E.B. Black is a published author who writes fantasy, sci-fi, and romance novels.
What to Do If You Get Into a Debate Online
Freedom of speech is a right given to Americans in the United States, so we can debate and talk about anything we believe in. The only way to grow as a species and improve as humans is to hear new ideas and be changed through them. Everyone has a different way of viewing the world and something different to bring to humanity.
The internet allows us to practice freedom of speech more than ever. People socialize and give their opinions all the time online. Because of usernames, we are able to post things anonymously. We are able to express our opinions more often without facing as many social consequences.
This has caused more people to speak without thinking and to be more controversial because they are safe, hidden behind a computer screen. A lot of people can't handle the internet, saying it's a vicious place that brings out the worst in people.
But because the internet connects us with people we would never normally meet in real life, it allows us to exchange ideas with a larger group of people and actually get our message out there—not just out to people in our local area. In some ways, that makes debating online more important than in person.
But in most online debates, emotions get involved and people get hurt. A lot of people want to avoid that, so how can you get into more productive debates online that will be less stressful and more healthy to participate in?
1. Get a Feel for the Environment Before You Start
You need to know exactly what it is you are getting into before you start to debate a group of people. The wrong environment can make it difficult to handle the debate. You need to realize what you are getting into before you begin the debate, not when you are in the middle of it and overwhelmed by it or you're going to lash out.
What I mean by this, is you need to realize where it is exactly that you are posting (what website, what area of the internet) and to what kind of audience (What are their beliefs? How do they view the world?) If you are a feminist and you want to post about something related to supporting feminism and you're on a feminism message board, you're probably going to get a lot of support from the other feminists and praise for what you are saying, even if you are arguing with someone.
On the other hand, if you are a feminist and you want to argue with a bunch of male rights activists on a forum about male rights activism, do not expect praise. You should expect a whole bunch of different people to possibly gang up on your, insult you, maybe even make memes about you or harass you on other sites and for you to do the entire argument as the only person on your side with no one agreeing with anything you post.
Not all debates are the same. Some are harder to handle than others depending on what your opinion is and what environment surrounds your posts.
It doesn't matter how "rational" or "obvious" your point of view might be, give it in the wrong place and a bunch of people are going to gang up on you, so you need to be prepared for people's reactions to your statement. It's easier to handle if you aren't being taken by surprise.
2. Know What You Are Looking to Get Out of It
You need to look within yourself and be aware of why you want to have this argument and if you should go through with it.
Are you angry and just need to vent? Then maybe step away and vent to a friend or family member instead, someone who will actually give you the support you are craving, rather than someone who's going to argue with everything you say.
Are you trying to convince someone of something? Then make sure to word your posts and tone accordingly. You're not going to convince someone of something by writing insults in all capital letters.
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Are you trying to stand up for something? If you're standing up for yourself, for instance, it might hurt your self-esteem and be damaging not to get into the debate. It's important to have a healthy view of yourself and not arguing when people call you mean names can sometimes cause you to believe the things they say. You're not going to convince them you aren't those things, but sometimes just speaking up is enough.
You can't just be ruled by your emotions if you want to be productive and calm during a debate. You have to be self-aware of why you are entering this debate and weigh whether the debate is worth having or not.
3. Be Aware of What This Debate Means to You Personally
It's important to think about and know if this debate means something to you personally.
If it's not actually an important issue to you, then you're more likely to be able to talk it out calmly with the other person, but it may not be worth fighting over, especially if the other person has a very strong, emotional conviction over the issue. You're just going to upset them over something you don't even care about that much.
If it's a very important issue to you, then you need to realize that you might feel vulnerable debating the topic and it's going to make you more likely to lash out. If it's important to you, then that may not matter, it may be more important that you speak and feel pain rather than keep silent about it.
But it's good to know what this debate means to you personally and what stakes you have in the resolution of it.
4. Take Your Ego Out of It
This is one of those things that is next to impossible to do, especially if the other person keeps calling you names during the debate. You aren't your opinions, you are you. Your opinions can change because they don't define you are a person. That other person is yelling at your opinions, they don't actually hate you. In fact, if you're arguing with them online, it's very likely that they don't even know you.
If you turn out wrong in a debate, it's okay. It doesn't mean you are stupid or inferior, it means you are learning.
There are lots of times I've turned out wrong in debates, lots of times all of us have turned out wrong in a debate. I understand not admitting to being wrong because the internet is harsh and admitting to being wrong in a bad environment can get you ripped to shreds. But at least try to keep your ego out of it enough to know if you are wrong or partly wrong, deep down inside, and to weigh the different points of view inside calmly when the computer is off or the phone put down, so you can become smarter in the end.
Also realize, that a lot of things are debates because the world isn't actually black and white. That sometimes, regardless of which point of view you choose, someone is going to be hurt or something is going to seem unfair. Debates that are gray areas are usually the debates people get the most vicious about because usually there is the most at stake. Things like, going to war: On one hand, if you go to war, people are going to die on both sides and the world shouldn't solve it's problems with violence. On the other hand, if you don't go to war sometimes and the other side commits violence anyway, then a lot of people can die on your side and there can be horrible consequences. There are no easy or simple answers to problems like this.
It's okay to feel confused by a debate, even when you came in sure of yourself at first. It's okay to feel conflicted. It's okay to be wrong. Take your ego out of it.
5. Bring People Into the Debate Who Agree With You
It helps to have other people in the debate who are agreeing with your point of view. The truth is, debates are not won online according to who gave the best argument, they are won generally based on who had the most people on their side.
There's something about being the one person fighting against a bunch of other people, regardless of the topic, that makes you doubt yourself and makes everyone else doubt your opinion as well.
There's power in numbers and strength in adding multiple points of view. Because even if they agree with you, they likely agree with you for reasons you never even thought of, reasons that they can use to help you during the debate and to fight for your side.
Having someone argue with you strengthens your relationship with them and helps you not feel as alone or as attacked because you are arguing with a stronger front than just you by yourself. It's easier not to flip out and insult people when you have someone else by your side.
6. Know When to Walk Away
It doesn't matter if they keep mocking you, it doesn't matter if they are provoking you. Stop reading their arguments and walk away if you find yourself getting too upset.
This is heavily related to taking your ego out of an internet debate. When you can't handle the debate anymore, you might find yourself more obsessed with it, checking and refreshing repeatedly to see if you've gotten a response. But this can cause a lot of stress and stress can make you feel sick either mentally or physically.
You can't control the world, you can't control other people's opinions, there are always going to be people that disagree with you, so you have to learn to speak your piece and then let it go sometimes.
Writing back, in all capital letters,"I'M DONE WITH THIS ARGUMENT!" Is not letting it go. That is you lashing out. You're not truly letting the argument go unless you just stop responding, don't announce anything, just walk away and try to put your mind on something else. Delete all your notifications without reading them and ignore what is happening.
This is one of the hardest things to do during a debate, but also one of the most important.
7. Don't Expect People to Change Their Mind Right Then and There
Because people always expect someone to change their mind right then and there during an argument, I see a lot of people online exclaiming how debating on the internet is pointless and how no one actually changes their mind. This isn't true.
I am a liberal agnostic, but for most of my life I was a christian republican. I was raised in a christian republican bubble by christian republican parents. So what made me change my mind? People debating me on the internet.
Zero of those people who successfully changed my mind over time know that they did so. Their arguments stuck with me for years to come and the change didn't happen easily. I had to think about the things they said for awhile, soul search, and look at the world around me before I changed my mind. But it did happen, just not right away.
Some people will never change their mind and that's because we all have free wills. No one can force anyone to believe anything, but that doesn't mean people don't change their minds.
Egos are often wrapped up in debates, so even if you change their mind in the moment, it's unlikely that they are going to admit it to you, but that doesn't mean it didn't happen.
For instance, a salon article claims that homophobia is starting to disappear in the UK: http://www.salon.com/2012/02/22/is_homophobia_disappearing/
But does anyone ever see anyone actually saying,"You know, maybe what I said was homophobic. Maybe I shouldn't say those things anymore." No, but that doesn't mean their minds weren't changed by debates and experiences they've had, meeting homosexual people and arguing about it. People change, but they rarely admit you changed them.
8. Don't Call Everyone Who Disagrees With You an Internet Troll or Close-Minded
You're dehumanizing them when you do this. In order for someone to seem stubborn to you, you have to be equally as stubborn and passionate about your opinion as well. You're not an internet troll, right? You're not close-minded? Then don't accuse them of being so just because they're passionate about their opinion.
Internet trolls are a very specific thing and people misuse the word all the time. They think it's just someone who gets angry and argues with people on the internet, but almost everyone does that.
Internet trolls are actually people who aren't passionate, who have no opinions. They're the people who like to harass people with strong opinions just to get a reaction out of them. They have no stake in the argument whatsoever, they just like negative attention.
Internet trolls often do other things like post shocker images (which are disgusting images made to horrify whoever sees them) or do other heartless things just to freak people out. For instance, I was on an internet forum where someone posted a thread called "Epileptics Click Here" and then about thirty people or so posted bright flashing gifs to try to trigger a seizure in an epileptic person. Those people were internet trolls. An internet troll is someone who has no deep feelings and gets their kicks at laughing at other people's pain. They're basically the internet's version of a sociopath.
That's why people say,"Don't feed the trolls." Because the trolls are only there to upset people, not to actually debate something or discuss something, but just to see you get mad or hurt. While people who are stubborn and passionate about their opinions are people with feelings who happen to feel strongly about something.
Someone who has a political or religious opinion that you do not like is not an internet troll. That is a person whom you disagree with. It's not productive to the argument to dehumanize them so you can feel better about their opinion. Because they're a real person and that's their real opinion, even if you don't like it and even if they're rude about it. It doesn't help anything to pretend.
9. Reason With Them at Their Level
People too often use arguments that were used to convince themselves of things. It's more important to understand the way the person you are arguing with thinks and try to appeal to them on their level. This isn't always possible, but it's the only way you will convince them.
For instance, if you are a Christian and you start quoting the Bible at a non-Christian, they're immediately going to tune you out. To you, the Bible may have the deepest, most inspired knowledge of all time, but to them, it doesn't. Or, for instance, you might be atheist and be arguing with a Christian. If you can actually find a Bible verse that goes along with your statement, your argument will be more convincing to them than it would be without the Bible verse.
Think about the other person's point of view, think of where they are coming from, and try to adjust your argument accordingly.
10. Avoid Personal Stories
Sometimes you can't have an argument without mentioning a personal story and that's why I say "avoid" personal stories instead of "never use" personal stories.
But the thing is, personal stories are usually bad when it comes to debating.
1.) Because they are personal, they're something that convinced you, but that doesn't mean they'll convince anyone else because other people have their own personal experiences that have helped them form their own opinions. Your personal experiences aren't theirs and mean nothing to them, just like their personal experiences mean nothing to you.
2.) The second you mention something personal, you are leaving yourself vulnerable to have your personal experiences ripped apart and are more likely to get upset by the debate. Because before you gave the personal story, you were just arguing about a concept, but now that you have shared the personal story, the argument has now also become about you.
Sometimes it's necessary to share a personal story during a debate. For instance, I am a diabetic, so if there's a debate about diabetic treatment and what works best, bringing my personal experiences into the debate will help a lot and will make my opinion seem more valid than someone who doesn't have diabetes and isn't a doctor.
But let's say people were arguing about childhood trauma and you bring your own childhood trauma into it, you are now sharing something that's so personal that you probably don't tell most of your friends,but you're telling it to some hostile strangers. You're also likely still traumatized about it and won't be able to behave rationally when people argue with you. It's probably best that you leave those stories out of the debate and save them for other areas of the internet and real life where people will make you feel more safe for sharing your experiences.
11. Use Your Tone
It's really hard when people are irritating you with their point of view to control your tone, but it's better to keep things at a discussion level rather than a debate level if at all possible because people remain more open-minded and humble about their opinions when you do so.
But this isn't always possible. In some places, posting long thought out arguments with kind words and reasoning will win you a debate, but there are other places where only short, quick, witty sarcasm will win people over.
If you don't use your tone and post in a similar manner, you're going to wind up frustrated by the whole thing as you lose people in your argument. No one is going to understand or read any of your arguments. If it's a long post among short, witty arguments, people won't bother to read all of it. If it's a witty, quick argument among long posts, you're just going to get eye rolls because you didn't bother to think out your post.
12. Be Aware of Your Limitations and Research
It's better to be aware about what you know and what you don't know. No one knows everything. We all have limits.
People who are good at debating do a lot of research and learn as much as they can about any subject to back up their opinion and also to make sure their opinion is actually justified. They make sure they are using reputable sites and books. They don't try to talk about a subject unless they have a good understanding of it.
Doing this helps you speak more intelligently and keeps you from looking uninformed.
Basically, don't argue about physics with someone who has a physics degree if your whole exposure to physics was you failing the class in high school.
13. Know When to Break These Rules
There's always exceptions to everything. Sometimes you need to stand up to a group of people even when it will endanger your life. You may know the room is hostile, but what is right is right. Sometimes there are arguments that are so emotional that no one can be rational about it, but it's still important that you speak up in some of those situations.
Know when to ignore these rules, but also know that things might not be as productive or calm as you might hope if you break them.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2017 EB Black