How to win an internet argument

Ever wanted to win at internet arguments? My latest piece on MercatorNet shows you how:

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.
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3 thoughts on “How to win an internet argument

  1. I enjoyed that article Zac, and I noticed that you didn’t respond to any of the implicit “invitations” to engage in verbal fights with respondents within the comments section! Bear in mind that you don’t really need to since they do it to each other! Someone inevitably comes in to bat for you and subsequently someone engages them. It’s like conducting the ideal philosophy tutorial where your job is not to merely pontificate, but rather it is to stimulate discussion and debate. Raise the dust and let them settle it themselves and sit back and critique and enjoy the fight! It’s a much more enjoyable form of condescension than to actually participate in the fight oneself!

    Of course I understand how tempting it is though, and I for one am also guilty of being goaded into such fights and of course initiating them myself too. However, there does come a time when one must try to fight the good fight! What I mean is that we really don’t have much time to engage those who aren’t as motivated to further their own understanding of the issues as we ourselves might me.

    Some are motivated just to win, as you have stated, others are motivated by their own insecurities and the need to be vindicated. Hence any statements that challenge their deeply held beliefs are gleefully met with dismissive attitudes or a desire to immediately repudiate statements/arguments which caused them such discomfort in the first place. So we wont expect too much charity from these types of people and thus have to ask ourselves if we want to spend valuable time on this.

    Of course philosophers themselves are not necessarily immune to such egotism either, nor are they always charitable. I myself must ask the uncomfortable question often, which is “why do I care?” That is, am I really that virtuous that I can confidently say “I’m doing it for the “love of wisdom”, no more, no less?” Or perhaps I just want to “get one up on Zac!”? (in reference to our own recent and past debates)!

    A good psychoanalyst might be able to provide insight, but of course we ourselves need to engage in some long and hard introspection too (“a good look in the mirror”). When it comes to the questions of what my motivations are (which are often not conscious to me) I am open to all opinions on this matter.

    I believe this is an important challenge for many philosophers and researchers generally, which is not necessarily to shy away from debates or disagreement, but rather to seek out “productive” and “virtuous” disagreement, that which serves the purposes of good philosophy, rather than egotism.

    Engaging in fights with the petty and egotistical can help sharpen or maintain one’s sword but it rarely helps to teach one new techniques or manouvres, let alone offer new insights. So I think we have to be somewhat selective with the people we engage.

    Once we overcome this challenge, then the greater challenge and the most difficult one is to admit that we are wrong. Not so much to others or publicly but to ourselves. I know for a fact that there have been many times when I have been wrong in a debate but refused to acknowledge or accept it. They say time heals all wounds, but for me time makes me cringe when I consider all of the times when my ego was wounded by being wrong and still resisting it.

    But I try and remind myself that to have one’s position or beliefs verified or vindicated helps one to get closer to the truth. But conversely to have one’s position or beliefs challenged and disproven also helps one to get just as close, if not, even closer to the truth.

    We cam orientate our mind towards truth or reality by seeking out truths or by discarding falsehoods. Both are equally powerful but the latter, due to our own egotism, is highly undesirable for us yet the latter carries more weight, because being willfully ignorant is worse than being naive.

    I remind myself that the practice of science itself is predicated on the possibility of theories being proven incorrect or the possibility of just one occurrence that contravenes a theory to bring that theory into question. A scientist might take it personally and feel humiliated or embarrassed by having their theory proven false, but science itself is indifferent to this, and generally speaking the scientific community accepts this and gets on with the business of doing science.

    For what it’s worth and at the risk of sounding like a tokenistic and egotistical “lover of wisdom” here is my philosophy of philosophy or my “motto” in relation to philosophy: “One is only worthy of being called a philosopher if one is genuinely willing to argue against oneself and genuinely willing to prove oneself wrong. The philosopher must therefore view his or her opponent as an ally in this endeavour”.

    It’s a very hard standard/ideal to live up to and it can be just as hard to find an ally let alone accept them as one.

    • Thanks Matthew. The temptation to engage in comments was difficult to resist; but I knew I needed a clean break.

      “What I mean is that we really don’t have much time to engage those who aren’t as motivated to further their own understanding of the issues as we ourselves might me.”
      I agree that this is an important lesson to learn. I learned a lot from five years of replying to comments. One of my favourite heuristics is that if you find yourself trying to explain the obvious, there’s no point continuing.

      But there was also the infrequent pleasure of conversing with people who weren’t out to win or settle a score, or unload their personal vendettas.

      I always consider the possibility that I’m wrong; and this is, I think, what frustrated (or perhaps just wearied) me about debates where people would triumphantly present me with a point that they assumed I had not already considered. I’m sure I’m guilty of doing that to others as well, but at least I’m afraid of doing that, and embarrassed at the thought of doing that, such that I try not to do that. Its in our less noble moments that we merely seek an excuse to dismiss someone’s argument, rather than “test-driving” the argument for ourselves, to see how it runs and whether any problems or pitfalls present themselves to us along the way. But I think “test-driving” is frightening to a lot of people who haven’t been trained to do it; perhaps they’re afraid they won’t see any problems with it? Or perhaps they’re enjoying driving their own beat up vehicle that they won’t get out of the driver’s seat for even a second?

  2. I ought to mention also that it’s easy for me to say this and that about whether to engage with commenters or not because I haven’t been in the position that you are in. I would imagine that if I were writing articles that are open to public comment, I too would find it a challenge to resist engaging (fighting) and this is indeed partly because of a sense of egotism. For me I have to admit that there have been times in the past where I have not given due credit or due consideration to a credible and sound rebuttal of my argument or have otherwise just refused to concede. This may be because one has worked hard to muster the courage and confidence to make one’s argument in the first place and if indeed one prides oneself on being thorough and rigorous in one’s preparation, to be proven false or even credibly challenged can be embarrassing and a blow to the ego.

    It becomes a blow to the ego especially if one assumes a position of condescension to begin with, which is to say that if one has assumed (either explicitly or implicitly) that one’s audience/readership ought to be learning from what one has to present to them, then any criticisms can be viewed as either insolent behaviour or a challenge of one’s “authority”.

    Writing could be simply about expressing ourselves (like a musician or street performer) for the fun of it. But aside from this we have to ask ourselves: Are we trying to inform or teach other people (perhaps even pontificating)? Or are we writing to present a position that we want to put to the test or critiqued (so as to mutually develop our understanding of a subject)?

    When you read the peer review literature it is generally the latter, though it may appear, or be assumed to be, or treated as the former.

    I guess opinion pieces, as the name suggests, are presentations of one’s opinion and thus implicitly assumes that it is not for the purposes of educating but rather for the purposes of self expression and thus an opportunity for other people to engage in the topic whether actively (to debate) or passively (to think about and mull over in their own minds). I suppose opinion pieces can also be considered as analogous to a musical or artistic performance where it can be judged aesthetically. Presumably many people will take them in a variety of ways.

    So I think it might help to consider the distinct style and quality of academic peer review style of writing. There are very strict rules of writing, style and etiquette in this domain. Not just anyone can respond to a meticulously and rigorously written peer review article with their own opinion. They have to present just as meticulous and rigorous a position in order to have their response published and heard by the intended audience. So there is a level of quality control involved that helps to ensure that a the highest level of scholarship is achieved or at least comes as close to such an ideal as possible. Of course the audience is highly specialised and only a small proportion of the general population will be interested.

    Now this is not to say that peer review articles are better or more interesting (they can be highly tedious, uninteresting, unimportant and irrelevant!) but it is just to distinguish between what goes on in this domain compared with what goes on with regard to the domain that consists of opinion pieces, editorials, and other types of writings commonly found in newspapers and magazines which are designed to cater to a much broader and non specialised audience. In this domain, there is indeed broader scope for commentary from a much broader and non-specialised audience whom we can expect will respond in their broad and non-specialised ways!

    So knowing what to expect from certain domains of discourse can help to prepare oneself for rude surprises! University tutorials, seminars, colloquia, staff meetings, team building sessions, and shared offices are no different!

    With regard to genuinely considering other opinions, I agree that test driving another person’s argument can be scary or unpleasant or undesirable, but bear in mind that this may be because one has already test driven it of at least felt that one has sufficiently given that argument a test drive already. I think many debates fit such a situation. So of course if you know what the other person’s argument is all about then there would be no need for you to test drive it. Conversely some one might already know what your argument is about and thus will refuse to test drive it.

    I believe that such situations occur often and constitute a kind of stalemate where perhaps the most amicable solution is to agree to disagree. When this happens most will realise that there’s little point engaging. If they engage then it may indeed be for ignoble reasons and there’s no point in changing the argument to one about whether the other has sufficiently test driven the other’s position.

    This is where I become rather critical of the debates that go on in public because it’s like people have already made up their minds and reach conclusions which have over time become firmly entrenched in their minds. So many of these public debates over controversial issues are less about people trying to “further their own understanding” but it is about furthering their own agenda.

    Of course the practical implications of a particular ethical or political position is important and hence many find that they must eschew the intellectual debate and instead focus on what people are actually doing since their actions may affect other people. I view this as an irresolvable tension within practical ethics as an academic discipline.

    For me, I tend to try hard to avoid discussion or debate when the topic comes up at a social gathering that I have somehow been roped into attending where an acquaintance states out in the open “ask Matthew! He likes debating these issues”. I view such a thing as synonymous with “why don’t you entertain us by picking a fight with Matthew because he might want to fight you”! – I seem to have a reputation of being a trouble maker but I still insist that trouble (in the form of broad and non-specialised arguments kinda like the MMA of debating) comes to me.

    I would argue that this was indeed the case when I was told to relocate into the office which we shared with a former colleague of ours. Perhaps I could have “tapped out” earlier had I known that ad hoc contrarianism born out of self interested and a self serving agenda would prevail over my own stubborn refusal to accept that “nothing sinister” was going on!

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