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So You Think You Can Internet: On Argumentation

Credit: xkcd, of course.

In my recent interview with author Jason Fry, I asked him about his personal reaction to the reboot announcement—and Jason took that ball and ran with it, commenting not just on his own reaction, but his perspective on others’ reactions, and what they said about internet culture overall. Some fans, Jason felt, were too quick to see ill intent in the news; a “plot against EU fans, or something Lucasfilm did casually or dismissively.” He went on:

“This is probably too kumbaya, but it’s just the latest thing that makes me wish we’d take it easier on each other, particularly online. It’s like we’ve been primed to assume that faceless person we disagree with is malevolent or incompetent. I don’t know why we do this (I’m certainly not innocent), but it doesn’t win arguments, it doesn’t elevate our discourse, and it sure doesn’t make us happier. I wish we would all try assuming the other person’s acting in good faith, attempting to understand their perspective, and if we’re still at odds, accepting that we just see things differently.”

For my part, I’ve long been a devotee of something called Hanlon’s razor—“never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” That works pretty well for politics, I’d say, but when dealing with the ins and outs of major franchise fiction, one might go a step further and say “never attribute to malice or stupidity that which is adequately explained by changes in circumstance”—Fry’s razor, if you will. Nine times out of ten (give or take a David Goyer), the people responsible for producing the media we fans consume are genuine fans themselves, or at the very least, doing the best job they can within a given set of constraints to produce something they honestly believe people will like.

But let me back up a little. The thing is, all of us (even Jason, as he admits in the quote above) are prone to bickering on the internet once in a while. Debate is one of the cornerstones of a vibrant fandom, and when handled properly, it actually can move a needle or two and make us all smarter, our perspectives more sharply-honed. So in Jason’s honor, and in the interest of Eleven-ThirtyEight’s stated goal of guiding the discourse of Star Wars fandom in more productive directions, I’m happy to present So You Think You Can Internet: a prospective new series on the intersection of fandom and internet culture. I say “prospective” because at the moment I have only the roughest of sketches for further pieces in this area—so I’m just going to play it by ear.

First up, I would like to offer some of the guidelines I’ve picked up, in my fifteen-ish years of experience as a Known Internet Person, on how to carry on a productive debate online.

The terms matter

So you’re in a message board or on Twitter or what have you, and suddenly someone comes at you with a lengthy point-by-point rebuttal of something you said. The first thing you should ask yourself is, what’s the core disagreement here? What are they really trying to say underneath the smarm and citations, and is it a reasonable worldview despite how much of a dick they’re being? If the answer is no, ask yourself: do I really need to argue with this person, or are they so far gone from reality that it’d be a waste of my time? Calling out idiocy line-by-line can make a person feel good about themselves, but it’s fleeting, tedious for other readers who might be watching, and by and large, it doesn’t make the person any less of an idiot.

If the answer is yes, and somewhere beneath the person’s argument is a reasonable opinion, the first thing you should do is say so. It’s easy to get lost in disagreeable words and miss the perspective that’s bringing forth those words; address the perspective, not the words, and you’re much more likely to keep people’s attention, and avoid getting bogged down in “well, I said this, but I meant that.”

And last but not least: when in doubt, concede. If there’s one thing we’re conditioned to expect in an internet debate less than “that’s fair”, it’s “you’re probably right”. It may be hard to go that far if a person’s core message is asinine to you, but life is complicated, and no one has their facts straight 100% of the time. If you can’t conclusively disprove a certain assertion, it’s tempting to come back with “well, that’s not the point”—and maybe it’s not—but if your goal is to actually make this person consider what you’re saying, nothing makes someone stop and take notice quite like eating a tiny slice of humble pie. Which brings me to…

Take your hits

Part and parcel of choosing the terms of a debate is knowing when a particular subject is going to make both parties look bad. It can be very hard to let stupid words sit there in public unchallenged, but it pays to remember just that: they’re public words. Call this the “Please proceed, Governor” factor; sometimes the smartest thing to do is keep quiet and let someone’s nonsense sit there like a lead weight.

But even more important than that is the adage that “it is better to remain quiet and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt”. I’ve always been very fond of Taoist philosophy, which teaches Action Through Inaction—knowing where not to step being just as important as knowing which steps to take. If your debate partner makes six assertions, odds are that only one or two of them is actually relevant to the disagreement at hand—and out of those four or five others, there’s a fair chance that one of them has some sense to it. Trying to fight your war on all six of those fronts only distracts from your real message, and increases the chances that you’ll open yourself up to looking foolish—or worst of all, looking foolish for something totally unrelated to the point you’re actually trying to make.

Win quietly

Following from that is the simple fact that nice is free, and you can catch more flies with honey. Resist the temptation to gloat or preen when you’ve made a particularly compelling statement, and you’re far more likely to earn your opponent’s respect—which in the long run is far more valuable to your cause than “HAHA SO MUCH FAIL”. If this topic is important to you—and if it’s not, why are you arguing about it in the first place?—sooner or later it’s going to come up again, and where a spurned opponent becomes just another voice in the choir of That Other Side, one you helped up off the mat is that much more likely to rise to your defense in the future—maybe not the defense of your opinion, but at least of your integrity as a person, and your record of debating in good faith rather than out of scorn.

By this point, you may be asking yourself, why listen to me? Just because I’ve been around the block for a while doesn’t make me Moses of the Freaking Star Wars People. Surely plenty of people along the way have decided that that Mike Cooper guy is just a pretentious, self-important tool—and my final point is just that: you just can’t convince everyone. Some people are just too different, or are at different places in their lives, or have had such onerous formative experiences, that they’ll never see your side. But that doesn’t mean they’re bad people.

If you follow my writing here at all, you’ve no doubt noticed that diversity is the Great Big Bug up my own particular ass; what you’re less likely to know is that it started as something I railed about on the TFN Literature forum years ago—in particular when the Legacy of the Force series was coming out and it dawned on me that the Jedi Council of that era was almost entirely composed of white humans. Eventually I got tired of bringing it up in threads related to the individual books, because almost no one seemed to care. Indeed, I’ve gotten to know a number of women on Twitter since starting this site who used to be Literature posters but left because the community felt too hostile to perspectives other than that of the typical white male.

This whole situation. Not wild about it.

But rather than walk away, or just drop it, I started Lit’s very first Diversity Thread. The thread’s title, Beating a Dead Eopie, is all you need to know about my state of mind in doing so. But the point is, I found my own little corner of the forum to kvetch about all the white guys, and I kept at it. People who were interested could join in—whether to debate or agree—and people who weren’t could just leave it be. From a certain point of view, I was ghettoizing myself, but I don’t see it that way, because in the bigger picture, I stayed on the forum.

Over the years I’ve had diversity debates with people from every possible point on the spectrum, and it’s from these debates that I learned most of the lessons I outlined above. And if you’re looking for evidence that these principles make a difference, look no further than the modern Diversity Thread, now in its third iteration—or in the two spinoff threads that have appeared in other parts of the TFN forums just in the last few months. I can’t speak for those other sections, but Diversity has become an institution in Lit, and I’ve lost count of the people who have cited it as evidence that this was a “safe” place for people of all different stripes to express their views. Attitudes among the older members have softened as well, and even if not everyone is as serious about it as I am, the community as a whole has evolved from barely wanting to engage diversity as an issue to treating that issue as a given—one that at the very least deserves to be discussed.

But this piece isn’t about that issue—it’s about how to amiably, and efficiently, change a person’s mind on the internet. And if you think I’ve made some fair points, well, then, I rest my case.

3 thoughts to “So You Think You Can Internet: On Argumentation”

  1. Found this site today via Club Jade. I’ve enjoyed the entries I’ve read so far but this one is really excellent. In my experience, most people feel justified in their position and a little respect for that goes a long way, both online and in real life.

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