This is Part Two of a Discussion on Argument and Debate.  You might also want to read Part One.

I don’t usually go back and forth with people in YouTube comment sections. Comments are a healthy, liberating forum for millions of people, and I don’t deny that at all. I do find that the pseudo-courage supplied by digital anonymity makes it too easy for discussion to morph quickly into personal disparagement of the ‘so’s your mother’ variety; but the web is what it is, the good outweighs the bad.

I will occasionally make a sarcastic rejoinder to a comment I think is egregiously idiotic, hunch my shoulders against the rain of profane epithets that usually return in my direction and move on. Rarely, I am in the mood for a sustained argument, I love to argue, it is brain candy if one can just keep a semblance of the formal rules of debate somewhere in the picture. (I wonder if anyone under thirty knows what Roberts Rules of Order are anymore.)

Internet debate of a civilized kind is challenging not only because of the aforementioned digital anonymity factor, but also because it is so difficult for most of us to separate a disagreement on the substance of something said from the emotional sense that this disagreement somehow demeans the  person who said it. ‘You’re calling me stupid, aren’t you?” “No I’m not – I don’t know you well enough to make a personality characterization, I’m simply saying you may be wrong about X.” This unwarranted fragility to criticism seems to me mostly to be a matter of education and experience. I grew up in a hard school of slanging political debate at the dinner table, if I had run to my room every time someone told me I was wrong, I would have starved to death. On the education side, the rules of valid argument are seldom taught in university and debating societies seem to exist mostly in ivy-covered groves of academe founded in the thirteenth century.

This problem is not just a digital one. In the public sphere, even those who should know better (legislators and U.S. presidents) seem to be afflicted with ad hominem disease and a hyper-sensitivity to criticism that is ultimately corrosive for democratic institutions. What is to be done? I have no pat prescriptions, just some thoughts for consideration.

  • Good argument is rule-bound argument
  • Good argument is a learned skill
  • What you say in a given instance is not who you are. (We all say ill-considered things all the time; the difference is public and social media is a giant, omnivorous piece of sticky amber into which everything we say sticks forever like fossilized insects.)
  • Given the permanence connected to digital statement, perhaps we should be more considered about what we say and more careful about how we say it.

I am no perfect exemplar in these matters.  What spurred these ruminations was a silly haggle about an aspect of Game of Thrones. It ended up being more of a childish simulated knife fight than a civilized discussion – the temptation is always there. Oh well, I went away properly chastened, pondered and send out these thoughts.