Have you ever tried to have a debate with a stranger online? Better yet, a friend from high school who recently went vegan/had a baby/found Jesus, whose opinions vehemently conflict with yours?
Even though I’m one of those people who loves to win arguments with strangers on the internet, I avoid certain hot topics that have a tendency to explode on impact. Climate change? Meh. Obesity? None of my business. Politics? Hell nah. Misogynoir? Let’s misogy-not and say we didn’t.
Don’t get me wrong; I have strong opinions on these issues (especially the misogynoir). I just don’t want to share such thoughts with strangers on Facebook.
Those “arguments” never end well, mostly because they’re not arguments. They’re fights.
Most online fights aren’t worth getting involved in.
When I was a wee lass, fighting made sense. Got a problem with the girl who said you look like dried-up Play Doh in that dress? Punch her in the face. Handled!
Or if you’re too much of a punk to hit her, call her nasty names in public until she cries and runs away!
Fighting in person might make you feel better (or is that just me?), but it doesn’t sway your opponent’s judgment. They’ll come out of the tussle having learned nothing, save that you’re a Play Doh-looking asshole.
This is how fighting on the internet works, with bottom-of-the-barrel rewards. No bragging rights among close friends, no satisfaction of dislodging an adversary’s tooth. So, what do you get? What is your reward for hours of rage-typing?
Unless you’re a slam poet or a sportsball player, points don’t matter. You could refer to them when you need a quick ego boost, but that’s about it.
Point is, points are useless. Yet on social media we’re all clamoring for them anyway.
Arguing to score points isn’t arguing at all. It’s picking a fight.
Most members of Facebook groups pick at each other with grade-school rhetoric. Do you have any hope at all in changing their minds? If so, you’re going to have to learn how to manipulate shitty opinions.
Turning a fight into a debate
- “If men and women are ‘equal’ why do men have to pay child support?”
- “Just got permission from my Native American friend to wear this headdress to Coachella!”
- *literally any opinion for or against Donald Trump*
With conversation starters like these, who needs aneurysms?
For better mental health, I leave these alone. But I’ll occasionally see something that’s either too outlandish to let go, or right on the cusp of understanding. “I can’t let this kid stay ignorant” vs. “Well, damn, I’ve never thought of it that way.”
Discussions in said thread tend to take a page straight outta grade school, with classic hits like:
- Name calling: “Oh boo hoo, this incel thinks it’s hard to be a man.”
- Talk to the hand: “You’re 100% wrong but it’s not my job to tell you why”
- And good old pot shots: “Why should I listen to someone who can’t even spell hydrochloric acid?”
When using incendiary comments to instigate fights with strangers, are you really trying to change their minds? Or are you here for the dramatic backlash?
And for those of you getting ready with the “tone policing” accusation:
Tone policing and rhetoric are very different things.
A little psychology and communication skills will go a long way. Even when faced with an opinion that is, how do you say, a raging river of puss and vitriol, it is entirely possible to inform, or even sway, that opinion. But first, you’re going to have to listen to it.
And then, when you’re done listening—actively listening—you’re going to agree with them. And ask questions.
(Note that I didn’t say you have to be honest. Pretend to agree with the shitty opinion as best you can. Just go with it.)
Three easy steps to actually* win arguments online
Step 1: Listen.
Step 2: Concede their point (aka give them a cookie).
Step 3: Nudge the conversation forward in your favor.
Let’s see them in action:
A: “Child support is slavery. A man should be able to tell a woman to abort.”
B: “What makes you feel that way?”
A: “Well, women have all the reproductive rights! Men can’t do anything.”
B: “I see. You’re right, you know.”
(Freeze-frame here. Is he right? No, not really. Men do have some reproductive rights. Concede to his point, just for the moment, to let him feel like he’s scoring points.)
B: “It takes two to make a baby, and sometimes men can’t get custody for their children even when they’re better suited. But wouldn’t you at least say the woman should have more agency over her own body than you do?”
Sure. Lying is bad, or whatever. But concession is a good form of lying. It’s a device to nudge uncomfortable conversations forward. It breaks down your
opponent’s conversation partner’s defenses so they’ll be more open to debate.
You didn’t step into this digital arena to score points, right? If you’re in it to change people’s minds, by all means, give them as many points as they want.