Welcome to the internet in 2018: a fraught digital landscape where everyone has an opinion and they’re not afraid to let others know. This should be a good thing; we should be able to share our ideas online and grow as a society unshackled by the geographic limitations of our physical bodies. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. The internet in 2018 is filled with what I can only describe as pissing contests: online engagements with everyone trying to one-up each other. While it might be fun to stop in on one of these threads and pull out the popcorn, I think most of us probably have better ways to spend our time.
However, if you ever find yourself in a conversation that’s getting heated, trying to defend your point of view, it might be worth taking a minute to question whether your opinion is as important as you think, or if it’s worth expending your time and energy on that conversation in the first place. If you decide to keep the conversation rolling, you might want to keep these phrases in mind, to avoid automatically losing your argument.
1. “Do your own research”
The catch cry of conspiracy theorists around the globe. Telling your interlocutor to do their own research is fundamentally lazy. It shifts the burden of proof from the person making a claim to the person questioning the claim. If I say, “eating a cup of kale every day cures cancer”, you’re probably going to want some sort of proof, right? Me saying, “do your own research” isn’t going to do anything to convince you that I’m right. It’s more likely going to make me look like I don’t know what I’m talking about, giving you a reason to disengage.
How to avoid it
Provide evidence. Provide the evidence that backs your claim up when you make the claim. If you can’t do that (maybe you’re on your phone), tell your audience when you’ll provide evidence and follow through. By giving people the thing you’re basing your opinion or belief on, you can all discuss that thing, rather than attacking each other. It also shows that you’re serious about the thing, and that you do have some knowledge about it.
“Either this or that”
“It’s A or B”. “If you don’t X, then Y.” “Real ⍵s do ⍦”. This kind of black-and-white-no-room-for-any-grey-or-nuance statement is called a false dichotomy or false choice. It sets two extremes up as the only options available, and forces us to choose one. This plays into our instinct for mental shortcuts and easy compartmented thinking. But there are often more than the two choices given.
“If you don’t love it, leave it” is a favourite slogan for certain people who often call themselves patriots. In their minds, there is no room for questioning a country’s government, for critiquing decisions made on behalf of the population. It’s either unthinking allegiance, or you’re a traitor. There are clearly more than these two options, and there are definitely people who would consider themselves patriotic who do question what their governments do.
How to avoid it
If you ever find yourself on the verge of typing a statement that looks like it divides the world into two well-defined camps, it might be worth taking a minute to rethink your position. Are these binary options the only ones available? Could there be more than those two? Taking a step back and maybe learning a bit more about the issues could help you win the argument instead of relying on this cliché.
This is probably the most famous of the “internet laws”, coined by Mike Godwin in 1990, hence the name, Godwin’s Law. While the original meaning has morphed over time, it’s generally accepted that if any argument goes on long enough, eventually a comparison to Hitler or Nazism will be made, and that closes the discussion, losing it for whoever made the comparison. Godwin’s Law is a mish-mash of an older informal logical fallacy – Reducto ad Hitlerum – and statistics.
This used to carry a lot of weight. But now, when we have actual literal neo-Nazis and fascists in high profile positions, the Godwin’s Law is getting fuzzy (see this tweet from Mike Godwin). It’s still super important to keep comparisons to Hitler relevant, though. Your crossfit-obsessed Facebook friend isn’t a “food Nazi” because he thinks eating kale1 makes him better than you; he’s just a douchebag.
How to avoid it
Unless you’re having a conversation about actual Nazism, fascism, or Hitler, it’s best just to steer clear of these analogies altogether. There are plenty of other ways to show your contempt for something without invoking Godwin’s Law.
There we go: three ways people discredit themselves and their arguments in online discussions. If you can avoid using these common pitfalls, and recognise them in others’ writing, you’ll probably have a better time online. You’ll know when to step back and disengage from futile and potentially rage-inducing conversations, which can only be a good thing.