How to argue with people on the internet

2016-01-23 20.36.21I have been struggling quite a bit as the election and the aftermath have unfolded. Since losing my mum I’ve made a consistent, deliberate effort to connect with her side of the family and they are almost universally Mormon, Republican and old-school Conservative. This election has been hard to navigate when to speak up and when to stay quiet, who will listen and when it isn’t valuable to pursue. I love these people, especially these women, and I am so grateful for the ways they have welcomed and accommodated me. At the same time, we disagree profoundly about so many things. We come from the same place and yet we have taken such different paths across multiple generations. Remaining in connection is important to me and yet… it can be hard. I know that any conversation we have is visible to wider communities and reflects on us both.

Where I come from is this:

This country (and the world) has had problems that we have used band aids and smokescreens to avoid solving. My liberal-bias-side would say that in the 1960s the world evolved and there is a group who doesn’t want it to be that way. They find the changes (dare I say ‘evolution’) threatening for lots of reasons and are unwilling to compromise what they feel are core identity issues. But, being fair, I think there are also some good points buried in what they are saying too. Globalization has been displacing, diversity is difficult to navigate at times, and we have not supported our entire community to reap the benefits of ever-increasing-productivity.

I had the opportunity to witness a Mormon ward and although it was closed and ideologically driven, it was also the most committed, supportive community I have ever witnessed. In many ways it was a time warp to when we lived in communities close enough that our neighbors helped care for the ill and the less fortunate. It was also a beautiful thing. I think we have all had some situation when we didn’t want to face reality, or when we believed a good thing was under threat. We rarely think about the fact that even the space to contemplate ‘I don’t want it this way’ is a privilege.

Trump voters (and Brexit voters) are insecure enough (across economic, social and psychological measures) that they don’t have the capacity (or believe they don’t) to adapt to a post-structural order. That is my generous interpretation. All of these things don’t make their beliefs and narratives ok with my value-system, but it does allow me a higher level of empathy with their suffering and their attachment to their position.

In terms of approach:

I remember my first debate training ‘aha’ moment. I was 19 at the time with no formal training so I had a slightly different (read less effective) approach to argument. It was like a Klaxon bell for me. Nick Bibby taught me that in a real debate you will never be able to convince the other side, you can only hope to convince the audience. Your opponent is spending all their energy on trying to prove you wrong, regardless, so they are not particularly open to saying ‘oh, I guess I was wrong’. I’ve learned over time that if you believe you are in a fight to win you have no brain-space to contemplate anything other than how ‘they’ might be wrong.

My friend Ross K Allan is special because he is rare. He’s nuts (and he thinks I am), but he is open to the possibility he might be wrong and enjoys the argument as much to learn as to win. There are only a few people in the world who really enjoy arguing for sport and to find someone who loves the activity and disagrees almost entirely with the things that inform my personal ideology is only one of the ways I am lucky. When we were both at the LSE we had coffee and argued for fun for hours and never cared who ‘won.’ Another friend joined us once and immediately moved the goal-posts so he could ‘win.’ He never joined an argument again. I know how much privilege went into those afternoons of arguing and how much generosity I owe to anyone who hasn’t had the time to hone those skills.

I start from the premise that the other side is not ignorant or dumb (it is not my job to educate them), but instead that we have different core values. I use the information provided from previous interactions, or from the conversation itself to decide if that person is open to alternative information, and/or views. I state my views as simply as I can, accounting for their context/ language and use things that are easily googled for evidence. I try to respect what they come back with to the greatest extent possible and with the most generosity I can afford. If they are open, I pursue the conversation, if they are not, I invest less, but don’t dismiss them.

At the point when they become angry, hateful, or dismissive I’m happy to walk away from the conversation without needing to leave judgement and almost always happy to leave the door open if they want to re-engage. Examples can be seen both on this blog and on my Facebook page.

I always, ALWAYS try to take the high road, mostly so when I look back I feel good about my actions. I don’t think the important thing is how they respond to me, but how I respond to them, and what I can learn from the situation; about them, about me, about the world in which we co-habitate.

I try to use as much nuance in our interactions as I can, including using public or private communication, timing (if I see red I wait until I’m calm again to respond), directed or undirected comments. I respond and point out inconsistency or flaws to other’s posts, but I try to be positive as much as possible in my own. If I know I will hurt someone’s feelings or upset them, depending on how important they are to me, I will try to soften that blow or remind them that despite our disagreement, we still have areas in common. I’m happy to drop a topic if requested and don’t need someone to justify why. I try to stress things to balance where I call them out because it is hard to be wrong and everyone has pride. I think about our common links and the impact of our dialogue on the wider group. I choose when to engage in debate pretty carefully and practice observing in new spaces or if I am unsure of the majority opinion of a group. I check in with myself often.

Our advanced state of capitalism, poor education system, and marketing sophistication combined with a history that many don’t know and common narratives that are often simulacra (papering over previous generations of suffering), all contribute to a fully divided American polity. I know that it is my own privilege that lets me pass back and forth, even while my gender disenfranchises me in many places. This allows me to see both sides in many discussions.

I try to bring love, and hope and clarity as much as possible because I think fear, division and blame are the real dangers of our current political direction. I think these issues have been festering for centuries (or longer); our constitution has our original, unresolved, race-debate enshrined in its text. We amended the document (with a civil war) but the emotional labor to fully knit us together has never been done. Instead, there are regularly figures who exploit these tensions for their own gain. Exploitation for personal gain is not rare or unique, it is also buried in our national narrative.

Discerning what is a topic for rational discussion and what is a matter of emotion or faith is important to know where your valuable energy is worthy of use. Also helpful to know which battles are important (ones with large audiences who might be open to alternative ideas) and which are not (you and a douche in a coffee shop or supermarket queue with no one else around.)

It is a hard boundary to know how much to be kind to others during a period of ‘awakening’ and how much one’s kindness is used to help an intransigent avoid dealing with real issues. This is where reversing the burden of proof can be helpful. Instead of trying to prove them wrong, I ask them questions to make them support their racist point, or critique from a meta perspective (gently) things like lack of evidence, an assertion with no argumentation, poor sources of citation, etc. My goal is not to prove them wrong, but to engage in a Socratic dialogue to help them see my point. It could easily be argued that I am using my own privilege of intelligence and education to marginalize them, but I try to be aware of that and use it as much as possible to increase my own capacity for patience and empathy.

I try to remain engaged in the debate and avoid it ever being about a person. ‘I’ statements help, and remaining on issue (including steering back that direction) are helpful in that.

My mum used to say “the way in is usually a question but it’s rarely ‘have you thought of this?'”

I’ll usually follow a conversation through one cycle of dismissal, vitriol or ad hominem attacks and then I’ll let it drop. The point is more to plant seeds than to win battles. Change takes a long time, and Inception is a great strategy for large societal shifts.

Many people disengage or attack because they know they can’t win and it’s a way of avoidance. I won’t let them get away with that, but I won’t be mean about it either. Humility is important to me, and so I also remind myself that everyone has something to teach me, albeit sometimes it’s more about them as an object or a catalyst.

All of this is grounded in HUGE time devoted to doing my personal work and remaining balanced and grounded intrinsically.

This is meaningful to me: “People don’t want to be immediately dismissed because they might have a view that you consider wrong or even vile; they want to feel heard. And once that happens, it’s a lot easier for them to make mental space to understand other people’s problems.” (

It does take time, and stupid amounts of emotional labor. I think an unwillingness to do one’s own emotional labor is at root for a lot of this current aggression. In traditional Western societies, women do emotional labor and men fight the wars. Feminism has spent 50+ years attempting to upend this dichotomy. It is threatening and messy and complicated and scary when those simple binaries don’t exist. That is the root of much social conflict that I see today. Binaries always include and exclude and currently those inclusions, exclusions and boundaries are all under dispute.

I think honesty and deliberation are important personally and in relationship and the sensationalism of our media and the schism created by so much diversity so densely packed is both a new conflict and the same war we have been fighting since agrarian times. Intersectionality helps, but also just being candid about one’s own limitations, perspectives and biases.

So many people are scared for so many reasons. I have always marveled at things like the stock market and sovereignty as both are premised on a slightly unfathomably large group just agreeing to a concept, or having confidence in a system. It is all governed by how a huge number of people feel.

Politics is about power, but more importantly it is about people, relationship and community. Most people follow the law because it is the law, not because they will be punished if they don’t. People want to get along with others and fighting always must end at some point.

I spent a lot of time at the LSE thinking about the continuum between coercion and convincing. I understand the Realist drive to coercion and I agree there are many gangsters out there. But to believe in democracy is to believe that the power of more people, applied deliberatively and with love, can make the tide rise for all boats. US history is a mix of both gangsters and idealists and we must acknowledge both to be able to move forward.

The more someone pushes my buttons, the more I realize I have something important I can learn from them. Sometimes I also realize its ok to just take a break.

A constant source of comfort for me is the thoughtful, intersectional, feminist responses I see from young people around the world, and especially my peers from the debating community. International competitive debate has changed drastically since I was an undergrad. When I started competing I was a member of the most patriarchal, misogynist, xenophobic, chauvinist society you could imagine. When I got to international competition I thought it would be better but I took on the job of Women’s officer after a Women’s Forum that was… underwhelming in nature. No discussion of systemic inequality that impacted women and other marginalized group’s chances of doing well in the competition. The sea-change from then to now is amazing and was a series of tiny steps over almost 15 years.

My first act as Women’s Officer to WUDCouncil was to introduce an equity officer. I received so many concerns that first year, but only a portion were about gender equity and a great number about religion, accent, LGBTQ issues and access. We introduced the equity officer to better serve the needs of the whole community. That was a first step but it would be a further four years before Org Com had an equity team with any actual power. Those were a difficult and often impotent four years of constant battles large and small. It was worth it. This week I have had exquisite joy as the LSESU Open announced its equity team directly after announcing the CA team. It isn’t perfect, but it’s SO much better than it was and that gives me hope. We each impact a few people deeply, but if they are improved by it, and impact a few more people, those ripples can really make a difference.

If a single person sees my words and examines one belief more carefully then I consider my efforts valuable. I may be tilting at windmills still, but hope for greater understanding and more nuanced resolution is ultimately the only real strategy I have.


So it begins

As many people know I like to debate, often more than is good for me. Over the last several months I have been having debates with people at work. (Yes, they were willing participants, I promise!)

One of the reasons I love my job, and my place of employment is the fact that I get to work with really intelligent, interested people. We happened to have a night out the same evening as the State of the Union. At first, I thought it would be a problem, exposing the significant political differences between myself and a few of my colleagues. Never deterred, I broached the subject with one I considered a friend and instead of assuming our friendship was over he agreed to have lunch and actually discuss the issues, like adults, and explore where we agreed and where we differed. He even offered homework to better understand where he was coming from!

Fast forward a month or two, and another person I work with heard about our ongoing debate. We began an email dialogue that has been highly thought-provoking (though slow as we are both very busy- although me less than him). A few weeks ago, as I was composing a response I realized that our dialogue might be of interest to other people. We disagree. A lot. But I think that we are managing to find the relevant points of clash and consider them in ways I don’t get a lot of exposure to elsewhere. I really value the ability to have hard conversations and I think we are lacking much of that in our current political discourse.  Although at times we veer towards jocularity (and have been accused of having a long-word contest) I think there is substance in the argument, and might help point out some of where our public conversations are missing.

Anyway, he graciously gave me permission to post the contents here for all to read. I hope you enjoy reading and that it might spur some intellectual reflection of your own. Always appreciate thoughts, responses or ideas in return, although I really can’t promise swiftness in my response.

They are rather long, so I will be posting as independent pieces, read in chronological order for it to make more sense.