started making noises about becoming president.

It’s understandable that this has divided many groups of people. Trump’s campaign attacked just about every moral of those on the left and many morals of the right, leaving Trump detractors feeling sick and hating him. That hate carried over to Trump voters, who seemed to hate being talked down to as much as Trump detractors hated Trump.

Even with all of this contention between supposed sides – those who like Trump and those who think he’s a monster – we’ve all become more connected. The internet has grown by more than 100 million people across the world since Trump announced his campaign. We now know the thoughts of more people inside and outside of the U.S. In many cases, we’ve reacted as if we have gone to a family reunion and found out our long-lost relative is a vicious warlord.

Through this larger connection, we’ve seemed to lose faith in one another. A big reason for this, I’ve noticed, is that many people choose to argue in bad faith.

To briefly explain, a bad faith argument is trying to “win” instead of trying to understand. Ideas are not exchanged but are instead used to bludgeon other people, often in labels that put the other person outside of one’s moral circle. Disagreement leads to more name calling than it does attempting to understand why the disagreement happened. Logical fallacies are committed intentionally – goal posts are moved, insults are thrown, an intense strings of statistics are thrown in the style of creationist Duane Gish (this is known as the “gish gallop,” which is fun to say out loud. Go ahead, try it).

I’ve seen many arguments – and been in many – where otherwise straight-ahead comments are picked apart as if there is a secret, coded language behind every word and phrase. While it’s hard to argue that coded language is never used, how often does accusing someone of hiding their true intent actually work? Whenever I’ve gotten someone to admit they may feel a different way than they’re letting on in their words, there’s been enough conversation, questions, and vulnerability for them to feel comfortable thinking in real time with me – and in public internet conversations, that involves thinking in front of everyone else, too. A pointed finger seems the fastest way to have a conversation or argument partner dig in on their position and shut down entirely.

In the end of all of this, fewer of us are convinced of each other’s arguments. Debates, arguments, and discussions between people have turned into bloodsport. Everyone wants to be seen as the “winner,” even if the lone prizes are likes, retweets, or affirming comments.

I can hardly blame anyone for this method of communication. Social media has put us all under intense scrutiny by our closest friends, family members, people we’ve dated, co-workers, people we’ve met once, and even that guy who is a holdover eFriend from the Myspace days. We’re on stage in front of our recent social history and we don’t want to be shown up by someone else, especially on a line-in-the-sand issue.

But what good does it do to argue in bad faith? I have personally never been swayed someone arguing in bad faith, either in a one-to-one discussion or as an observer of someone else’s discussion. Bad faith arguments come off as a desperate ploy for a person not to be right, but to seem right. Even when I was ignorant of rhetoric, framing, and logic, bad faith arguments cloyed and made me look askance at every argument the bad faith arguer was advancing. It comes off as accusatory, a real-time episode of Judge Judy or Judge Joe Brown instead of a real-time conversation between two equals.

One big reason not to argue in bad faith: these arguments destroy any chance of understanding or advancement of the arguers cause. In online discussions, the conversation stagnates at the first instance of an unfair argument. No one enjoys being taken out of context. No one enjoys being insulted – or at least not many who don’t already pay someone to regularly insult them. No one enjoys having different rules for their side of the argument versus the other side. When any of these tools are used, the conversation dies and we all miss out on an opportunity for deeper understanding someone else’s viewpoint and our own viewpoint.

I suggest – although I can hardly demand – that we all look to understand what people are saying instead of trying to pin them down. Doing this, people with a mixed-up belief system or sloppy way of thinking tend to pin themselves down for you, no need to apply the bludgeon of bad faith.

This is not easy; I’ve already found that trying to understand others makes certain outsiders try to paint me as sympathetic to my conversation partner’s ideology. But in trying times, those who care about civility, society, and understanding within society must be the torchbearers for reasoned discussion. We must be the champions of the good faith argument.

What are some ways to argue in good faith? Here are a few:

  • Look for areas of agreement in what they’ve said and state these early in your response. Show that you at least understand what they’re presenting and trying to say instead of outright rejecting their position. Parroting your understanding of what they said helps.
  • Consider what the other person is saying instead of offering a blanket rejection due to who they are, who they appear to be, or what they associate with. This may mean arguing with social media accounts with green frogs, bald eagles, and the Joker as the profile picture. Do your best but be ready to quit at the first sign of insanity.
  • Consider nuance; you both may be correct and incorrect in many different ways.
  • Don’t dismiss evidence that they provide. Your biases, especially if you disagree with the evidence, will find ways to instantly pick it apart. Treat the evidence as if you are a casual observer instead of someone who has already taken a side on the issue. You may still disagree, but you’ll have a better sense of why you disagree.
  • If you dismiss the evidence or the source, state why. This may often be because it’s subjective, sourceless, or full of lies. Don’t just say “Because it’s bullshit!” or “Because it’s Breitbart!” (note, these two are rather interchangeable, but push on)
  • Don’t simply dismiss someone by telling them to go read/research, as this is essentially an appeal to an invisible authority. Point them in the direction of texts, websites, articles, blog posts, or other material you found helpful. Be willing to come back and talk with them after they’ve read. One of my favorite sayings of all time: if you don’t think small things can make big changes, try sleeping in a tent with a mosquito – changing one person’s mind has the potential to change MANY minds.
  • Understand that what you write may be misunderstood. This is one of the most common flaws of online, written communication and now, in an era where people take liberties with sound and video clips, spoken communication. Be willing to correct yourself and correct their interpretation of what you say. Give them this same benefit. Call their bullshit if they’re on some bullshit, but keep your cool.
  • Looking to defend or detract an ideology? You should probably have your facts straight instead of simply stating feelings you have about the ideology, lest you come off like me on religion at 15 (or, uh, 25. Or 30).
  • If you’re insulted, decide if it’s worth continuing the conversation or simply walking away. Sometimes you can still have a worthwhile discussion with someone who is being a dickhead. Other times, you probably won’t have the energy for it. Remember: If you get your point across well and the conversation is in a public forum, others will see it. The bad faith arguer will not come across well. You will. This isn’t a “win” per se, but you never know who is watching you set an example for thoughtful discussion.

The internet is one of society’s best and biggest advancements since the printing press. It may not seem like it now, but this platform will open up education to people across the world. In the meantime, we’re going to hit a lot of turbulence. The results have sucked so far, but they don’t have to suck forever.

We can make the internet a place where great discussions take place. To do it, we have to live the good faith argument.

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