Not Being An Asshole In An Argument

I don’t argue on the internet anymore. The short version is: it usually gets hostile, and that drives everyone further away from changing their minds.

But I spend a lot of time thinking about whether there’s a way to contribute to a discussion without derailing it. Whether there’s some way of knowing, in advance, that what you’re about to say will make you look like an asshole, start a fight, or be outright wrong.

I think there is.

The problem

There’s a common thread in a lot of the unhelpful and offensive things we say. I only started to spot it after I realised a few things:

1. We don’t know anything.

Most of the things we think and talk about are things we have no certain knowledge about. It’s scary and stupid how fiercely I’ll defend claims I have never verified for myself – I just heard them from sources I trust.

I trust my dad. I trust the consensus of the scientific community. I trust my gut, which is filled with 31 years of passively absorbed half-truths from television, the internet, and hearsay.

But all those things have been wrong, and worse, I’m often unaware that I’m even trusting them. I just think I know things. But beyond my own thoughts and immediate, specific experiences, I don’t.

2. People are different.

I don’t know how different yet, but every time I think I know how different, I meet someone even more different.

So almost anything I say about a group of people will be wrong. And even if it’s only about one person, my picture of them is 1% observed behaviour and 99% conjecture from my own experience. Anything based on the latter is liable to be offensively inaccurate.

3. We like to simplify.

I did it right there. We don’t all like to simplify, and we don’t like to simplify all the time. But I cut those qualifiers out because shorter and snappier sounds better in my head. Maybe it does in yours too. I don’t know, because I don’t know anything, people are different, and I shouldn’t simplify.

The instinct to simplify before you speak can convert a specific and true experience into something harmful, wrong, or both.

The process

Too often, we do something like this:

  1. I saw one case where X wasn’t true, and some people I trust think it’s false.
  2. I don’t believe X, no-one in their right mind does.
  3. If you think X, you’re an idiot.

This process of assholification generally isn’t conscious, but too many of us have come out with that third line. We take specific experiences we can be reasonably sure of (1), conclude more than we could possibly know from them (2), extend that to presume things about other people (2), then simplify it into a neatly prickish generalisation (3).

Simple statements deal collateral damage. You insult people you didn’t mean to. You sound more hostile than you intended. And you seem to be claiming things you don’t actually believe. That’s often how an argument turns into a fight, and any chance of progress dies.

The solution

“Don’t do that” seems like a good solution. But it’s hard to just change the way your brain decides how to say something.

Luckily, most of the fights we waste our time and energy on happen in text, which we can check before we send. Do I know this first hand? Am I claiming something about someone else? Am I generalising for the sake of simplicity?

The way I’ve started to think of it is this:

Share your experiences, not your opinions

You’ll always form opinions, but they need to be flexible. They need to reflect the data, and the data available to us is always changing.

Experiences are the data. What you’ve seen, what you’ve felt. By sharing the data itself, rather than your conclusions from it, you give other people more data on which to base their opinions.

It seems meek. But experiences can be incredibly powerful in changing people’s minds. I’ve never had an “Oh shit, I was wrong” revelation from someone calling me an idiot – every one I can remember came from hearing a different perspective.

  • I didn’t realise this thing affected you that much.
  • I didn’t realise there were people in that situation.
  • I’d never imagined how it would feel for someone who’d been through that.

And stating your opinion also makes you less receptive to that data. When I used to do it, I felt a neurotic urge to defend my position when new information seemed to threaten it. Saying it locked it in place. But an opinion you’ve never stated can be changed without damaging your pride.

I started following this rule just to save time, but it’s had a series of unintended side-effects. I’m a lot calmer, I pay more attention to other people’s perspectives, and their opinions make me less angry. The only problem, so far, is that I’m running out of people to hate.

21 Replies to “Not Being An Asshole In An Argument”

  1. I’ve been doing my best to follow this since you talked about it in a video a while ago. It’s had the exact same effects for me.

  2. I had a horrible argument last night about a couple of words in Swedish. I didn’t even mean for it to happen but I got called out by people who gave neither constructive replies nor alternative perspectives.

    By trying to strengthen my side of the discussion I got down voted to hell (yes Reddit) while I was trying to keep the moral high ground, keeping my cool and…well yea, it really ruins your evening when good intentions go horribly awry.

    I should have consulted your youtube video…damn it hindsight! You did it again!

  3. Sometimes when I think I know something, and I want to state that, I ask a question of which I think it would result in the answer I think I know. It can be really interesting to see how others reply to that question.

    Sometimes it makes me realize I was wrong.
    Sometimes it convinces people of a point I was trying to make, because they answer the question in the same way.
    Sometimes it helps me understand what someone else is thinking, or what they’re having problems with.

  4. Where I live, people don’t even believe an opinion needs to reflect data. Trying to explain “perspective” is a long shot.

  5. I’ve had this stuff buzzing around in my head for a while, because whenever my friends get into these horrible degrading arguments it tears me up, but it takes a more clever person than me to put it into words and write it down. Thanks.

  6. Great piece, and I couldn’t agree more. I gave up on trying to debate or argue anything on forums a few years ago and it’s one of the best decisions I think I ever made. It was a 9/11 conspiracy theory thread that finally did it, though it’s an extreme example of a situation in which people refuse to see reason – a perfect example of opinions, no matter how ludicrous or offensive, being set in stone when threatened even slightly.

    I’m one of the chat mods over on the PCG Steam community and unfortunately the behaviours outlined in your post ring all too true. In my case there may also be an intersectionality issue going on, as it’s an almost entirely male community so there are a lot of – mostly subtle, some not so – ways in which sexism and gender prejudice can affect discussions too and these just add fuel to the flames.

    With the immediacy of a chatroom vs a forum plus the difficulties expressing or interpreting tone on the internet, all it can take is one little spark to set off a heated argument way beyond the scope of the original discussion (and involving way more people).

    I don’t know what the solution is, particularly for my preferred little corner of Steam, but this post is a much-needed and long overdue start. What you’ve written here is fantastic. It clearly took a lot of self awareness and compassionate attention to how people interact. Sadly these are not qualities in abundance in casual online communication. I daresay it would take just as much self awareness for somebody to read your piece and identify those behaviours within themselves and try to work on them. I know that I sure as hell suck at it in practice sometimes.

    Thank you for writing this.

  7. Unfortunately, the people that most zealously “defend” their opinions and perspectives often lack the ability for introspection… basically, they have no reason to believe they are being an asshole, so they don’t look to see if they are, in fact, being an asshole. It requires a level of culpability of which some people are simply not capable. :(

  8. Definitely resonates with me, and frankly, a lot of the ideas you’re putting out there does as well. You’re on a number of nearby threads with respect to how I like/try to view the world. It’s encouraging and validating to hear someone’s perspective when they seem to be just a little further down the trail you’re on. My confirmation bias is simply buzzing with excitement!

    Anyway, yes, I think I’m going to try consciously integrating these rules as a procedure before I post things online. I’m always paranoid about my words getting in the way of my meaning. It seems like stopping to proof and refine my message before sending has already helped me with conversational CYA. I think stopping to ask myself these specific questions you lay out in the Solutions section can make a pretty big difference.

    Or maybe I’m hopeless, I suppose we’ll see. :P

  9. I can’t even argue anymore myself, since there are so many valid sides to any argument. And summarizing why a particular point of view seems to be the most logical, usually takes up too much space and doesn’t feel heated and passionate enough when everyone else is ranting their socks off. I think you’re a better man than me, which you already proved by making Gunpoint. Thanks for that. :)

  10. “and that drives everyone further away from changing their minds”

    That is your problem right there, you’re tyring to change people’s minds instead of letting them see your point of an argument.

  11. There’s one rule i always try my best to follow whenever typing anything onto the internet: A little bit of tact goes a long way.

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