We’ve all been there.
You post something online that you find interesting, perhaps an article you came across or a new idea you had. Someone responds in the comments section, and before you know it you’re neck deep in a good old-fashioned comment war. Straw men are mercilessly burned at the stake, ad hominems are mass-produced faster than they can be called out, increasingly creative pejoratives are flying everywhere…it’s an absolute mess.
Sooner or later someone inevitably makes a Hitler comparison, proving for the umpteenth time the validity of Godwin’s law, which asserts that as online discussions grow longer, the probability that someone will make a Hitler comparison in the course of the discussion approaches 100 percent.
The fierceness of these battles and the often-ugly results have understandably turned many people off from online debates altogether. Not only do these debates foster misunderstanding and chaos, but they can even lead to broken friendships and long-held grudges.
However, some remain hopeful that by entering the fray, they can convince others to change their mind, or at least consider a new perspective.
For those hopeful few, the good news is that online debates need not be nasty. By following a few simple guidelines, we can avoid much of the toxicity that has become so commonplace in these discussions and move toward healthier dialogues.
So, without further ado, here are seven things you can do to improve the quality of online debates.
1) Be Precise in Your Speech
One of the most common pitfalls in online debates is a lack of clarity. Debates often are similar to a game of broken telephone. First, you have an idea, and you have to translate that idea into words. No body language, no facial expressions, no tone of voice, just words. Then, the other person has to read those words and understand what they mean (assuming proficiency in reading compression is a mistake), and then they have to understand what you mean by those words.
Is it any surprise, then, that we struggle to understand one another?
The problem is, lack of clarity leads to misunderstanding, which leads to incorrect assumptions about the other person’s position. And all it takes is a few instances of miscommunication to grind a conversation to a halt.
So, hold yourself to high standards of clarity and precision. Say what you mean as plainly as you can, no idioms, no assumptions, no subtext. And, if you notice someone else is being unclear, ask them if they could explain what they mean or give an example so you can understand them better.
2) Avoid Debating Semantics
Something that often happens in online debates is that someone will make a statement, and then a commenter will take issue with how one of the words is being used rather than the substance of the argument. The ensuing debate becomes a debate over the meaning of words rather than over the actual argument those words are supposed to represent.
To give a classic example, many online discussions about economics are framed in terms of capitalism vs. socialism. Oftentimes these discussions turn into debates about the proper definition of the words “capitalism” and “socialism,” not discussions over the respective economic systems themselves.
These semantic debates are often fruitless. My advice is to either steer the conversation toward more substantive topics or just avoid engaging.
3) Talk about Ideas, Not People
One of the unfortunate things about politics is that it often takes debates about ideas and turns them into debates about people. Suddenly, it’s not an argument about free trade, it’s an argument about Trump or Biden.
As with debates about semantics, debates about people are largely fruitless and often cause more problems than they solve. You spend time asking questions like “what did this politician really believe” rather than “what’s the right way to think about this topic.”
The other issue is that it can quickly get personal, especially if the person being debated is one of the parties in the conversation. There’s a subtle difference between “your idea is wrong” and “you are wrong,” but it matters. When we aim our rhetorical weapons at people rather than ideas, we not only take the focus away from more important matters, but we risk unnecessarily hurting the other person and creating hard feelings.
4) Don’t Just Avoid Straw-Manning. Actively Steel-Man Your Opponent
The straw man—where you erect and destroy an inaccurate caricature of your opponent's position—is one of the most common fallacies in online debates. Part of the problem comes back to clarity. When we aren’t clear about where we stand, it’s easy for other people to assume our argument is weaker than it actually is (and vice versa, when others aren’t clear, it’s easy for us to assume they have a bad argument).
Having said that, if we really want to improve our debates, it won’t be enough to merely avoid the straw-man fallacy. In addition to that, we also need to proactively steel-man our opponent’s position, to make their argument as strongly as possible on their behalf. Not only does this win their favor, but it also makes our rebuttal much more convincing if we can pull it off.
“Look for, rather than run away from, difficult questions posed by others,” says Leonard Read. “The search for answers seems to open spigots of the mind. Ideas hitherto undreamed of will begin to flow.”
Some of the best debates happen when both sides are committed to steel-manning their opponent’s position. So challenge yourself to make your opponent’s case even better than they do. They’ll appreciate it, and you’ll both have a much better chance of learning something from the discussion.
5) Don’t Feed the Trolls
I recently came across a definition of trolling from Alex Danco that I found rather insightful. “Trolling,” he said, “is a post where the reaction is the content.”
If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet, you know what this is. Trolls prey on your attempt at seriousness for their own pleasure. They intentionally provoke, insult, misrepresent, and harass as they please.
My advice here is simple. Don’t feed the trolls. Period. Don’t respond. Don’t engage. There is nothing of value to get from that conversation.
The good thing is, you can usually tell pretty early in a conversation whether someone’s engaging in good faith.
If they’re not, just move on.
6) Be Succinct
I’ll keep this one short, if only to avoid the irony of making it long. We all know that one guy who thinks every little comment needs a soliloquy in response. It doesn’t. There’s a time and a place for long-form content, and online debates are neither the time nor the place.
If you really need to make a more elaborate point, drop a link to an article your opponent can read (but don’t expect them to read it right then and there).
Not only is brevity respectful of the other person’s time and attention, it also helps you formulate your own thoughts by forcing you to boil them down to the core of the argument.
7) Be Open-Minded
Going into a debate, we are understandably focused on how to change the other person’s mind. But if we want a healthy dialogue, we also need to be willing to change our own mind. Perhaps we will persuade the other person, but perhaps, if we’re open to it, we ourselves will be persuaded.
This is one of the hardest things to do. We want to be right. Our cognitive biases implore us to be right. But the fact is, sometimes we’re not. And if we can use debates not just as a means of making a point but as a means of identifying gaps in our knowledge and opportunities for learning, then we are really on track to making them a productive endeavor.
Think back to times when you changed your mind on something. In all likelihood, you weren’t just trying to make a point to someone else. You were genuinely humble and curious.
Without that genuine curiosity, online debates will turn out just as the pessimists expect, all anger and no learning. But if we can cultivate curiosity in ourselves, and perhaps inspire others to do the same by setting an example, maybe, just maybe, we can get something valuable out of these engagements with strangers halfway around the world.
Beyond Comment Wars
Ultimately, online debates should only be the beginning of your intellectual journey, not the end. Though they are expedient and sometimes useful, there are so many better ways to engage with ideas, like reading an article or having a conversation.
So my final piece of advice is this: unplug. Take time away from social media. Don’t make online debates your sole—or even primary—means of engaging with ideas. Instead, actually pick up a book on a topic that interests you and read it. Seek out lectures on the topic and watch them. Explore ideas by creating your own content, such as articles, podcasts, and videos.
Now more than ever, we need discussions about big ideas. But the quality of those discussions depends entirely on how we engage with them.
So let’s resolve to be the adults in the room. If you’re going to engage online, do so tactfully and judiciously. And if you’ve decided online debates just aren’t for you, that’s fine as well…but that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook.
As you might have noticed, the guidelines above don’t just apply to the internet. They are just as relevant at the dinner table, in the coffee shop, or anywhere else you might need them.
This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.