Arguing on the Internet
December 7th, 2005
I remember my first experience in public debate on a computer network. I forget if it was Usenet access I enjoyed as a student at San Francisco State University, or if it was on the discussion forums at GEnie, one of those "Online Services" like Prodigy before general dial-up Internet access became available for $20 a month. I had wandered into a discussion area on gun control, and read a couple of posts. Nothing really representative, just what had been posted recently. I then quite naively decided to post my own beliefs on the issue. Now, such discussion groups were relatively new (it was in the very early 1990's, when web pages were just being invented), and I had no idea what was waiting for me. Worse, I had not before engaged in public debate, nor had I carefully studied the topic in detail. I just had some uninformed personal opinions, untested by opposing listeners--in other words, weak views, not founded in fact, just casual opinions. And I publicly posted them in the gun control forum. I might as well have just walked into a maximum security prison stark naked and shouted, "fresh meat!" Needless to say, the pro-gun advocates went into a feeding frenzy. When you're on an Internet discussion group in a disputed topic populated by extremists on both sides, anyone showing naivety immediately draws out even those who don't usually participate in debate, taking the golden opportunity to "win" an argument, demonstrating how right they are against an opponent who presents very little risk of making a skilled riposte. Within hours, my post had drawn about a dozen replies by the pro-gun element, all of them gleefully tearing my statement to shreds. It was a very sudden and powerful education. I could have simply been repelled by the reaction, ashamed of how foolish I must have appeared, and avoided visiting such places ever again in hopes of forgetting it had ever happened. If I had done so, things would have developed so that I probably would never have started this blog. Instead, I hung on, took the electronic beating, and decided to rough out my inglorious debut on the discussion groups, maintaining my arguments while putting a great deal of effort into finding out the facts, hopefully never to post so naively again. I felt my opinions were essentially correct, I just didn't have the facts at my disposal to prove it. And so began my career debating social and political issues over the Internet, an experience which has not been a waste of time. While I doubt I have converted too many souls, the experience has nonetheless provided a strong incentive to study, to research the subjects I am commenting on. It has vastly sharpened my debating skills, teaching me through painful experience how to engage in public debate. And more than just a few times it has proven me wrong (more often on small points than on broad ones) and taught me things I probably would not have learned elsewhere or otherwise. The main problem, and what keeps me from engaging in such forum debates for too many months is the fact that I tend to be wordy (you haven't noticed?), and if I am present long enough on a forum, researching my points and writing new posts begins to eat up too many hours of my day, leaving me little free time--even more frustrating when my debate opponents never do their research but demand I do mine to a tee. This blog took over as an alternative once I figured out the Movable Type system; nevertheless, I am sure I will find a new discussion group somewhere and jump in again, for another several months at least, before it gets to be too much work again. But that's not what I wanted to write about. More specifically, that history is just background to the main point I intended for this post: how to argue and debate on the Internet. Like any other endeavor, there are tricks and strategies and techniques and pitfalls. I felt like going over a few, to share a bit of what I've learned. That's part of what a blog is for, right? Showing off and acting all superior. So here goes. As I've mentioned, the first thing you should do is to research your topic. Relying on what you think you know without checking can be perilous. Your opponents have search engines ready and waiting, not to mention their collective experience--you will be writing in opposition to dozens, if not hundreds of people; though few will come out and reply, it will more often be those who know more about the particular facts of the case that you have brought up. If you get your facts wrong, there will be several people ready to jump down your throat, point out all your errors, and proclaim you to be their bitch. You also have to be honest in how you present your information; you cannot ignore contradictory evidence. You cannot only quote the facts that support your case. True, that is easier on a blog, but a blog is more about exposition and less about debate. I hope that in this blog, I never commit the former offense, and not very often the latter. But in a forum debate, where vociferous antagonists wait readily to prove you wrong, you can't get away with that kind of stuff. So save yourself the embarrassment and attacks and check yourself. Say what you know you can support with facts from a credible source. Quote your cited material in the correct context. And don't omit contradictory evidence, because someone else will bring it up anyway and make you look like you were hiding it. Instead, quote it and refute it right away. Next, remember to explain yourself sufficiently. This can be hard. We all think within our own minds, and we fully understand our own context. We often mistakenly assume others will as well. That's a common error that my college Writing students commit, making it hard sometimes for me to understand what they are writing about. For example, let's say that I want to explain a political point to my students, who are all Japanese. If I explained to them, for example, Bush's Social Security plan, in the same way I write about it here on this blog, they would not understand. They do not have the social or political context, nor an understanding of the nature of the American pension system or its history, the kind of stuff Americans have absorbed through experience. That's an extreme example, though; usually the kind of context differential you experience will be much more subtle. An example of that would be one time in a college linguistics course when the topic of "English as the official language" came up. A lot of students in the class got angry with me because I suggested that English was a logical base language for universal communication within the U.S. They were angry not at my concept of a common linguistic experience serving as a communications bridge, but at what they assumed to be the underlying context of making English into the only respected or required language, disenfranchising other languages and cultures--meanings I had not spoken and did not intend to relay. The meaning of a word or a set of ideas can be very tricky when each individual presumes different definitions and connotations. In short, you must explain your argument in detail, not depending on people to make the same assumptions you do--they most often will not, especially if they have a different ideology than you have. Next, do "opposition research." After forming your argument, look at it from the other side. If you were to argue against your own writing, how would you go about it? What holes would you poke in it? What research would you do to try to get ammunition to knock it down? Then apply those findings to your argument, shoring up weaknesses, tearing out easily assailed segments, and adding fortifications in the form of added evidence or further argumentation. Finally, edit. Cut. Whittle. It is a common failing for a writer to say everything they want to say, to make every point they think of. Especially for gabby writers like me. One of the first things an opponent will do is pick out your weakest argument and focus on that. If you give three different points in your argument, one strong, one moderate, and one weak, guess which one will get attacked? So cut the weak one, and if possible, the moderate one as well. That leads me to how you should deal with your debate opponent. As I said, they will attack your weakest point--but they will also use that as an excuse to fully avoid your strongest point. This can wholly decimate even the strongest argument. A case in point: Bush's National Guard disgrace. Public debate was fierce about that one, and Bush's argument was weak in the face of many unexplained facts, or facts that could not be challenged. I collected and detailed those facts in a blog post. There was a lot of damning stuff, and the arguments showing Bush had gotten special preference and dodged the draft, and then later deserted the Guard and was never punished for it; these arguments were pretty strong, and Bush's denials sounded pretty weak. Then the 60 Minutes story on Bush came out, and the Killian memos, though described by those who served at the time to be more or less accurate, were shown to be fakes. And at that, the debate was over. Sure, the fakes did not weaken any of the other evidence by one iota, nor did they exonerate Bush, proving he did nothing wrong. But in a debate, if one side sets forth a weak point that can be just obliterated by the other side, all the stronger facts and arguments seem to vanish, and the other side will proclaim righteous victory--and the audience will accept it. Try it out: read my blog post, and go to even a moderate citizen and state the facts. Their reply will almost certainly center on the faked memos, even though they are irrelevant to the other facts of the case. I am certain that Bush would have loved to give Dan Rather a big wet one right on the lips, as Rather had handed him a huge victory. The same goes for your own arguments: get something wrong, forward a weak point, and your opponents will find it easy to attack the weak point and completely ignore all of your iron-clad arguments. So don't give them the chance. Get rid of the weak stuff yourself, before you present your argument to others. Force your opponents to face only your strongest arguments and nothing else. Sure, they may use straw men anyway, but don't give them the opportunity to gain the same advantage without resorting to trickery. Even still, opponents will focus on even the smallest details to nitpick, avoiding the main thrust of your argument. That happens a lot when conservatives come to comment on my blogging. After the Killian memos were shown up, I posted on the outstanding weight of evidence against Bush in his National Guard misdeeds. In my list of evidence, I included a document that was not fake--but one conservative visitor jumped on that one document and tried to tie it in with the discredited memos. That was his response to a long, well-evidenced writing demonstrating how Bush dodged the draft by using his family's influence, and then went AWOL without being punished--99% of my argument was just ignored and a single detail was attacked, as if to discredit the whole argument. That will happen to you, so be prepared. If a debate opponent does any of this, and you want them to answer the strong points or the main thrust of your argument, then press them. Word your main point and prime evidence as succinctly as possible, then demand that they respond to it before anything else. Usually they'll shut up at that point. Which makes the case for being as succinct as possible in the first place--something I'm not good at. Aside from avoiding the strong points and focusing on the weak ones, your opponents will try other tricks. The next most common one will be the undocumented source. After all, if you can't see where they got their "facts," how can you respond to them? One of the most common examples of that technique on this blog is in the discussions about the ratings for the Air America Radio network. When I post about Air America Radio doing well, conservative readers often respond with attacks about how AAR's ratings are in the toilet, how Limbaugh and Dr. Laura and others are doing well and AAR is showing poorly, etc. etc. But few ever cite specifics, nor do they usually cite sources. The reason becomes apparent when I demand they do and the results show up: their sources are usually right-wing rags which ignore vital data (e.g., they quote overalls and ignore demographics), cherry-pick their data (pointing to the least successful AAR stations or shows while touting conservative strongholds), and intentionally mislead with vague and inaccurate representations (for example, one conservative journalist blasted AAR because of ratings one member radio station got before AAR even went on their air). So when your opponent cites any information and you don't know where to find the original, press them for it, demand they produce it, and refuse to accept their argument until they do. Naturally, you're going to have to be prepared to do the same--but that was my first point of advice in any case, and it only serves to strengthen your argument. So certify your data, and don't let your opponent get away with passing off shoddy merchandise. Certifying the data can be problematic in itself. Take the AAR ratings. Media ratings are tricky. The original Star Trek was cancelled on the weight of its bad ratings, but when it had finally been killed off, a network analyst told the network executives that they'd just killed their most popular show. How could that be? Demographics. If the audience for a show is made up more of people with disposable income, then low overall numbers don't mean much. Many of Rush Limbaugh's listeners, on the other hand, are older people who do not spend as much. Air America performs poorly in overall ratings, but does very well in demographics, which is why they're still on the air, picking up more sponsors and expanding into new markets. But the main argument conservative journalists make about AAR failing is in its ratings--and even though they have access to the expensive demographic data for radio, they only refer to the overall ratings--because those look the worst. Furthermore, don't let them get away with grabbing "facts" from biased sites. If their source was Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter or Bill O'Reilly, call them out on it. If you cited Al Franken, Jesse Jackson, and Janeane Garofalo as your sources, chances are your opponent would call you out for it. Point that out to them if they try to pawn off Rush Limbaugh or Joe Scarborough as credible sources for data. And, of course, keep to the same standards in your own writing. If they do come up with apparently credible sources, then investigate. Never take it for granted. When I first started debating gun control, I was overwhelmed by the number of facts and figures that the pro-gun advocates peppered their arguments with. I almost was ready to throw in the towel when I started getting the feeling that I was being lied to--some of the "facts" they produced sounded fishy. That's when I discovered that SFSU had started an account with LexisNexis, and started doing searches--and immediately discovered that my opponents' source of "facts" had been NRA literature; seemingly credible sources either turned out to be biased or simply were reporting the biased data. Lexis also provided me with powerful supplies of ammunition to shoot back with, in addition to cutting down my opponents' arguments as being full of half-truths, shoddy and biased studies, and NRA propaganda. I went from almost losing the argument to actually winning it; I recall that in the end, only one opponent survived the arguments I posed, and he was a professional writer. And in the end, he was reduced to admitting that the law stood behind my statements, adding that he felt the Supreme Court justices would burn in hell for their judgments interpreting the 2nd Amendment to apply only to organized militias like the National Guard. But then, he was a professional writer, which meant he was less willing to ignore facts. And that'll be another roadblock to winning arguments: obstinacy. Pigheadedness. The stubborn refusal of an opponent to admit a point, no matter how clearly you have presented your evidence, no matter how desperately weak and unsupported their own argument may be. You'll always come up against people who will never admit they're wrong, even when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. With the Bush National Guard case, it did not matter in the least to Bush supporters that there was ironclad proof that Bush had used his family influence to get into the guard and was catapulted to officer rank and the much-sought piloting slot after just a few days, after scoring the absolute minimum (25%) on his aptitude test. These facts are not in question, they are firmly established. But try to approach a conservative on a debate forum and get them to admit that Bush used undue influence to get into the Guard and avoid Vietnam. It'll be like pulling teeth, except that teeth at one point or another finally come out. So the above points should be a guide to surviving (or at least tolerating) public debate on the Internet--or, in reverse, a guide to obfuscating and winning arguments by cheating. If you want to win the quick and dirty way, just pick at the weakest point in your opponents' writing, make up fake facts and refuse to cite your sources, mine the ultra-biased talking heads for ammo (again, don't cite), avoid making any arguments yourself except for the most vague and insinuating kinds, and never, ever admit to being wrong no matter how badly you get thrashed--just keep insisting that you're right. But not around me.