In Defense of Internet Arguments

Posted on 2012/04/28

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Feature Image - In Defense of Internet Arguments

It is widely assumed that internet message-boards are the treadmills of debate. Nobody gets anywhere while on them – either physically or intellectually. Yet, every day, they provide rhetorical exercise for millions around the globe.

I disagree with this summary view, and argue on forums almost daily.

My friends have two responses to this past-time. They either say that it’s entirely fruitless and recommend I stop; or they say it’s entirely fruitless, yet amusing – and accompany their email with a provoking link to a cognitive catastrophe (religion, homeopathy, psychics, …).

So permit me to attempt a small defense of the internet argument as a valuable new method of human interaction.

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Of course, any defense of an activity requires a clear exposition of the intended goals and their values. The veteran atheist George H Smith offers the following analysis concerning discussion with the religious, although I think it applies universally:

Before engaging in an argument, I suggest that you ask yourself the following questions:

1. What purpose do I want to achieve in this argument?
2. Can I realistically hope to achieve this goal?
3. Is it worth my time and effort to engage in this argument?[1]

Now, some might say it is always possible to vindicate an argument, retrospectively and given enough time. Christopher Hitchens, never accused of being a shrinking violet, went so far as to declare that, “Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.”[2]

Aside from this holistic exculpation, let us consider some of the specific objectives for arguing.

The most over-looked assumption, of both arguer and spectator, is that the primary purpose of any argument is to change your interlocutor’s mind. On this Smith is decidedly cynical:

As stated previously, to argue with aggressive irrationalists is usually a waste of time – if, that is, one’s purpose is to persuade them. Such arguments may be productive, however, when an audience is present (e.g. during a debate). These “third-party arguments” are directed not at your adversaries per se, but at the audience. By pointing out the absurdity of your opponents’ beliefs, you may influence the beliefs of onlookers.[3]

Similarly, Thomas Paine once famously declared that:

To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.[4]

In matters of religious discussion, I have come to agree with this view. While there are particular misconceptions about non-belief that can be remedied, and retractions can be obtained for the most absurd factual claims, I find that the central moral travesties of Christianity cannot be exorcised. Not, at least, unless one stoops to adopt the very same methods of rhetorical persuasion that brought them to their faith.

Yet, all is not lost. As Smith reminds us, an audience can provide alternative (and very worthy) goals.

First, you can attempt to inoculate others (especially children) from stifling ideas that are notoriously difficult to shake off. Just like small-pox.

Ridicule and opposition can, even by themselves, often be enough to lubricate the critical faculties.

Second, public debate can be an opportunity for a call-to-arms of like minds. In the case of Christianity, this can often be achieved by simply facilitating a clear description of your opponent’s views. Once the true nature of Christian morality is exposed, ambivalence is practically impossible.

Directing towards more selfish goals, let’s not forget how argument is an opportunity for a free education. ‘Sharpen your wit on a twit’, as someone recently remarked to me. The philosopher Karl Popper provides a slightly more elegant and altruistic attempt at the same sentiment with the epigram, ”I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.”[5]

Unfortunately, this type of critical (and self-critical) inquiry is rare. I used to think it was bleak ten years ago when everyone was ‘entitled to their opinion’. Now, this weak relativism has been replaced with direct encouragement to pretend everyone is in agreement. The new phrase ‘don’t be a hater’ is a consequence of this modern ironic fashion for disagreeing with those who seek disagreement.

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Now to the value of applying these goals to the format of internet message-boards.

Despite the charactertures of trolling and Goodwin’s Law, internet forums present a unique form of communication.

I like to think of them as a form of correspondence chess, with more players and higher stakes. What is up for grabs is an education on many subjects, to refine your own thoughts, and a sobering opportunity to gaze at the stupidity of others.

If your goal is mutual learning, the internet forum blends the most useful type of communication with the best method of communicating.

It inherits all the advantages email has over the letter, and all the advantage the letter has over the conversation. Letters offer more time to think about a reply, and provides a clear reference of your opponent’s ideas. You need not rely on your attentiveness while they were speaking, or your memory when trying to recall what they said. And, as with email, the transit time is almost instantaneous.

However, email and letter writing do not allow group discussion to flourish. An internet forum, or a group email thread (what’s the difference?) can bring the advantages of these formats to a social group. In addition, the anonymity they allow can lead to a more balance discussion, where ideas are critiqued without personal bias.

As the modern adage goes, ‘on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog‘.

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Disagree? I’m sure i’ll have something to say about it in the comment section if you’d care to reply.

Reference

[1] Smith, George H (1991) ‘Atheism, Ayn Rand, And Other Heresies‘ Prometheus Books p 41

[2] Christopher Hitchens (2001) ‘Letters to a Young Contrarian’ Basic Books

[3] Smith, George H, Ibid. p 47

[4] Paine, Thomas (1778) ‘The Crisis’ (letter to Lancaster March 21, 1778)

[5] Popper, Karl (1945) ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies‘ Vol II Chapter 24, I

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