Arguing on the Internet

Having a decent discussion on the internet is next to impossible.

Yesterday, I found myself embroiled in a debate with someone I didn’t know. I normally find the prospect of an argument rare treat, and was hoping for yet another vicious and mercilessness attack on my assumptions. Instead, while it was promising at first, it soon became wet bread.

Difficult talking points are difficult for being nuanced. Many facets must be weighed, discarded, accepted, and are ultimately built upon other facets and ad infinitum. It is no wonder that many a talk is derailed or bogged down for challenging not only the central points of one’s discussion partner, but the foundations of the foundations of the foundations of their assumptions. Not only must one follow the thread, but scrutinize each step, and each of those steps is a potential tangent. Soon enough, your friendly debate about whether Main Street needs a stop sign becomes one about the role of the super ego in 19th century power politics.

My discussion yesterday was about a video a friend posted. I took issue with the central message, and a friend of the poster supported it. It soon became clear that continuing the discussion was impossible for the foundations of his assumptions. Right or wrong, his worldview was so completely foreign to me that to continue debating the topic at hand would have been pointless. To trust I was being understood would only have been possible with a personal glossary, index, and footnotes. For me to understand him would have required drilling holes in my brain…

But some people are impossible to talk to, and they do it to themselves.

Arguing from personal experience, while not entirely inappropriate 100% of the time, is a conversation stopper. At worst, personal experience informs all kinds of crazy ideas – gambling assumptions being a classic example of how people come to conclusions about the world based on insufficient data “… I always seem to win on red.” However, even the seemingly more reasonable observations from personal experience “I got robbed while on vacation in Utah. Utah is a dangerous place” or “The policeman let me go with a warning. The police are nice” are incredibly difficult to cope with intelligently. The problem? Any argument from personal experience runs into a counter example from somebody else’s personal experience, and the discussion is rendered neuter.

If I could pick just one tactic to render verboten in any discussion about anything, it would be playing the unfalsifiable card. If someone makes a statement that cannot be argued with “I just know the Yankees will win tomorrow” they are off the island. However, examples of this sort of tactic abound. Yesterday, my antagonist said

“obama is a corporate shill, too, I figure…they all are at that level…this isn’t news to cynical ol’ me”

What he has done is express a very common sentiment that may be accurate, and then again, may also be totally unfair. I can’t prove him wrong, and he can’t prove he is right. Our lack of access to relevant  information to determine just how much The President is hobbled by corporate interests renders his claim unfalsifiable. Additionally, the way he has framed his sentiment “they all are at that level” is so monolithic and lacking in nuance that it might be dismissed for that reason alone. However, the real problem with what he is saying, is his lack of supporting evidence for his contention – evidence we know he cannot have short of him being a political or corporate insider. Again, I cannot prove he is wrong, but if we accept that the onus is always on the claim maker to demonstrate why he is right, and *not* on those who demand supporting evidence, then we are well on our way to having a reasonable discussion.


Robin Lindsay



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