Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been involved in a private Facebook group that has sought to bring ideological opponents together to discuss contentious issues. I was part of the moderating staff for a few months, and I gave input on the guidelines. Whereas the founder’s primary interest has been on building the group and inviting quality members, I’ve been more interested in seeing if his experiment could succeed and be translated into a system that anyone could use. I’ve reached the conclusion that the experiment is largely a success, and that we can radically improve our online dialog.
I also think we must.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker uses historical statistics and the perspective of neurology and evolutionary psychology to demonstrate that civilization works in decreasing all forms of violence. He lays out the mechanisms by which people become civilized, weighing the challenges and opportunities afforded by our cognitive biases. It’s a profound book, a much needed corrective to naive intuition and bad sociology, and I think absolutely everyone should read it.
Among many other factors, Pinker credits democracy and free trade with an unprecedented decrease in warfare, and with communication technology in raising social consciousness and breaking mechanisms of social proof and conformity that cause people in closed societies to fall in line behind irrational and even cruel social projects. However, I perceive a huge new threat presented by our communication media. Our cognitive biases are being exploited by advertisers to segment and attack the market and nudge us into ideological tribes, and Pinker fingers tribalism and ideology as the two factors implicated in the worst atrocities of our species.
We need a corrective. And here, based on my research and my involvement with debate groups, is my prescription for rising above online barbarity.
- In any debate sphere you control, such as your Facebook wall, define your political and philosophical debates as a game where you win by either having a constructive dialog or exposing bad faith in your opponents. You lose the game by alienating opponents of good faith and hardening them against your viewpoint. You lose with prejudice if you resort to ad hominem or other logical fallacies. A game is a play activity where the stakes are recognized to be limited. That is not to say that people don’t take games very seriously and that they don’t often escalate to serious disagreements and hurt feelings and grudges; however, their stakes are at least theoretically limited; games do not involve life-and-death stakes, and we shouldn’t pretend that our online arguments are more significant than they are. Also, people do not like to lose games. The win conditions for most online debate are usually as deplorable as they are unstated: the discrediting of your opponent’s strongly held opinions and, if they aren’t submissive to your arguments, their personal humiliation. “Exposing bad faith” in your opponents may not sound nice, but if everyone argues in good faith, then it is not a win condition, and scorched-earth humiliation never is.
- Define the rules of the game along the following lines:
- Argue in good faith. Be respectful of your debate partners. Do not dissemble or prevaricate or indulge in sarcasm.
- Do not indulge logical fallacies, most especially not ad hominem, which includes any argument against a person’s identity, either explicit or implicit. So no accusing a person of arguing from “privilege” or “mansplaining,” or of otherwise holding a position or conducting themselves a certain way because of their ethnicity, race, creed, or gender, unless, of course, they admit to arguing from their identity, which itself is not prohibited, though it may lead to logical fallacies. Because logical fallacies can be subtle and citing them can get pedantic, counter them by saying, “Not an argument,” and elaborate only as needed. (These rules and the “Not an argument” tactic were suggested by my acquaintance Jack Raynard, the founder of the aforementioned group.)
- Do not infer another person’s viewpoint. And when a debate gets heated, restate your opponent’s argument to them and confirm they agree with your interpretation before going on. This can be very hard to do, but it is very effective at civilizing the debate tone. Train yourself to do this!
- Always clarify and seek clarification when things get ambiguous, especially if they get heated. I think there are three common modes of discourse: scientific, political, and aesthetic. The scientific mode traffics in falsifiable premises, is based on evidence, and should be the most dispassionate; however, it’s often not, because it gets conflated with politics, aesthetics, or both. Politics is negotiating power and seeking justice. Aesthetics explores emotional as opposed to rational truths. All modes are valid, but when there is confusion, make it clear where you’re coming from. For example, if you just want to learn more about climate change, then don’t try to take a position on what should be done or not be done about it. In a logical debate where you are trying to get at the truth, the consequences of the truth are irrelevant.
- If you are asked whether you are arguing from a specific premise, give an unequivocal answer or excuse yourself from the dialog. For example, in trying to understand a woman’s argument in an abortion debate, I asked her if the bodily autonomy of a woman should be the sole concern. She refused to answer, but the question must have a yes-or-no answer, and there was no point going on until she clarified this basic premise.
- No one is obliged to participate or continue participating.
The group I was involved in had a few more stipulations, like insisting that all top-level posts contain an open-ended — that is, not yes-or-no — question to engage with, and it did not talk about my three modes of discourse. It called its list of conduct stipulations “guidelines,” yet the moderators would enforce them as rules and kick out stubborn dissenters, which on the one hand was a clever way to keep the rules from being gamed and to invite people to err on the side of caution but on the other made the group a bit autocratic. I would suggest you take the approach that seems best for how formal your debate environment is.
I’m convinced that we can and must not keep arguing online like barbarians. New technologies have given us much more power and responsibility than we can easily appreciate. I’ve occasionally given into anger and projection online and acted like a barbarian. I think I’m doing better thanks to these guidelines. Try them out. If people won’t cooperate, show them the door, without prejudice. They don’t have to play, and it’s probably better for us all that they don’t.