Before engaging anyone on a controversial topic, make sure these 3 things are in place.
Maybe I’m an exceptionally stubborn person, but no one commenting on the internet has ever aggressively argued, peer-pressured, or shamed me into changing my mind about anything.
This isn’t to say I never change my mind — anyone who’s as wrong with as much frequency as I am can’t help but learn to swallow his pride. When I change course, though, it’s always because of a kind example, a patient explanation, or a gentle appeal to empathy. These are the kind of arguments that work. These are the kind of interactions that can change minds and exert influence.
If you’re on social media you know how quickly online arguments devolve into name-calling, talking past each other, shaming, and questioning the integrity of people who hold different opinions. These are the kind of arguments that never, ever have a satisfactory resolution. They change the mind of exactly zero participants. If the goal of an argument is to discover the truth together, then these contests to see who gets to be right and declare victory are a waste of time. They’re stressful and adversarial, with each person’s only goal only being to win regardless of the human cost.
I’ve fallen into this trap many times. As a writer and a priest, I’m constantly communicating online. I publish about difficult issues and navigate a vast array of opinions. I try to avoid needless controversy, but am often surprised to discover that what I thought was a harmless statement has generated a strong reaction. People will argue about these statements, vigorously following up with me about why I’m wrong. Sometimes those criticisms are entirely correct, and often they’re presented graciously. I try to listen with an open mind. Some responses, though, immediately raise my blood pressure. In the past, I might have responded to those, typically with a good dose of personal pride involved. It never went well. It devolved into a back-and-forth in which both participants would double-down. From those experiences, I’ve learned to allow people to have their say, however they want to say it, and resist the urge to fire back a response. It’s okay to let someone else have the last word.
The internet is awash with controversial opinions. It’s only natural. We want to communicate about what’s important to us, how we feel about current events. There’s a desire to persuade others to see the world as we do, or to provoke a rational conversation around the issues. But no matter how noble the intention, online arguments rarely progress as intended.
This doesn’t mean that a good, healthy argument cannot be had. In referring to a constructive argument, I don’t mean heated rhetoric, clever put-downs, one person pridefully trying to inform and educate another. And I don’t mean two people trying to convince each other of how wrong the other is. What I mean is a scenario where two people mutually attempt to arrive at the truth together. In my experience, it feels a lot more like a conversation than what we’ve come to think of as an argument.
Before I engage anyone on a topic of substance, I ask myself a few questions – Will this devolve into something unhealthy? If I share my opinion, am I then willing to honestly listen to a response? Is sharing my perspective worth it in this particular scenario? If I cannot satisfactorily answer, I keep my opinion to myself and move on. Over the years, I’ve been grateful on many an occasion that I minded my own business. On the other hand, over the years I have also been grateful for the many friends who have taught me so much through healthy, positive argumentation.
To me, any successful argument has a few, key components:
We must trust that the person we’re communicating with is being sincere, that they are arguing fairly, and are open-minded. If I don’t trust a person, I’ll never be able to hear what they’re saying and will become frustrated they aren’t listening to me. If that’s the case, why are we talking?
A healthy argument produces two winners, not a winner and a loser. If I’m only talking to a person to prove how wrong he is, my motives are in need of serious adjustment. If I get the sense that someone is purposely misunderstanding me, defining me as an enemy, or interpreting my words in a negative light rather than giving me the benefit of the doubt, I won’t carry on a conversation. On the other hand, if I get a sense a person is searching out a mutual understanding, I’ll talk all day.
Know the person IRL (In Real Life)
One of the flaws of communicating online is the absence of context clues. Is the person speaking with gentleness or was that last sentence sarcastic? Did my words hurt someone’s feelings? Is this other person enjoying the discussion or is he feeling trapped and looking to escape? These are clues that are only be picked up in the physical presence of another person. I always save discussion of serious topics for in-person if I can, but if I do discuss anything serious online, it’s always with someone I know in real life. I’m far more likely to remember that I’m talking to an actual human being, a friend I’m loathe to offend because I like this person.
So, how can we win arguments on the internet? We can’t.
At least, we can’t win if it means someone else loses. What I’ve always found most persuasive is accompaniment, friendship, kindness, and empathy. In this context, arguments can be fun and beneficial, chance to learn and be challenged by new perspectives that create personal growth.