Several years ago, back in my college days, I saw the film Thank You for Smoking. It’s a really good film for a number of different reason (though I wouldn’t watch it with children around). One scene stuck out to me in particular. In this scene, tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor is out having ice cream with his son Joey, when his boy questions him on the morality of his job. Nick, in his smooth talking fashion, explains his occupation to Joey in a way that makes it sound not so bad.
Take a minute or so to watch:
Now, of course, Nick’s message to his son is laced with all sorts of devious moral ambiguities. But this scene brought me to a new understanding for how to participate in debates on a public forum. And I’ve learned a number of others along the way.
Therefore, I would like to present you with six ways to “win” debates online (feel free to add your own in the comments below), beginning with what I learned from this video clip.
#1 Remember the Public
While arguing with someone over Twitter or on a Facebook comments thread, most people forget that there is a whole crowd of spectators watching the conversation unfold. We are so focused on the person that we’re talking to that we don’t realize we are on a public stage. How we conduct ourselves in private differs from how we act in front of a lot of people. If I am arguing with you one-on-one, I might be given to using insider-language and emotional appeals that I wouldn’t dare use if I were on a stage in front of a full auditorium. Always remember, when discussing things on social media, your behavior is on display.
This might also explain why I am willing to enter into debates with people I know I will never convince.
#2 Remember it’s not always about convincing the other guy/gal
Even if I know that my debate opponent is never going to see reason, I might still engage them in discussion if I think others might benefit from the conversation. This really gets at the heart of Nick’s statement, “I’m not after you. I’m after them.” There have been times that I have been able to convince more than one person of my position simply by allowing them to see what a conversation between the two opposing views looks like played out. Although my opponent might not see the absurdity of their logical fallacies and poor reasoning, the onlooking audience most likely can.
I should mention that this is not an excuse to use underhanded debate tactics to win the approval of your audience at the expense of your own intellectual integrity. Which leads me to the next point.
#3 Don’t break into a Gish Gallop
Duane Gish was a young earth creationist who employed a rather nasty tactic in his debates against others. When it was his turn to speak, Gish would break into an onslaught of arguments, deluging his opponents with so many points to argue against that they could never get around to refuting them all. Often Gish’s arguments would not be straightforward falsities, but rather half-truths and strawman arguments. This meant that his opponents couldn’t simply disprove his points. They were too bogged down trying to nuance their positions, separating truths from lies.
This seems to be the tactic most employed by laypersons when it comes to my particular fields of interest and study, theology and biblical studies. Generally this comes in the form of a litany of Bible passages. Some will make a claim (e.g., “the Bible disproves freewill”), and follow it up with a veritable avalanche of Scripture references. Or worse, they’ll just copy-and-paste the full passages themselves. There is pretty much no way that I or anyone has the time to explain the hermeneutical nuances necessary for each and every passage presented. In reality, this does more to shut down conversation than promote it. Killing the discussion with a Gish gallop doesn’t mean you’ve won, it simply means you’ve dominated the conversation so much that nobody wants to talk to you anymore.
Instead, pick one central arguing point, and stick with that. And take your time, because…
#4 Remember the internet isn’t going anywhere
I’m still working on this one. And, while I’m getting better at it, my wife could probably tell you that I still struggle with it. As the picture above illustrates, it can often be difficult to walk away from a conversation online. But, rest assured, the internet will still be there tomorrow. (And if it isn’t, who cares about your online debate anyhow?) I know from personal experience that there have been times when, even though I have put my phone down and closed my laptop, I am still thinking about what I’m going to say next. This might seem harmless at first, but it means that my attention is on the discussion, and not on my other responsibilities – most importantly, my family.
More often than I’d really like to admit, I have come to bed late, failed to give my son my full attention, or misused time that should have been spent on homework, simply because I couldn’t learn to walk away from the conversation. (Like I said, I’m getting better.)
The truth is that there are some significant advantages to be gained by leaving a conversation for awhile. For starters, if you are having a fiery back-and-forth with someone, and you walk away from the conversation to eat dinner, it is they (not you) that are left sweating what will happen next. Did I make him angry? Did the last thing I wrote not make sense? What if he’s about to hit me with some irrefutable evidence? It sort of leaves the ball in your court. Having some extra time to cool down also means that you are less likely to fire off with an emotionally-driven statement that you’ll regret later. Most importantly, taking a “time out” from your online debate means that you can process things. Not just what you’re going to say next, but whether or not your opponent actually made some good points.
#5 Seek to understand
When it comes to online debates, particularly surrounding topics like religion, trying to find someone who is truly seeking to understand the perspectives of others can feel like hunting snipes. More often than not, people are only really interested in proving their own point. This is why true dialogue can become difficult, even among academics. People often waste time talking past one another, instead of to one another. It’s really a very simple concept, but one that is so incredibly difficult to practice.
And when I say, “seek to understand,” what I mean is seek to truly understand. Generally, people only want to understand just enough of their opponent’s position to have something to refute. They are unknowingly blind to the good parts of an argument, and clearsighted toward those parts that they already have a rebuttal in mind for. This allows someone to continue arguing a topic by nitpicking at minutiae and sideline issues long after the main point of the debate has been settled, and the superiority of their opponent’s position has become a foregone conclusion.
One of the advantages of seeking to understanding is that you get to take a break from marshaling and delivering evidence. Instead, you can simply ask questions, sit back, and learn. In fact, asking good questions can be an effective way of helping your opponent realize the flaws in their position. Equally as important, asking questions might result in you realizing that your position is wrong… and that’s not bad!
#6 Know when you’ve lost
Although I’m sure he probably doesn’t remember it, I once lost an online argument to T. C. Moore. If I remember correctly, it wasn’t even a very long discussion. He had facts, I had opinions. He had reason and evidence, I had conjecture. That day probably doesn’t even register in his memory, but it sticks out powerfully in mine. I came to a point in the discussion where I thought to myself:
“I’m wrong. I know I’m wrong… Now what do I do? Do I try to save face by simply not responding. If I leave the conversation, maybe people will think I just lost interest.”
I am happy to say that I chose to respond by acknowledging that I was wrong. I don’t remember exactly, but my response was something along the lines of, “Touché. I now see that I was wrong. Thanks for helping me to better understand this!”
In the world of online debates, there is an unfortunate lack of people willing to admit when they are in the wrong. On that day, I chose to give the internet one more example of someone willing to lose with grace.
As you probably noticed, my definition of “winning” is different from how a lot of people define it. If I prove my opponent wrong, discredit them as a thinking person, humiliate them in front of others, destroy their worldview, and get them to leave the conversation in frustration, I may have won the argument. But ultimately I lost. Maybe I’ve lost my own integrity, or perhaps I’ve even lost a friend.
“Winning” in my mind doesn’t mean winning a fight. It means winning at life. If I lose a debate, but learned something in the process, then I’ve won. If the surrounding audience disagrees with me, but I showed myself to be a standup kind of guy, then I’ve won. If I can’t for the life of me convince someone of something obvious, but I’ve convinced the spectators (or even just given them something worth considering), then I consider myself a winner.
As the saying goes, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” And a game well-played counts as a win… for me, at least.