The internet in 2018 is not a particularly nice place to be. Sure, there are corners of our online worlds that can be delightful pockets of serenity and peace. But step outside those zones, and you’re bound to come across heated arguments over whether jokes about eating Tide Pods is a sign of societal collapse, or if the Earth is flat, or some other nonsense.
In my last post about how to lose an argument, I talked about some of the more common phrases I’ve seen during my in-depth field research. This post is more of the same: a short list of terrible things to say if you want to retain any credibility in an online debate. These two posts combined only list six bad arguments, but there plenty more. I highly recommend visiting YourLogicalFallacyIs.com and learning more about how not to argue.
So without any further ado, let’s take a look at these other nuggets of bad argumentation.
1. “You can’t disprove it”
Similar, but kind of the opposite of “do your own research”. This phrase shifts the burden of proof. But rather than asking others to uphold the claim, it’s a challenge to disprove the claim being made. A prime example is Russell’s Teapot:
If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.
TL;DR version: I’m claiming that there’s a small (too small for telescopes to see) teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. No one can prove I’m wrong, so I must be right.
Clearly this is a ludicrous position to hold, and a ridiculous argument to make. But it’s used again and again to derail otherwise constructive debates.
How to avoid it
When you state or write a thing that sounds like it should be a fact, back the thing up with evidence. There should be research, blogs, videos, podcasts about the thing. Provide those sources. If you can’t find an objective or impartial source that backs the thing up, maybe the thing is wrong.
2. “Big agri/pharma/media/X”
Putting the word “big” in front of an industry might make the industry look scary, but that’s all it does. It’s a scare tactic. It doesn’t engage with the issue at all. It doesn’t help my case if I’m trying to argue against large-scale and environmentally destructive agricultural practices. Prefacing the industry with “big” turns legitimate criticism into conspiracy theory by taking specific issues and clouding them with fear. Sometimes it’s a form of a straw-person argument, where a single organisation’s dodgy practices are ascribed to the entire industry. Sometimes it’s a method used by the ignorant to divert attention away from their ignorance (“nobody knows because big Pharma’s hiding those figures”).
Like all good conspiracy theories, “Big X” implies that there’s more going on than we can see. And, like many good conspiracy theories, the major opponents of “big pharma” or “big agri” or “big media” often have their own ulterior motives. Many sites that complain about “big pharma” have their own shop section, where you can buy their alternatives to the products they’ve just tried to scare you away from. The same goes for many organic producers, and small, often dodgy, media outlets. They all make spurious blanket statements about the industries they’ve set themselves up in opposition to.
How to avoid it
Address the issues specifically, and use individual organisation names. For example: when talking about Disney acquiring 20th Century Fox, here’s a bad statement: “big media is taking over, killing creativity for profit!”
Here’s a better statement: “this takeover gives Disney an even larger slice of the media landscape, almost creating a monopoly. Monopolies are bad for customers because they have no alternative to buy from and are forced to pay whatever the monopoly charges”.
3. “Cultural Marxism”
A buzzword used by conservative commentators who object to things like gender equality, LGBTIQA+ rights, Halal certification, or anything that challenges the status quo. “Cultural Marxism” is a way to blame all the perceived failings of modern society on one source: a conspiracy of scholars and elites who want to destroy western civilisation as we know it – via the media.
This conspiracy theory has a small inkling of truth to it. Very briefly, the term originally referred to:
- a small group of German Jewish scholars who fled WWII and relocated to Colombia University in New York, and
- their Marxist critiques of American media
They critiqued culture through a Marxist lens. That’s it. Over the last 60 years1, though, this school of thought (known as the Frankfurt School) has been twisted, co-opted by anti-semites, and turned into a snarl word for commentators who needed something worse than “political correctness” to decry the current state of affairs. It’s been taken up by websites like Breitbart and Return of Kings, and it’s a favourite phrase of conservative politicians and actual, real life neo-Nazis. There’s obviously a lot more to this, but too much for this short blog. I highly recommend looking at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report about it, as well as the RationalWiki article.
There is no Jewish conspiracy to destroy western civilisation. It’s a twisted ghost of an unhistorical spectre with a scary-sounding label that people who don’t like change can point their fingers at to justify being douchebags.
How to avoid it
It should go without saying, but sincerely using “cultural Marxism” in a conversation or argument is a sure-fire way to paint yourself as a tinfoil hat-wearing anti-semite. Don’t. Just don’t.
1. The term was coined by another Marxist scholar in the 1970s to critique the lack of progress made by the Frankfurt School.