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.
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.
Too often, we do something like this:
- I saw one case where X wasn’t true, and some people I trust think it’s false.
- I don’t believe X, no-one in their right mind does.
- 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.
“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.