Endless war: a few thoughts on online debate

Recently, online debate has been getting me down. I love the idea of it, obviously. The free exchange of views is one of the great strengths of the internet, alongside Gangnam Style parodies and cribbing from Wikipedia. But I’ve argued with a lot of people on Twitter and website comment threads this year and it has always left me feeling worse. Over the past fortnight two particular Twitterstorms have convinced me that something is wrong about the way we deal with disagreement online. We resort to entrenched positions, self-righteousness, dogma, bullying and abuse instead of even attempting to understand alternative views and we generate so much heat for so little light.

By “We” I include myself. The worst thing about the increasingly toxic atmosphere is how it poisons everybody with bad habits. The following suggestions for bringing more sanity and empathy to online debate don’t come from a position of superiority. Several are memos to myself.

1. Read the piece or thread properly. If you’ve got time to attack someone’s opinion then you’ve got time to work out exactly what you’re attacking. The number of newspaper website comments that address the headline alone indicates that this is a challenge to some people but if you haven’t even read the article then your opinion is frankly worthless. Likewise, I’ve seen people joining Twitterstorms late with only a fourth-hand caricature of the debate to go by. Read the Twitter feeds of the people involved. It takes minutes.

2. Don’t take comments out of context. A tweet is not an essay or a policy document. It’s often an off-the-cuff comment, sometimes addressed to a third party, and we all know how allergic to nuance the 140-character format is, so it’s absurd to assume that you can extrapolate someone’s worldview from a single tweet. In the Twitterstorms surrounding Diane Abbott in January and Caitlin Moran this month, individual tweets were wrenched out of context and reported as if they were statements of an extreme belief carved in stone. Whether the people doing this were malicious or just lazy the result was the same.

3. Don’t shut people up. Everybody has a right to express an opinion. On the subject of abortion, say, a woman has more right than a man to do so but it doesn’t mean the man has none at all. I disagreed with almost every word of Mehdi Hasan’s column about being left-wing and pro-life, and many people proved able to take it apart piece by piece without claiming, as others did, that he should never have written it. Unless, of course, you think it’s OK for other people to shut you up too. This intolerance is particularly galling when it comes from supposed liberals. This piece, which I came across while writing my blog, puts it perfectly: “The motivations are… I WOULD LIKE TO DERAIL THIS CONVERSATION AND HAVE AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE WITNESS HOW RIGHT I AM. I don’t care if your politics are progressive and your focus is on social justice: if you’re shouting at people online and refusing to have a dialogue, you’re bullying.”

4. Don’t label people. Once you call someone, say, a racist (even if they’re saying racist things) you’ve lost them for good. It’s human nature to resist negative categorisation so stick to describing their actions or statements rather than their entire personalities. Some labels are virtually meaningless anyway. Left-wingers accuse their opponents of being middle-class and complacent. Right-wingers accuse theirs of being middle-class and smug. Music fans describe any band they don’t like as middle-class. Often this turns out to be factually inaccurate but in any case it is never, ever a deal-closer. It’s just another way of telling someone to shut up.

5. Don’t assume that other people are acting in bad faith. On music threads you constantly see: “You only pretend to like Band X because you’re a hipster and/or middle-class wanker.” In political debates it’s: “You’re only saying this because you have a book to promote/are part of the media elite/are scared of your corporate paymasters/are a middle-class wanker.” If only as a thought experiment, act as if people who hold opposing opinions are sincere about them. (Unless it’s Brendan “Challops 4 U” O’Neill.)

6. Don’t be afraid to apologise. That faulty statistic you grabbed off the internet in a furious hurry? That insensitively worded tweet? Say you were wrong. This isn’t a presidential debate. It’s not a ruinous “gaffe” — it’s a simple error.

7. Don’t tear apart people with whom you have plenty in common. The history of the left is full of people who agree on 90% of issues wrestling each other to the ground over the 10% on which they don’t, while the right point and laugh. This 10% is important and constantly changing — one generation’s marginal issue becomes the next’s fundamental principle — but at least try and keep some perspective.

8. Don’t feel compelled to have an opinion on everything. This one’s mainly for the serial offenders on comment threads who never have any useful insight but feel that the world would be a poorer piece without their contribution, which is usually “yawn”, “TL;DR” or “Why has this been published? I’ve never heard of this person.”

9. Having a mob behind you doesn’t make you right. Sometimes it’s just a lot of people being wrong together.

10. Self-righteousness is not a virtue even if it makes you feel good.

11. Don’t automatically adopt a kneejerk position. If I see a comment which says “typical Guardianista” or “you lefties” I don’t need to read any further, because I know that this isn’t a pressing issue for the commenter, just another skirmish in a lifelong war of attrition. Those on the left are just as a guilty when it comes to hunkering down in their silos. Sometimes people who occupy a different place on the political spectrum to you have a worthwhile opinion on a particular issue. Endless war is wearying and embittering and changes nothing.

12. Don’t whine if you get blocked or moderated. Before the internet newspapers could decline to publish certain letters and people could leave the room if they were sick of a face-to-face argument. Now we’re all free to respond to whoever we like but we’re not entitled to it. A comment thread is run by someone else and if they don’t think you’re abiding by their rules tough luck. It’s not an infringement of your civil liberties so don’t start acting like you’re Aung San Suu Kyi. On Twitter, an argument that goes on and on is a psychic drag. Even as you go about your day that blue bird icon on your phone is yet another reminder that somebody out there thinks you’re an arsehole, and then you feel compelled either to respond (usually in a foul temper) or remove yourself from Twitter for a while. Or — wait a minute — you can just block them and get back to the Gangnam Style parodies. I’ve been blocked by James Delingpole, which seems a little prissy from someone who calls his opponents “libtards”, but that’s up to him. I’m not going to become one of those drama addicts whose Twitter bio is a list of all the people who have blocked them.

13. Don’t @-bomb (© Grace Dent). Either address someone directly or talk about them behind their back, old-school style. Inserting their @name into a hostile tweet, knowing that they’ll therefore see it, is a Mean Girls move.

14. Don’t do sneering impressions of people (“WAAAAHHH, I’m @broadsheetwriter and I’m so misunderstood!”) unless you’re 10 or under.

15. Don’t call people Nazis even if they are, basically, Nazis.

16. Don’t call people trolls unless they’re actually trolls, ie they’re saying provocative things they don’t believe simply to get a reaction for lulz. Someone who genuinely disagrees with you is not a troll.

17. Don’t be abusive. This should be obvious but it’s not because being abusive is fun and cathartic, and then you try and justify it by saying that the other person deserved that abuse. You’re probably deluding yourself.

18. Show some empathy. Unlike your actual sociopathic trolls most people have feelings. It doesn’t hurt to remember this every now and then.

19. Don’t feel obliged to weigh in straight away. The worthwhile outcome of any Twitterstorm happens a few hours, or even days, later, when the thoughtful, non-abusive blogs appear. They’re the headline act. The Twitterstorm is just people throwing bottles of piss at the support band.

20. Don’t self-valorise. You are not one brave, isolated voice sticking it to The Man. You are not the little boy declaring that the emperor has no clothes. The internet is full of people telling the emperor he’s naked even when he’s not, and then feeling very pleased with themselves.

21. Don’t stink up the room. That comment thread you’re dominating with your interminable slanging match? The one that might have been a worthwhile, hospitable place? You’ve fucked it up for everybody.

22. Stop trying to “win”. Everybody likes to think that their arguments are so wonderful that either their opponents will emerge bloodied and bowed, fashioning a scrap of tattered clothing into a flag of surrender, or the invisible jury of the internet will declare a winner. This never happens because this isn’t a college debating society. Better to emerge from a debate on good terms, having enriched your view of an issue, than to batter someone into resentful silence.

23. Let it go. This is the hard bit. You know that feeling the French call l’esprit de l’escalier? That unbeatable zinger that only occurs to you after the argument is over? Well thanks to Twitter it’s never too late! It can grind on for days, long past the point where it’s doing anybody any good. Recently I was reading my daughter a bedtime story while silently retracing a heated Twitter argument I’d had that day until she had to ask why my jaw was clenched and brow furrowed. This did not fill me with pride and joy. Actually it made me feel like an addict, but at least most addicts get to have some fun at some point in the process.

24. If all of this is TL;DR, just read this one. Don’t be a dick about it


  1. cool piece…perhaps you can get twitter to adopt.

  2. All good points – the difficulty in living up to these ideas comes when the people you are debating with seem to be using them as a tick-list for their own behaviour, rather than things to be avoided.

    I’ve made a conscious decision recently to not engage in online discussions unless I genuinely have the time to see them through (judging ‘seeing them through’ as getting to the point where both ‘sides’ are either in agreement, or just repeating their points and, hopefully graciously, agreeing to disagree) – few things are less satisfying than delivering some kind of comment-drive-by then not being able to properly respond to any further points.

    It seems to me one of the main things that keeps these kind of disputes dragging on is the feeling that all of the internet is now the paper of record, as it were, and that by not arguing to the death you cede part of the cultural conversation to people with (from your own perspective) terrible & factually wrong points-of-view. One of my biggest regrets of the last decade is that the ‘right’ have been allowed to largely reframe the benefit system, for example, as an undisputed source of evil, rather than an expression of society offering mutual help and support. I often think I (and hopefully others) should have argued more forcefully on the internet in the past to stop us getting into the dead-end we are currently stuck in. Taking the moral high-ground and withdrawing can be good for us personally, but may not be good for us socially?

  3. Some really good points from both you and Bert. I tend to conflate a lot of these into a single broader principle of generosity of interpretation: assume that your interlocutor is sincere, even if ignorant or misguided, and respond to them in those terms until they clearly demonstrate either that they’re not sincere or that their ignorance/bigotry/whatever is beyond doubt and unshakeable.

    Always worth remembering that irony doesn’t work well; not necessarily a problem in the middle of a debate, when the whole point of a remark may be for one’s ideological opponents to miss it spectacularly, but the occasions when I’ve accidentally set people off have generally been because they’ve taken something more seriously than it was intended. The fact that they don’t have a sense of irony doesn’t wholly excuse me from leaving myself open to misinterpretation. Of course, the problem with this principle is that it seems to lead me towards the use of emoticons…

    Part of me thinks that any argument about semantics is doomed to go nowhere; on the other hand, as Bert says, the importance of the meaning of words and the power of descriptions is undeniable in on-line debate, so if we don’t argue about definitions and shades of meaning we might as well concede the argument from the beginning.

  4. Interesting stuff. Speaking as a veteran of online back and forth (Guardian Unlimited Talk, anyone?) I’ve adopted a policy of not going anywhere near debates on Big Questions like abortion, middle eastern politics or whatever.

    But the papers need to take some responsibility for the decay of online interaction – The Guardian’s Comment Is Free does a nice line in lifestyle articles promoting all sorts of old tenuous crap (yummy mummies, the other day) which apparently exist solely to promote futile argument. And even serious articles are often victim to sub-eds writing misleadingly trolling headlines and subheaders, presumably with a view to your point 1.

    I know the quality papers are fighting for their life at the moment, particularly bearing in mind the appalling success of the Mail’s online strategy, but really we could do without this stuff.

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