A good argument is an art form. The cut and thrust of well-conceived rhetoric, built around a framework of cleverly constructed points and counter-points, can be both uplifting and insightful. An insightful argument can open the mind to new ideas, motivate greater understanding and resolve, rather than inflame, disputes.
As a writer, I love how the right choice of words can persuade and inspire, while communicating very complex ideas. I enjoy the mental dexterity involved in formulating a detailed response to a debate. There is something noble about a properly constructed argument that stretches word power and the wits.
Yet, online, the art of the argument has devolved into nothing more than a playground scrap. Words are twisted, meanings distorted and constructive debate is lost amid flame wars and the essential rules of online beat-downs.
So what are the rules to the online quarrel? How should you behave if you want to rule your chosen online forum, feared for your savage flaming attacks (because fear and submission equal respect, right)?
So this then is my attempt at an instruction manual for the bulletin board bully, The Art of War for the online combatant, the peculiar anti-rhetoric of the social media warrior — summarised from years of observing (and occasionally being dragged into) internet disputes and tiffs.
Seven Tips for Arguing Online
1. Never address the points
Don’t think for one moment that an online argument is about finding a resolution or point of agreement. It is a smack down, pure and simple. If you don’t want to end up on the chatroom mat with the ignominy of losing to Batman495, don’t make the mistake of actually engaging with any of the main points of the debate.
If your opponent is being particularly logical by listing clearly articulated points that are difficult to refute, you have no option but to avoid those points altogether. Make up some other points of your own. It doesn’t matter if you’ve just taken the argument on a completely bizarre tangent, as long as you don’t fall into your opponent’s trap of directly addressing his argument.
He’s probably cleverer than you are so bamboozle him with oversimplified and disproportionate statements that focus on all the wrong elements of the dispute.
2. Never follow the links and read the content your opponent offers up as evidence
This is a no-brainer. If your opponent drops links into his or her post to refer you to conclusive proof, the last thing you want to do is read that. It’s a trap!
The longer you can avoid seeing the evidence, the longer you can hang onto your argument. Your opponent may protest that Britney Spears isn’t really dating Tom Cruise, offering you links to prove it, but you must hold your ground. You don’t have to read anything you don’t want to. Reality is what you say it is, so don’t infect your argument with so-called ‘facts’.
3. Offer analogies that make no sense
Real debaters love to drop analogies into their arguments to illustrate a point. One way to put them off guard is to use your own. But just make sure your analogies don’t actually make sense — the more confusing the better.
If you actually don’t know what an analogy is because you always fell asleep in English class, even better. Pretend you do and make up any old rubbish. It’ll really annoy your opponent.
Another trick is to take the opponent’s analogy and deliberately misinterpret it as an insulting attack, while missing the point entirely.
“Did you just call me a pregnant elephant? I take offence at that!”
Then you can feign outrage, attempt to claim the moral high-ground and start characterising your opponent as a name-caller to all your friends on Facebook, turning the online community against him or her.
4. Throw in controversial topics to destabilise your opponent
It doesn’t matter how trivial the argument is — the colour of Superman’s underpants, the price of bread in Guatamala, the time of day — if you can work in a reference to the Holocaust or the search for WMD in Iraq or Scientology, you stand a chance of wrong-footing your opponent.
“There are people who don’t believe in the Holocaust too. Should we lock them up as well?”
“No, I don’t see what…”
“Oh, you’re an apologist for the Nazis now. Like I’d listen to anything you have to say!”
5. Move the goal posts
Sometimes, it may appear to everyone else in the forum, comment thread or hashtag stream that your opponent may actually be winning the argument. If he or she writes a long and detailed post with clear points, backed by well known evidence, and everyone else can see that you’ve been blown out of the water, then you need to change your strategy.
If you’re about to lose the argument, ditch defending yourself altogether. Accuse your opponent of over reacting to a trivial issue. This make his or her long and highly researched post seem silly. Try to win the crowd over by pretending to be the calm one who just wants everyone to get along, instead characterising your opponent as the one who’s taking everything way too seriously. Who puts that much thought and research into a bulletin board post anyway? They should get a life.
This method works even if it was you who started the debate with a call of ‘Bring it on, fatboy!”
6. Have the last word
As mentioned at the beginning, winning an online stoush is not about convincing an opponent to agree with a point of view. It is about having the last word. The one who stops posting responses first is the loser.
If your opponent decides to end the debate by “agreeing to disagree”, it’s a trap. Remember Chamberlain and Hitler at Munich — appeasement leads to war. So, if your opponent offers to shake hands and move on, come back with an attack. Find a point from early in the debate and dredge it up by only slightly rewording it to appear like a new point. Everyone may have forgotten that the premise of this recycled point was roundly refuted three weeks ago. Or twist the opponent’s willingness to move on into an admission of failure.
Whatever you do, don’t let anyone else have the last word — you’re so close to winning the whole battle!
Often, it is at this point that your opponent may just leave the thread never to return. This means you won. You can tell everyone else that your opponent could no longer refute your arguments. The crowd will think you’re a genius and will ask you to lead them.
7. If all else fails…
Play the man, not the ball. Rebut the opponent’s entire argument as ‘moronic’ without giving a shred of evidence to explain why. If you repeatedly describe your opponent’s comments in language that implies stupidity or simplicity, the implication is that the opponent is also stupid or simple. The others on the forum will assume you are of a higher intellect and will choose to follow you.
You might not think this technique works. But if it didn’t, why would so many online warriors insist on using this technique every day?
Let Battle Commence…
There you have it. Now you too can argue on the same level as many of the people you will find in social media groups and forums all over the internet. Hone your skills and pick your targets well, for the spoils of battle are wondrous to behold.
Well, not really. You might get barred from the forum or group and your only friends will be basement-dwelling smelly young men with laptops and mood disorders.
But at least everyone will know your avatar and fear you.