The Problem With (And Solution To) Online Arguments

It seems like every time I read an argument on any internet forum, they all devolve into the same sort of mess.  It doesn’t matter what people are arguing about; it can be politics, sports, video games, or anything.  It’s always the same.  It starts like this, with somebody expressing an opinion:

Person X: I think strawberry is the best flavor of ice cream.

Then somebody who disagrees shows up and responds:

Person Y: That’s fool-talk, you babbling buffoon! Only idiots like strawberry ice cream.  Chocolate is the One True ice cream!

Notice that Person Y has just insulted Person X.  That’s a jerk move, and one that you can really only get away with online.  In real life, people almost never act like this.

But this isn’t the real problem.  Oh, it’s a problem to be sure, but it’s not the real problem.  The real problem comes here, when Person X comes back:

Person X: I will rise above you petty personal attacks.  The fact that you are forced to resort to ad hominem attacks is proof of the invalidity of your opinion! But I will rise above your attacks and rely on solid facts and evidence: a poll shows 55% of people prefer strawberry ice cream.

Person X is technically in the right here: Person Y is acting like a jerk.    But the problem is, by trying to point out how he is not resorting to such tactics, X is playing into Y’s hands.  X is acting sanctimonious, and so is being drawn into Y’s trap.  You can’t be magnanimous and rise above petty insults if you make a big show out of how you are rising above them!

This is the key to defusing internet arguments.  I won’t say it works all the time, but it’s worth trying.  What X should have said was simply:

Person X: That’s interesting.  But a poll shows 55% of people prefer strawberry ice cream. What do you make of that?

Person Y  might keep being difficult, but more often, he will be surprised that someone responded without even acknowledging that they had been insulted.

It’s hard to do this–the natural reaction is to hurl insults back, or try to be witty.  You have to be willing to fight that urge to get anywhere in these arguments.

Oh, and I’m sure it will occur to someone to test this by being insulting in the comments.  So, you can skip that step.


What's your stake in this, cowboy?