A good argument is an artform. The cut and thrust of well-conceived and cleverly constructed points and counter-points can be both uplifting and insightful. An insightful argument can open the mind.
As a writer, I love how words communicate very complex ideas and enjoy the mental dexterity of formulating a detailed response in a debate. There is something noble about a properly conducted discussion or 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 meaningful debate is lost amid flame wars and the essential rules of online beatdowns.
So what are the rules to the online quarrel? How should you behave if you want to take your place as a flaming forum squabbler? What wisdom and social behaviours have I learned from years of internet disputes and tiffs?
Seven Tips for Arguing Online
1. Don’t 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 be the one on the chatroom mat with the ignominy of losing to Batman495, don’t make the mistake of actually engaging 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 and make up some other ones 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 actually addressing his points. He’s probably cleverer than you are so bamboozle him with out there statements that focus on all the wrong elements of the dispute.
2. Never follow and read the links your opponent offers up as evidence
This is a no-brainer. If your opponent drops some links into his post to refer you to some conclusive proof, the last thing you want to do it read that. It’s a trap! The longer you can avoid seeing the evidence, the longer you can hang onto your argument. Your opponent will protest that Britney Spears isn’t really dating Tom Cruise, and offer you links to prove it, but you must stick to 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 his 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 him.
Another trick is to take your opponent’s analogy and deliberately misinterpret it as an insulting attack while missing his point entirely.
“Did you just call me a pregnant elephant? I take offense 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 messenger, turning the online community against him.
4. Try to mix in controversial topics to destabilise your opponent.
Doesn’t matter how trivial the argument is – the color 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
Every now and then, your opponent may actually look as if he is winning the argument. If he writes a long, detailed post with clear points backed by well known evidence, and everyone else on the forum can see that he’s just blown you out of the water, you need to change your strategy.
If you feel you’re about to lose the argument, ditch defending yourself altogether. Accuse your opponent of over reacting to a trivial issue. Makes his long highly researched post seem silly. Try to win the forum or the chat room over by pretending to be the calm guy who just wants everyone to get along and characterizing your opponent as the one taking everything way too seriously. I mean who puts that much thought and research into a bulletin post anyway. 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 the 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 is a trap. Remember Chamberlain and Hitler at Munich – appeasement leads to war. If he offers to shake hands and move on, come back with an attack. Find some point from early on in the debate and dredge it up. Twist his willingness to move on into an admission of failure. Whatever you do, don’t let him finish with 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 he didn’t come back because he couldn’t answer your arguments. Your friends will think you’re a genius and clever and will ask you to lead them.
7. If all else fails…
Play the man not the ball. Don’t answer any of his points, but just call his entire argument ‘moronic’ without giving a shred of evidence why. If you repeatedly describe your opponent and his arguments in language that implies stupidity or simplicity, the others in the room will assume you know more and will begin to agree with you.
You might not think this technique works. But if it didn’t, why would so many online flamers insist on using this technique every day? Exactly.
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 chatrooms and forums all over the internet. Hone your skills and pick your targets well, for the spoils of battle are wonderous to behold.
Well, not really. You might get barred from the room and your only friends will be basement dwelling smelly young men with laptops, but at least everyone will know your avatar and fear you.