How to win an internet argument

When being your own worst enemy is a good thing
Zac Alstin | Mar 18 2015 | comment  




"What do you want me to do? LEAVE? Then they'll keep being wrong!"

For the past five years I’ve been assiduous, if not obsessive, in replying to comments on my articles.  Never obligatory, replying to comments seemed like a natural extension of writing the articles in the first place – like questions and answers following a lecture.  Yet with sincere regret, I have arrived at a point where I can no longer invest the same time and effort to respond to comments and engage in protracted discussions following my articles. 

I’ve spent considerable time and energy in the past, and it has been greatly rewarding: researching strange and challenging questions, considering difficult counter-arguments, and coming to some kind of rapprochement with deeply antagonistic perspectives. Not only is it gratifying to read the many positive responses from the audience, it is also intriguing, challenging, and (often but not always) edifying to consider readers’ objections, criticisms, and complaints and to provide answers and elaborations wherever possible.

I have to admit there’s also a trace of gleeful avidity – no doubt totally unbecoming – whenever I read an accusatory, smug, or vindictive comment along the lines of “what a pity the author didn’t realise…” or “the author clearly hasn’t thought this through…” followed by some totally pedestrian insight that anyone with an ounce of reason would have considered, analysed, and refuted within seconds had they their heart in the right place.

Yes – heart, not head. Plenty of reasonable people fall foul of reasoned argument when they fail to set themselves the correct goal, the right intention, from the outset.  Too many people engage in argument with their hearts set on winning, unwitting that this crass intention blinds them to the flaws and faults in their own arguments.

We are taught in philosophy that the purpose of argument is not to win, whatever that means, but to learn.  Winning is, after all, entirely dependent on one’s objective.  We talk of “real winners” as opposed to those who only appear to win, but we tend not to talk of “real learners” because learning is not a matter of perception but of degrees.  All learning is real learning, it’s just a question of how far you take it.

I used to be cynical of the merits of philosophy as a part of education. But the more removed I get from philosophically trained friends and peers, the clearer it is that the lessons of basic philosophy are well worth instilling in the general population. 

Above all, the principle of charity in argumentation should be the ideal standard by which online comments, let alone public debates and friendly discussions, ought to be judged and policed. The principle of charity in argumentation can be understood as the discipline of interpreting others’ statements in their strongest, most reasonable or sensible light. The principle of charity:

“requires that we try to make the best, rather than the worst, possible interpretation of the argument we’re studying.”

As such, the principle of charity can be considered part of an ethical approach to argumentation, but like all good ethical principles the demands it places on us contribute to virtues and qualities for our own development.  In eschewing “cheap shots”, “dirty tricks” or “straw men”, we not only make it harder for ourselves to win, we even shift the definition of “winning” away from questionable goals such as appearing smarter than our opponent, having sharper retorts, or simply refusing to concede any points, and turn instead to the higher goal of challenging our own beliefs and seeking to learn from our opponent.

With the right point of view there is no ‘opponent’, only people anxious to help us arrive at the truth by pointing out possible faults in our own reasoning and evidence. Anyone can win a fight if they break all the rules, but it takes genuine skill to win within the rules.  At a high enough level, the most skilled practitioners of any art are as aware of their weaknesses as they are of their strengths.  We would ridicule a sportsman who delights in devastating much weaker players, and for the same reasons we should ridicule in ourselves the temptation to interpret others’ arguments in their weakest possible ways.  And though many sportsmen are obsessed with winning within the rules, what we admire most of all is the kind of person who regards even winning itself as trivial – a mere by-product of a good game that pushes all players to do their best. 

This is what it truly means to win, and for those engaged in philosophy only the hard work of self-scrutiny and a disciplined approach to dialogue can ever satisfy the desire for true victory over one’s own ignorance and the limits of understanding. For a philosopher, the desire to “win” or be seen to be winning is a petty and despicable obstacle to true knowledge.

We all want true knowledge, but we don’t all practice – or always practice – the kind of discipline required to approach it. It is often easier to just assume our present understanding is good enough, and lose ourselves instead in the vicious verbal melee of the mob.  I’ve seen it often enough, in myself and in other commenters, to know that this urge to fight and to win is something of which we should be ashamed. When it comes to comments that – let’s face it, only a handful of people may ever read, and none will ever really remember – the only lasting use of this ephemeron is as an avenue to the hard but infinitely rewarding work of cultivating ourselves.

Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet. He also blogs at zacalstin.com



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