The strategic use of restraint in internet arguments

Sometimes, I like to argue. I spent eight years engaged in competitive debate in high school and college and the activity prepared me for scholarly research in ways that my classes in both of those settings could not. Early on, in the early frontier days of the internet in the 1990s and early 2000s, it was only natural for me to take my co-curricular skills and use them in earlier versions of social media—IRC, messaging services, public forums, listservs, and other budding spaces. Of course, conversations and heated debates online were a much different beast than academic debate (even when arguing with debaters) and such conversations inevitably led to a whole gamut of emotions and, often, a feeling of futility that such avenues were not productive.

Today, it is even easier to find raging debates on Facebook, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, general or specialized forums, mailing lists, or any of the other hundreds of avenues people are using to get together and chat about anything and everything. As researchers, we have our own areas of inquiries that we have expertise in, as teachers, we have a broad understanding of one or multiple fields and subfields, and, as individuals, we have our own views of politics, religion, society, sports, hobbies, and everything else. If we are not careful and, from observing many friends, many of us are not, we can become mired in continual, multiple debates that demand our attention and time and leaves little time for the other things we value. We cannot argue all things, in all spaces, at all times.

To preserve some of my sanity and use of time, I have developed an internal checklist of things that encourage or discourage me to participate in a conversation. I wanted to share that list, as I think that guidance might be useful to others to develop their own checklist (though, we likely already have some form even if we have not formalized it as there inevitably conversations we do not participate in). So, this is my more modern thought process on not discussing politics or religion with polite company (advice I have rarely followed) in the internet age.

Of note, this list is a draft and I welcome suggestions. Additionally, this list comes with a few assumptions. First, it assumes that we are talking about a more interpersonal medium like a reddit or facebook thread and not a blog post, op-ed, article, or other professional venue. However, it would apply to the comment sections of those very venues! Second, it also assumes that you are thinking about engaging in a debate in a costly (time consuming) manner. If you are thinking about just asking a few questions for clarification or just wanted to post a short sentence, then the checklist does not apply. Third, if your intent is to troll (not something I recommend), then the list is not applicable. Generally, in the first three categories, being able to answer yes to those questions and then having at least one yes to the fourth category justifies my participation; however, I think most opportunities for engagement fall short of meeting that requirement. Here is a .pdf version of the list in case you prefer having access to it that way.

Should you participate in this internet argument?

Uniqueness (Yes to all)

  • Are you necessary to the conversation?
    • Do you provide a unique voice to the conversation?
    • Will you provide arguments or viewpoints that are unique from what other participants have or will likely provide?
    • Will your absence cause the conversation to suffer?
    • Do you need to be or should you be the person to make the argument that you want to make?
  • Will your participation in the conversation be productive?
  • Will others in the conversation engage your points and not ignore them?

Quality (Yes to all)

  • Does it matter to you if the other participants are sincere?*
    • If yes:
      • Can you tell if they are sincere? If not, can you find out before engaging?
      • Are the participants sincere?
    •  If no, answer yes for either subpoint:
      • Will this conversation satisfy your performative or educational goals for an audience?
      • Will this conversation help you organize, clarify, or strengthen your own thinking about the subject?
  • Will your participation in the conversation leave room for other voices to participate?
  • Will you and at least some of the participants engage the substance of the conversation over other issues such as presentation style, tone, grammar, or spelling?
  • Will you and at least some of the participants either avoid tangents or only engage in useful tangents?
  • Will you and at least some of the participants avoid engaging in negative practices such as ad hominem attacks, deceit, claiming victory in minutiae, or other practices that intend to inflame participants?
  • Will detrimental logical fallacies be few and engaged in appropriately?**

Opportunity Costs (Yes to all)

  • Is this the most important, valuable, or satisfying thing you could be reasonably doing with your time?***
  • Are you able to exit the conversation once it has run its course instead of becoming trapped by tangents, minutiae, or other kinds of distractions?
  • Are you likely able to avoid personal harm and not bring harm to others by participating in this debate? This includes, but is not limited to, social and reputational harm.

Impact (Yes to at least one)

  • Will the result of the conversation lead to some type of action or change?
  • Will the participants of the conversation be likely to change their minds because of this conversation?
  • Will non-participants view the conversation and be influenced by it?
  • Will this conversation help you organize, clarify, or strengthen your own thinking about the subject?
  • Will you derive utility from the conversation compared to other activities, regardless of the outcome of the conversation?
  • Does your participation involve a community that you are a member of or you wish to be a member of and engaging in the conversation positively influences your social standing in that community (social capital, bonding, perceived status, etc.)?****

* This came up in an earlier draft and I think it is a good point. Sometimes we engage in a conversation not because of the other participants, but we fear that other onlookers will make decisions based on the conversation. As such, the argument itself may be performative and educational, but not about the sincerity of the participants.
** It is unlikely that any given debate will be free of logical fallacies. Additionally, sometimes an argument that invokes a logical fallacy is still reasonably sound. So, will the participants re-evaluate their poor arguments and provide more robust ones (or discard the ones that rely on fallacious logic) or will the participants insist on bad arguments? Likewise, will the logical fallacy fallacy appear and people insist that the appearance of a fallacy trumps any other discussion? Such conversations are likely to be non-productive.
*** This question is necessarily subjective and just a check that you want to and should be engaging in the conversation. I do not expect to always maximize the value of my time, but certainly thinking about the most enjoyable/valuable thing I could be doing at a moment can help me reframe how I evaluate what activities I am doing.
**** Your active participation in a conversation may increase your profile among a group that you are wishing to become a member of or known in. This may be a way to break the ice and engage in further conversations.

Each of these points come with some justification and thoughtfulness as to why they should be a credible restraint to participation; while I am not providing rationale for each point as I think some checkpoints are self-evident, I do have a few comments in the footnotes as to why we may evaluate a question. Perhaps this list may help a junior scholar frame their thinking about whether they should engage in a Twitter war, or serve to organize their own thinking about how to prioritize their time. Naturally, it is not just junior scholars who are prone to derailment as social media has made everyone’s opinions immediate and open for comment.

Of course, if you just want to jump in a thread and argue for the sake of arguing, then this list will not inform your thinking; your utility function requires a different model.





About Michael A. Allen

Michael is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Boise State University with a focus in International Relations, Comparative Politics, and Methodology (quantitative and formal). His work includes issues related to military basing abroad, asymmetric relations, cooperation, and conflict. He received his Ph.D from Binghamton University in 2011.

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