Fighting the Frivolous Fight: Why Bother Arguing on the Internet?
Lately I’ve found myself doing something I swore I would never do again: namely, arguing about religion and philosophy over the internet.
I tried it for a while back in high school, and then swore off it forever. A good friend of mine has had a similar experience. “I used to argue with people on the internet a lot when I was younger, but there just isn’t any point to it. Nobody, including myself, has ever changed their opinions because of someone’s brilliant internet argument.” I have to agree. If you want to persuade people the internet is not the place to be. I have never, not once, heard of an atheist or theist changing their minds about their beliefs based on an argument over the internet. If you want to persuade someone, write a book. Even better, talk to them in person. The internet just isn’t going to work out for you.
Still, lately, I’ve started arguing metaphysics in comment threads all over WordPress. I haven’t changed anyone’s minds or opinions. I don’t have hope that I will. Yet, all the same, I keep doing it for two specific reasons. One of them I’m sure is good. The other reason is probably misguided, but it’s a reason nonetheless.
The first (and best) reason is that arguing on the internet makes me a better communicator. It exposes me to ideas and arguments that I would never have considered on my own. It’s one thing to sit at home, reading books of philosophy and thinking “Of course! It’s so obvious!” It’s another thing altogether to try to explain those concepts and suddenly have an objection come out of left field. I find that the more I sit with my books the less I understand people who don’t share my views. Debating on the internet lets me sample different ideas that come from people with entirely different backgrounds from myself. Even if, after further thought, I come to the conclusion that their argument is flawed, at the very least I’ve learned that the argument exists and how to better respond to it next time. Every argument I hear and consider teaches me something new about persuasion, argumentation, logic, and rhetoric. More importantly, every argument I compose a response to helps me practice clarity, simplicity, and empathy. As a writer all those things are useful to me. They are the building blocks of good communication. There have been many times where I’ve butted heads against someone who seems so incredibly stubborn and blockheaded that they seem to ignore my arguments entirely, claiming that I’m saying things that I never intended. When those times come I have to stop and consider: are they not getting my point because they aren’t willing to listen, or because I’m not good at explaining? Naturally, if the problem is on their end then there is nothing I can do to fix that. So I do the only thing I can do, which is examine my own words and try to make them as clear and understandable as possible. All of this is excellent real world practice that helps me become a better writer. Any idiot can sound persuasive in his head, and even hack writers can convince people who agree with them that they are right. The real test is facing a hostile audience and seeing how well you communicate with them. On that note, there are a lot of mean-spirited individuals on the internet who feel no qualms in peppering you with the most incendiary and hurtful insults they can come up with. This, too, is good practice. You will always have critics, and there will always be hurtful people out there. By weathering their attacks you can practice controlling your own emotions. There are a lot of people out there who want to rattle your chain just to see you blow up; better to lose your composure on a comment thread or forum (and subsequently feel embarrassed and learn not to give them the satisfaction) then to lose it in a more public arena.
So, to sum up the first reason, arguing on the internet is good practice for honing communication skills, logical reasoning, and control over your emotions.
The second reason is the one that’s more shaky, though it can be explained more simply. Sometimes I feel that there are some things that you can’t just leave alone. If someone insulted my mother in public, you can bet I’d say something in her defense. I feel the same way sometimes when people insult my religion, or the people I respect. In those cases it’s not a matter of persuading someone but of defending the honor of those you love. I feel that what is good and right is worth standing up for, even if you only receive mockery and pain for your efforts. But I admit, this motivation may not be the best. Perhaps it’s better to accept that there will always be mockers and scoffers, and remember that discretion is the better part of valor. Still, I can’t help myself sometimes.