Anytime someone responds to an internet post by yelling, insulting someone, or being a complete jackass, send them a link to this post and save yourself some time.
A few days ago, I posted a partisan essay about the recent election. It was strong, but it was a proper argument with evidence and elaboration. I did not expect everyone to accept it, but I wasn’t quite expecting the volume of obscene, sexist, anti-Semitic, and completely ineffective responses on the thread. Part of me wanted to answer all of them personally, but I knew that it would be both aggravating and a waste of time. It would also probably have escalated the insults. Instead, I offer this generic response. I hope others will find this useful.
1. Yelling is not an argument; it is a form of violence. Socrates made this point in the very beginning of Plato’s Apology when he urged his audience not to shout him down while he spoke. It is a form of force and violence because its goal is to make someone else submit against their will. It is an attempt to drown them out and shield everyone from what they want to say. While it is true that some people are perfectly fine with using force in the face of argument—some people, such as internet Trolls, enjoy it—yelling at someone has never made anyone change their mind. In fact, it usually only confirms their suspicion that the person yelling doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.
Ultimately, yelling in response to arguments is a sign of weakness. It has no staying power and only stops discussion while the yelling takes place. Force is only effective while the force exists. It has no lasting impact.
2. Insults are not evidence. In order for a statement to have an impact on an argument, it has to be relevant and provide evidence. It has to bring in new information about the argument or show how existing evidence is logically related. Insults, by definition, are irrelevant. They are not about the argument but about the person making them, who is usually just the messenger. Philosophers call this kind of personal attack argumentum ad hominem, “argument to the man or person.”
The other problem with insults is that for many, the words people use to attack others are actually badges of honor. People posting on my Facebook thread continually used the word liberal as if it were hurtful, but most liberals are proud of their point of view. In fact, anytime someone uses the word liberal as an insult, all it does is make liberals disregard anything else the person says.
In the end, insulting someone is proof of one’s own ignorance. It is a sign that the insulting party has nothing constructive to add and has run out of ideas. Anytime a person insults someone instead of responding to the argument itself, they lose the debate by default. They have given up the moral high ground and will no doubt be disregarded in the future.
3. Ridicule is not satire. Internet memes are pervasive; they are often funny. They play an important role in cultivating communities of like-minded people and of allowing people to blow-off steam. But using a meme in response to an argument is to take the discourse out of the realm of conversation and make it solely about being a member of a club. It is a way of signaling to the audience that the person with whom one disagrees isn’t “one of us.” It is a way of calling on others to gang up on the arguer. This too is a form of violence—or at least intimidation.
Satire is different from ridicule. Satire, while often biting, ought to be sophisticated and always communicates an implicit argument. It is usually a reductio ad absurdum—an attempt to take a conclusion or a character trait to its most absurd conclusion. Saturday Night Live does this very well. When one encounters good satire it can, in fact, change someone’s mind because it highlights weaknesses in the argument it seeks to refute. But ridicule never changes people’s mind; it only shames them.
Shame may eat away at a person with low self-esteem, but weakening that person’s will to speak publicly is not the same thing as winning the argument. Taking pride in destroying someone emotionally is a sign of moral weakness.
4. Persuasion isn't the only purpose of arguments. I am not naïve enough to think that arguments are enough to change people’s mind. In fact, I’m quite skeptical about the assumption that democratic debate is and ought to be completely rational. At the same time, we are mistaken if we think that the only reason to have an argument is to persuade others. Argument serves to focus our own beliefs, discover new information, imagine new perspectives, and celebrate our respect for the people with whom we engage.
In short, if someone is posting this PSA in response to something you wrote on the internet, there is a good chance that you are losing their respect and attention. If you do that, they’ll never listen to anything you have to say, even if you are right. It is time to rethink how you communicate with them.
Follow the author on Twitter: @jackrweinstein
You may find another PSA helpful around the internet: "Hitler did not take away everyone's guns and Jews could not have used them to stop the holocaust."
Also, I do not mean to suggest that one shouldn't be blunt or discuss difficult topics. To get my view on this, please watch "Always Talk About The Elephant: A two-minute commencement address."