There is an art to the online debate. Follow these guidelines and rules of engagement and you may just convince someone yet.
I have family members who voted for Trump. In the days after the election, I got into heated political debates with people who were very close to me. I’m pretty sure a lot of us have. At some point, we have all probably looked around at the people closest to us as if for the first time. How could those we thought we knew see the world in such a light? Has everyone gone nuts? Full disclaimer: I didn’t vote for Trump, nor do I agree with much of his politics. I’m what people on the right might call a “liberal snowflake,” though I think I do little to encourage the label. You won’t find me spouting non-stop anti-Trump rhetoric on social media or engaging in meme wars with Trump supporters. Sometimes, though, my frustration gets the best of me and I can’t help but post something political. War always ensues. Oops.
Divisive timesI detest the direction that social media discourse has taken. Everything is so damn heated – so divisive. People who suffer from a you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us mentality tend to be the loudest voices, the ones leading the public discourse. Casual browsing of the Facebook News Feed has the potential to turn into World War III. Perhaps that is as it should be. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with debate and argumentation. Part of the goal of education, the very cornerstone of civilized society, is to fortify men and women to be able to hold their own within the free market of ideas. Being able to think for yourself and to hold fast to your convictions is part of life. After all, what good is a person who can’t stand up for what they believe in? Social media merely provides a forum for such a marketplace of ideas to exist. Each of us has a platform and a powerful one at that. We’ve all heard stories about people who have been fired from jobs or publicly shamed for ideas (or a lack thereof) expressed online. For instance, consider the fact that 70% of employers utilize social media as a means of screening job candidates. Over a third of employers have reprimanded or fired an employee for sharing inappropriate content on social media. That's part of the power of our individual online platforms.
The role of doubt in civil discourseWords and ideas have power. They carry consequences both good and bad. I try to live by the philosophy that it is best to listen before speaking. Attempting to fully understand the topic at hand and all opposing viewpoints is vital to having an informed position. The fundamental tenet behind this philosophy is doubt. Doubt is the engine behind progress. When we experience doubt – whether it’s doubt of our own convictions or the notion that there is no better way to live or function – we allow room for input and growth. The awareness that we don’t know everything is what propels us to learn and expand our consciousness. What motivation is there to learn more if we remain seduced by our current level of understanding? In a debate, doubt has the effect of promoting humility and, consequently, civility. People tend to be a lot less hot-headed when the idea that they don’t know it all is rumbling around in their heads. There’s always that little hesitation: what if I’m wrong? Indeed. Allowing doubt to inform your style of online debate has the effect of calming you down. It keeps your ego in check and sets the tone of your argumentation. You’re more apt to listen to an idea before dismissing it outright – and that’s a positive!
Etiquette of online debateThink about what it takes to convince you of something. If someone is trying to sell you on an idea, what qualities must they possess in order to make an impression? What do they have to say and how do they have to say it? Those are the same qualities that you must embody to make convincing arguments online.
Spelling, grammar, and coherencyThat your arguments should generally follow the rules of grammar and not contain blatant spelling errors goes without saying, but you wouldn’t know it from reading many online comments. For some reason, when posting online, people toss out what they learned in high school English class and resort to slapping together words and phrases that just don’t make any sense. If you’re going to do something, do it right. Take time to spellcheck your comment before posting it. Read it back to yourself a couple of times before hitting “enter.” People will take what you have to say more seriously if you do this.
EvidenceLawyers present evidence to make a case. They don’t make claims or assertions without backing them up with facts. Think of yourself as a lawyer when debating online. Unqualified declarations tend to be met with skepticism. It’s very easy to copy and paste a link or to mention a news source within a comment. This makes your assertions more credible. A word of caution: be on the lookout for "fake news" sources. Stay away from those.
AttitudeWhen people get fired up, they tend to adopt a tone that is not conducive to civil discourse and intelligent debate. The tone of the conversation quickly devolves. Be aware of the tone and attitude you display. There’s no need to get so emotional. Keep the scope of the argument in perspective. Take it easy. Presumably, you present some real ideas to be contended with. Don’t sacrifice the merits of your argument by adopting a less than adult-like tone.
Wrapping it upKnow when enough is enough. Sometimes there’s just no winning. People can be persuaded, but let’s be real: the odds are not in your favor. The whole point of online debate is not necessarily to convince the person(s) you are debating with of your position, but rather to challenge ideas and test them out. The point is to engage in meaningful dialogue. It’s important to recognize when that dialogue has run its course and there is nothing more to be accomplished by protracting a back-and-forth. Learn to let it go.
AdmissionsIt’s okay to admit you’re wrong or that you don’t know something. This goes back to doubt. When you give yourself permission to admit that you are wrong or uninformed, you progress the goal of the debate, which is to have civil discourse. Newsflash: nobody actually believes that you know everything. So why pretend? You know that feeling of being tensed up at your computer, hammering out some snarky, know-it-all comment? That goes away, and life just becomes easier. You can finally breathe.
The No-NosNow that we’ve covered the things you should do, let’s get into the nitty-gritty and discuss the things you shouldn’t do in an online debate. Think about what qualities turn you off to a person’s message and the way it’s delivered. What causes you to dismiss a person outright? Here are the no-nos of online debate.
ProfanitySwearing has its place in the larger context of language and communication. Who doesn’t appreciate a good curse word here and there? Well-placed profanity can provide the perfect emphasis to a point you’re trying to make. Unfortunately, it has little to no place in effective, reasonable debate. Context is key, of course, but try to think about the last time you read an online comment with swearing that didn’t devolve into name-calling and insults. Can you think of one? Me either. Textual conversations are so easily misinterpreted without the instant visual feedback present in a face-to-face conversation that even if you don’t intend to offend by using profanity, you’re better off just leaving it out altogether.
Memes and GIFsThe Internet is meme-crazy! There’s a meme or a GIF for just about every topic. That doesn’t mean they are always effective at facilitating civil discourse or making a point. Memes and GIFs tend to be punctuated, humorous, and snarky in tone. They should be avoided. Of course, there are exceptions, but generally, there are more effective ways of communicating ideas. Use your words.
TrollingIn the context of online debating, trolling typically takes the form of making incendiary comments to get a rise out of the person you are arguing with. Don’t do it. Plain and simple. Engaging in this behavior is not part of a good debate strategy. It’s just annoying.
Personal insultsYou know you’ve hit a low point in decorum when the words “idiot,” “moron,” “jerk,” or worse come out. Tempting as it may be to hurl a good insult at someone, it is also extremely childish and does nothing to advance your point or the conversation. Though you wouldn’t know it from watching our current political leaders on both sides of the aisle in their back-and-forth, insults and name-calling are not good ways to make a point.
BullyingNo. Just, no. Bullying is cruel, malicious, and in many cases, illegal. Cyberbullying laws are put in place to prevent this kind of discourse. On the hierarchy of effective communication, this type of engagement is the lowest of the low. If you see someone bullying another person online, speak out. There is no excuse for this behavior.
Final ThoughtsStaying away from political debate or any other type of argument online is sort of a win in itself. However, there’s nothing wrong with engaging in stimulating, invigorating, and challenging conversation. Debate, if done correctly, is a hallmark of critical thinking and public discourse. If you’re going to do it, do it well. The tone of our social and political climate is not at a high point right now. Do your part to rise above it. Set the example. You may just convince someone yet.
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