Tuesday, March 13, 2012

How to Have a Debate (Without Letting it Devolve into Moronic Name calling)

Hello there, Internet! Guess what I did this weekend? I went to Austin, Tx, played a whole bunch of games, and finally got around to seeing Forrest Gump! I also went to downtown but it was wet and everything was closed, so I didn't stay long. Boooo. Apparently South by Southwest was going on as well, which meant that the crazy city traffic was crazier than usual. How crazy? I had to do three passes to get into the parking garage. First time was to see it, second time was to miss it, and finally on the third go I got everything right and paid way too much for my parking space. On the bright side, I got my change in dollar coins! I am disproportionately excited about this!

Eight bucks has never been more convenient to carry! Or quite as jangly.

Moving right along though, this week's topic was, I think, the first one to be decided by unanimous vote and I'm a little surprised it won. Not because I don't think it's a good topic, but because I thought you guys would have figured that the other two would have been more fun and/or useful. Apparently I was wrong. Shows what I get for thinking; I'll go back to mindlessly joke-mongering now.

This Week's Topic Is:
How to Have a Debate
(Without Letting it Devolve into Moronic Name calling)

This week's set of topics had a theme and the theme was that they would all be  "How To" posts. Because I have little girly man hands and completely lack any practical skills, I thought I'd stick to my guns and focus on some slightly more intangible things that I know a lot of people struggle with such as how to read and observe critically, how to tell a joke so that it doesn't suck, or, as all of you chose, how to have an intelligent, respectful debate. 

For the uninitiated, a quick glossary:
A debate is an ongoing discussion on a certain topic.
An argument is a point being made within a debate and can contain several other, individual, arguments.

These aren't hard and fast, but it's as I use them.

Know Your Fallacies

The first step on the way to intelligent discourse is knowing the fallacies. Like this list here which has upwards of forty common fallacies. No, most people really don't need to know them all; several are actually pretty specialized such as the rather colorfully named "Poisoning the Well" fallacy but there are a few big ones you need to know that come up quite frequently:

The Slippery Slope:
This one's really deceptive, it plays on your knowledge that anything can get worse for pretty much any reason at all and just generally operates on Murphy's Law in the worst way possible. You see it a lot when news channels are trying to raise controversy over something and damn if it doesn't work every time. Fairly contemporary examples of it are "Obamacare is just the first step on the path of socialism!" "If we let Gay people marry, next thing you know, they'll be marrying snakes!" and "If we keep letting game companies get away with Day one DLC, next thing you know they'll be charging for everything!" Basically, it's taking something to it's logical conclusion and then overshooting that conclusion by a couple dozen miles. It's hard to fight too, especially in front of a group; it's really easy to whip a crowd into a frenzy but really really hard to calm them down. The best thing you can do is keep cool and stick to the facts.

The Appeal to Authority:
The Appeal to Authority isn't so much deferring to the proper experts as much as referring to experts in fields that have nothing to do with the topic at hand. The idea is that they're in positions of authority and so we should listen to them, even when they're talking out their asses. This is another one you see on the news all the time, actually. Every time they bring on a radio host to talk about something, a little piece of me dies.

Source: Fox News
Remember this clip from last week? I do...*shudder*

Annoying and rage-inducing as it may be, it's actually pretty easy to fight because when inappropriate authorities weigh in on something, they pretty much discredit themselves; just point out that they're a pastry chef, not a political analyst and that their opinion doesn't count as evidence no matter how delicious their danishes are. 

And now I'm hungry. I hope you appreciate what I do for you, Internet.

Just be sure that your fighting it doesn't turn into:

Ad Hominem: The Personal Attack
This is far and away both the easiest and one of my least favorite fallacies of all time. This is when you bring in unrelated, embarrassing, and personal information into rebutting someone's argument. e.g. "Oh yeah? Well I would expect that from someone who still watches Golden Girls" Unless we're talking about something Golden Girls relates to, my enjoying four old ladies live out hilarious circumstances doesn't really matter and frankly, me and Blanche are offended by the idea. Ad Hominem has a cousin, too; the appeal to ridicule, which is basically the same thing, just aimed at your argument instead of yourself. Usually, this is done in the sort of high-pitched mocking voice we've come to expect from people who never matured past age ten.
The best place to see this? If you guessed something that starts with an N and sounds like "Jews" then yep, you're exactly right. 

If your answer actually was "Jews" then I'm sorry, I don't think I can help you.

Those are the three or four biggest ones you're likely to come across in common discussion, but you really should check out that link and browse some of the others; they'll all give you an "Oh yeah, I see that all the time!" feeling like the False Delimma orconfusing cause and effect.

Do Your Research

Now that I've given you a pretty comprehensive list of how not to do things wrong, let's move in on how to do things right. And Internet, let me tell you; there's is nothing quite as right as doing your research. Yes, that's right, and internet blog just asked you to read. GASP. You're already reading me, what more could I possibly want from you?!

Seriously though; if you're about to enter into a debate on something, especially something controversial, make sure you're boned up on the subject and not just the side you agree with; know what everyone's saying and why they're saying it and that'll save everyone a lot of headaches and backtracking and you more than a little embarrassment. I can't underline it enough: make sure you research every side of it or you're going to look like a moron when the first rebuttal fires. It doesn't matter if it's a Facebook debate, a pub debate, or a debate being televised across the nation; you need to know. The more knowledgeable about something you are, the less likely it is you'll feel you have to fall back on insults.

And being knowledgable doesn't mean just reading the material, it means interpreting it, too. Knowing the difference between causation and correlation and being able to spot the flaws. There is such a thing as bad research and being able to spot it will both protect you from getting your ass handed to you and helping you come to a good, reasonable rebuttal.  

Know When You Haven't

Segueing nicely from the last paragraph, the next thing you should do is know when you don't know enough. This one can be tough because sometimes you feel like you just have to have to have to throw your two cents in but stop; you're making yourself look like an idiot, giving ammunition to the people you disagree with, and most of all, you're just adding to the white noise of the internet. Worst for you; throwing in an uninformed argument is like picking the low hanging fruit yourself, peeling it, chopping it up, and serving it to the group on a platter with some caramel to dip it into. Hell, I rip those apart all the time and I have fun with it.

Source: dilbert.com
Thank you, Dilbert, for providing visual examples of my favorite adages. 

How can you tell when you don't know enough? Well, if you're lucky, you won't need a litmus test; you'll be able to see that you're simply out of your league. Unfortunately, that's not generally the case, especially in the age of Wikipedia where everyone knows a little bit about everything. One good way to tell is if people are using words, phrases, or references you just don't get. If that's the case; back away for fear of getting torn a new one. Another good method is to do a quick test for the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Do you feel like you've got a pretty good handle on the subject? Yeah? Start listing off some of the advanced concepts surrounding it. If you don't know of any or you don't know anything about the ones you are aware of, then maybe you should back off. Don't try to convince yourself otherwise because "some things are just simple" either; There are always deeper facets.

I don't think enough people understand just how serious Pokemon is.

Respect The Other Side

So now you know to do your research and you know how to back away if you haven't, how do you handle yourself when you're actually knee-deep in a debate? At the risk of sounding like a cartoon special, you really really need to be respectful of the other person's opinion. Not necessarily because it's right or valid, but because failing to do so will send your conversation (and likely your relationship with them, as well) from zero to douche in 3.8 seconds. 

Think of it this way; where do you get your opinions from? Well, we can give you the benefit of the doubt and say that you carefully and evenly examined yourself, your world around you, and your perceptions of what is and is not good and based everything off of that sound, methodic evaluation. It doesn't really matter if you did though, because that's how you feel about it. Now if Henry C. Jerkface came along and payed your opinions no heed, gave them no ground, and ridiculed you for even thinking that way, what would you do? Ignore everything he says and stand your ground like you're under attack, because you are. So are they when you slam their stances without giving proper consideration, people clam up when they feel they're being attacked and refuse to budge an inch and frankly, that's not doing anyone any favors. 

I know how hard it can be to take someone who disagrees with you seriously, whether you're arguing for free speech, equal rights, or whether or not Brosnan counts as a real James Bond. If you care about something, you've probably gone ahead and dismissed everything that disagrees with you concerning the subject and you really can't; other people arrived at these conclusions independently and maybe with more careful thought than you did. If you just dismiss them out of hand without considering that they may just have a point, then they do the same and no one wins. 

Do Not Interrupt.

But respecting the opposing view is more than just not attacking, it's also taking the time to listen to everything they have to say. Do not, I repeat, do not interrupt someone in the middle of their thought. It's a great tool for making it look like you're winning, but a terrible method of getting anything done. Not only is it kind of a dick move in general, but it also eventually leads to the two (or more) of you talking over each other at increasing volumes and, the reason that makes this a personal pet peeve for me, it neuters your opponents argument in the most base and insulting way. 

Let me explain; I am a person who thinks much much faster than he speaks and it's not unusual for a sentence to go through two or three iterations in my head before I'm actually done speaking it. This can lead to hilarious things like starting a sentence arguing one side and finishing it arguing the other (which yes, has happened before). The thing is though, if you interrupt me before I've finished, then not only do I have to talk over you now, you've also undermined my argument by interrupting that thought process as well. It's also a very subtle Ad Hominem attack; by interrupting their thought, you're implying to them and everyone else that it's not worth hearing.

Reason number 2135 why I don't watch TV news

Not interrupting can be a hard thing to do; we're so used to speaking our minds as soon as they have a thought in them. We hear something we don't like, something we have a response for, or something that just incenses us and we feel like we have to jump on it. I beg of you; resist that urge. 

Avoid Relying on Pathos

Now then, there's something called "Aristotle's Appeals" wherein the very same Aristotle outlines the three basic categories under which all arguments fall. The three appeals are Ethos, the ethical argument, Logos, the logical argument, and Pathos, the emotional argument. Now Logos is peachy-keen because so long as you make your logic followable, everyone's gonna be okay, even if they don't agree. Ethos is pretty good too because, while not everyone shares the same set of ethics, most people can agree on the very basic set of ethical rules and that's a good base to start from. Pathos, on the other hand, should never stand by itself. A Pathos argument can be very moving, but in and of itself, it's never really much more than a cloud of puff. In a one-on-one debate, they can be downright volatile when one person is basing their argument on Logic and the  other on Emotion because if history has taught us anything, those two get along about as well as actual Irish people get along with St. Patrick.

Pictured: The most quietly hateful stereotype currently in circulation, now made obscenely loud for your viewing pleasure.

The real danger of a pure Pathos argument is that it's completely unsupportable, but they're putting so much on the line. You can't transplant your emotions from one person to another no matter how badly you want to and when your emotions on a subject get torn apart because someone actually did have the evidence to support their argument, well, someone's gonna get upset. 

As a disclaimer; I'm not saying that Pathos has no place in a debate. Quite the contrary, it can actually be very useful in augmenting your current argument. It's the difference, though, between saying "This is what I believe because I feel very strongly on it" and "This is what I believe and I feel very strongly on it" A great example of Pathos as an augmentation of an existing (Ethos in this case) argument is Martin Luther King's Famous I Have a Dream speech. Go read it, sometime.

It's still a danger and the line between Ethos and Pathos can be very blurry at times. A good litmus test for this one is to list all of your supports and if you've got more emotional reasons than factual or legitimately ethical reasons, go back to the drawing board.

Prepare to be Wrong

I need to level with you, Internet; you're not always right. In fact, it's amazing how often you're dead wrong, sometimes. In fact, if Yahoo Answers is to be believed, I sometimes find it amazing you can put your own pants on, or even know what pants are. 

Case in Point.

The fact is; when entering any reasonable debate, you have to acknowledge the fact that you might just get totally and legitimately crushed and the faster you accept that, the better everything will turn out. This is one of the most difficult things you could do in a debate because our brains aren't wired to seek truth; they're wired to be right. To that end, we will do whatever it takes to be right which is where the shouting match problem originated from in the first place. Everything else I've mentioned to this point will only get you so far in a debate, but none of those will help you finish one. 

The best way to accomplish this is to simply enter every debate with an open mind. Don't think of it as trying to prove someone wrong, think of it as putting your own ideas to the test against someone else's. No idea is totally infallible and even the best ones should be constantly tested for relevancy. It's hard, it's something you'll never stop doing, but it needs to be done if anything's going to go anywhere.

Learn to Identify a Lost Cause

So now I've given you all these great tips to keep your debates nice and intellectual. You know that you need to know what you're talking about, you know to back off when you don't, you know to give respect, even to people you don't agree with and not to interrupt, and you know that you need to accept you might lose. What do you do when someone else doesn't?

Quite simply, you don't. Do anything, that is. Arguing with someone who doesn't follow any of these rules won't result in anything but a headache, a strained voice, and if you do it wrong enough, some property damage. 

Tragic results of taking the "Batman v. Superman" debate a trifle too far.

The best thing you can do is agree to disagree and walk away. Don't get tempted into opening the discussion with them because the most, the very best thing you can generally hope for is that neither of you win. At worst, they're going to use some of those very same fallacies up there to "Win" and then you're right back with the headache, strained voice, property damage scenario with the added bonus of a gloating twat. The temptation is obvious; you can see the flaw(s) it's there, you can smell it, but just because you see it doesn't mean they'll admit it's ever there and generally, they won't. Maybe occasionally you can change someone's mind, maybe you can really reach out to them and make them see the light, but many many wasted hours have taught me that it is generally not so. 

Even more annoying; the smarter someone is, the worse it gets. Bill O'Reilly, for instance, is a pretty smart guy. He's also made some pretty big gaffs in his time and will do everything he can, including resorting to some of those very same fallacies we discussed earlier, to avoid being wrong. Unfortunately for us smart people, being smarter doesn't necessarily mean being more right more often, it just means that we're better at making up bullshit when we're wrong and as someone who's major is about 80% bullshitting, I can assure you of that.

And that's this week's topic. Most good debates don't end decisively and some don't ever end at all; needing to be renewed with every development. The idea isn't so much to change the person's mind, really, as much as it is to give each other something to chew on for a while and see how it fits in with everything else. If you enjoyed this week's topic, be sure to share it with your friends, family, and jerks and be sure to vote on next week's topic!

Thank you, Goodnight.

1 comment:

  1. That's kinda funny because I had an argument on Facebook about a month ago about whether a friend's posts were hateful. Because we've been friends for years, I tried to gently explain that hating on the "privileged" was just as messed up as hating on minorities. Of course, it ended with him and his friend saying I was hateful for defending that "privileged" group. So I tried to respectfully agree to disagree and remove myself from the argument that was quickly devolving into insults and blatant attacks. Unfortunately, I could not remove myself completely and my character (which had nothing to do with said argument) was violently and hatefully attacked on his Facebook page by his friends, which he then agreed with.
    If he was open minded at all, I wish he could read this post to avoid losing more friends in the future, because as much as I hate him now, I still care about the stupid fucker.

    But anyway, my whole point was that those who feel strongly about anything should also be prepared to possibly lose people they consider good friends, even if they try to debate civilly. Even after trying to be gentle with opening my friend's eyes, he resorted to slinging insults with his new internet buddies.

    Ugh...internet arguments.