How NOT to Argue Online

arguing online

by John Ellis

Earlier this week, while watching two “famous” people argue on Twitter (famous in reformed evangelical and Orthodox circles, at least), it was reinforced for me that within identity politics, white males are not allowed to disagree with certain identity groups. The accusation of “racist” was tossed out so quickly and without any substantiation as to almost void the word of any meaning. Identity politics has almost completely undermined our ability to have any sort of meaningful conversation with people who don’t look like us or who come from different backgrounds. With increasing frequency, accusations like “racist” and “patriarch” are being used as the adult version of the childish playground taunt, “I’m better than you/na-na, na-na boo-boo/stick your head in doo-doo.”

How identity politics’ hijacking of arguments is going to play out in the future remains to be seen. Although, I suspect that we ain’t going to like the result. For me, I have to fight back against the growing internal urge to remain silent unless in the presence (online or in person) of other white males. That’s not a helpful response, though. I think that one of the productive ways to combat the attack on helpful dialogue is to make sure that the argument is, in fact, helpful.

For example, a bad example, taking the specter of identity politics out of the equation of the Twitter argument I witnessed, the argument was devoid of almost all meaningful content. The argument was bad. On both ends, the exchange quickly became petty and unfruitful. At the conclusion of the initial back-and-forth, each of the combatants retreated back to their own circle and continued to lob shots at each other to a chorus of reinforcing “get ‘em, bro!” cheerleading. It was embarrassing to watch.

For many, the word “argue” has only negative connotations. They go to great lengths to avoid arguments, and they “tsk, tsk” anyone they deem “argumentative.” That’s unfortunate. Although, considering how the word “argue” is most often used today, it’s hard to fault those who claim to disdain arguing. The ability to argue well is swiftly becoming a lost art.

In a recent article for The Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax offers a classical definition of argue – “the ability to make or counter an argument that depends on logic and reason. To meet one argument with another. To argue with someone, civilly and respectfully, toward the discovery of truth.”

In the TGC article, Trevin Wax diagnoses some cultural causes that have undermined our collective ability to argue well. Wax also adds a few helpful suggestions for how Christians can argue better. Flipping his script, so to speak, and narrowing it down even further, I’ve listed five things that we should not do in online arguments.

Do NOT Argue with Someone You Don’t Know

This seems like a no-brainer to me. It’s hard enough to pick up on subtext with people you do know when conversing online. Attempting to divine context and subtext for a stranger seems like a fool’s errand that is bound to blow up in your face. Another thought, you never know what a stranger is struggling with, how he or she is hurting, or what kind of background they have that informs their definitions. It’s very difficult to have a profitable online argument with a stranger.[1]

Do NOT Say “Well, I’ve Studied This Issue”

To be honest, this one is personal for me. When engaged in an online argument, or in person, for that matter, and the individual says, “John, I’ve studied fill-in-the-blank” I pretty much stop listening to whatever they have to say from that point on. Those people are guilty of the fallacy of ad verecundiam (appealing to authority). Besides, it’s insulting; it assumes that the other party in the argument hasn’t studied the issue. At some point, the person guilty of this usually informs the other person that if only they would read this book or that series of articles, they’d understand. For starters, it’s not wise to assume that someone hasn’t read the things you’ve read; that can quickly blow up in your face. Secondly, arguments stand and fall on their own internal validity, not on how many books you’ve read on the subject.

Do NOT Post Memes in an Argument Thread

Memes are not the dialectical method of those who are serious. Sure, some memes are funny. However, very few memes, so few, in fact, as to be almost non-existent, communicate anything of actual value. Posting memes in an argument thread is either appealing to or an attempt to appease the lowest common denominator.

Do NOT Make It Personal

I’ve reached the conclusion that since online discussions are so decontextualized, there’s really no point in fighting against it. So, during online arguments, I write as concisely and bluntly as I can what I mean/believe. I simply make my assertion without any rhetorical flourishes, so to speak (something I do not do, at all, when writing articles). At times, people take offense. For the record, I’ve learned that no matter how much effort I put into wording a response, that doesn’t inoculate my comment from being misunderstood by the other side. Unfortunately, the only way to solve that is to never engage in internet discussion. What I do not do, however, is make it personal (at least, I attempt not to). For starters, once I accuse an individual of being a racist, or uneducated, or insult that person in any way, that individual has little reason to listen to my arguments, much less engage my arguments. If the point of arguments is to alter the mind of the other person, why engage in something that ensures that won’t happen? Secondly, there is very little justification, if any, for intentionally insulting a fellow human who is also made in the Image of God. Thirdly, making it personal may signal that your arguments are weak and not worth engaging, to begin with.

Do NOT Hijack an Ongoing Discussion

Four or five years ago, someone I know inserted himself into a Facebook discussion and asserted something that had next to nothing to do with the actual discussion. When he was called out on it, he indignantly replied, “But that’s how conversations work. They change.” It was beyond absurd. Or, so I thought.

Since that time, I’ve learned that it’s common for online commenters to attempt to change the subject in order to mount their own hobby horse. I don’t care if it’s online or not, rude is rude. If you have something else to say, write your own article or create your own comment thread. Hijacking the thread means that anything of substance is going to be lost in the constant reshuffling of terms, subject matter, and cross-talk.

The above five recommendations are not comprehensive. Hopefully, they’re a start, though. The internet can be a great resource for disseminating information and engaging in conversation that leads to knowledge. Sadly, internet conversations are generally characterized by incivility and lack of content. Attempting to push back may be tilting at windmills, but I believe that it’s worth the effort.

(No doubt, examples abound of me breaking my own rules. I admit that now. I’m as appalled at my hypocrisy as you are and promise to try and do better.)

[1] Possibly helpful note to writers – there are times when I respond to comments from strangers. But that’s to serve as “blood in the water,” so to speak. For my writing job, active comment sections help me keep my job. It may also be me merely promoting other articles that I’ve written.


3 thoughts on “How NOT to Argue Online

  1. While I disagree with the point about not ever arguing with people you don’t know personally, I benefited greatly from this article and saw places where I definitely need to repent. Thanks for making me think.

    Liked by 1 person

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