Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Fair And Balanced: How To Debate Effectively Online

I've been getting into rather fraught political discussions on Google Plus. You know the other side is struggling when, instead of examining the pros and cons of your talking points to trying to debunk them, they either launch a personal attack or claim to be the victim of one. Butthurt ensues. I like to debate, so here are some suggestions if you want to take me on.

There are five things I like to get people to do when debating. Taking these suggestions on board can lead to a stimulating session and possibly causing me to change my position on a particular subject. It has been known to happen. Here they are:

  1. State your political position clearly.

  2. Present evidence to support your assertions.

  3. Be willing to accept evidence, wherever it comes from, but double-check for accuracy.

  4. Be willing to compromise.

  5. Be reasonable and fair.

Let's take a look at what that looks like in practice, shall we?

1. State your political position clearly

I always self-identify as conservative, which annoys those right-wingers who think you have to be a rabid loon sold out to the Republican cause to be worthy of the name. I also point out that I'm Irish, I live in the UK, and support the Pirate Party. And that I rely on the NHS, which is non-negotiable. Knowing where I'm coming from helps people to frame their responses appropriately. People who don't leave you guessing. I'm friendly with people on both sides of the aisle in America who are willing to be reasonable. It helps that I know where they're coming from.

2. Present evidence to support your assertions

At the time of writing I've engaged with someone who's actually fairly smart and quite reasonable but unwilling to give way on anything. He hasn't provided evidence to support his assertions because he's protecting his opinion, an attitude I will never understand. Meanwhile, I present evidence that he dismisses. When I call him on it, he tells me he believes I'll do that to him. I call this "Roving," after Karl Rove, a famous Republican, who advocates accusing your opponent of doing the thing you do. I don't like being Roved and don't do it myself. It's dishonest. I dig up links to prove my points when asked, or sometimes just to emphasise a point. If it's particularly obvious (to me) I don't unless asked.

3. Be willing to accept evidence, wherever it comes from, but double-check for accuracy

After a while he became a bit more reasonable, trying to persuade me. However, merely trying to get me to think the way he does didn't work. Without evidence, I couldn't take him seriously. After a while, I got fed up, gave him a slap, and we got along better.

On another thread, I got into a discussion about the way President Obama dealt with the crisis that erupted when some stupid bigot released a video that sparked riots in Egypt and Libya. The ambassador has been killed. When commenter Mary Ritenour said Obama had disavowed the Embassy's efforts to calm things down, I searched for the statement and found it on Politico and repeated as fact on Salon. It's the only source, so I told her I would have to accept it as true until it is debunked. Here's the statement:

"The statement by Embassy Cairo was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government," an administration official told POLITICO.

It just seems out of character for this administration so I'm looking out for debunkage. If it doesn't appear, I'll have to accept it as true. So far, none has appeared. I usually trust Politico but every source has its bias so it's worth checking with other sources just to be sure. If there's only one source and others are repeating it, I'll temporarily accept it until it is debunked. The point is, however biased a source is or appears to be, I'll accept what they're saying if it is corroborated by other sources and worry about the bias later.

4. Be willing to compromise

It's funny, when I took that chap on, I saw yet another person who lacks critical thinking skills. The ability to critically evaluate my position gives me the tools I need to refine it so it is easier to defend. Being unable to accept that it even might have faults would prevent me from refining it and I'd end up getting into pointless arguments with other people because I'd opted to attach my ego to a mere opinion.

Consider what I'm saying here: accepting the faults in any opinion or position I've adopted helps me to improve and defend it like a knight defending a castle. Look for cracks in the walls and repair them. Dredge the moat to make it deeper, and all that. When you can't do that, you feel personally attacked when someone assails your opinion and you end up being really defensive and easily upset. This is where compromise comes in. If you can accept that parts of your argument, or even the whole thing, is either weak or inadequate, you can adapt it in order to deal more effectively with a situation. It's like hiring your enemy instead of fighting him.

Compromise is not a sign of weakness, it actually makes you stronger. Refusal to compromise says to me, "I'm really insecure. Please boost my ego by submitting to me."

5. Be reasonable and fair

Take a good, close look at these three articles. They're all about the Teachers' strike in Chicago. One is from Terry Moe at CNN, bashing the strikers as lazy and ungrateful for having jobs in the middle of the recession. One is from The Dissenter, giving a teacher's perspective, and the last is from The Washington Post, providing a report on Charter Schools. I would have to get into a discussion on the subject with a man who is convinced that unions are a scourge on the nation. Now I like to give everyone a chance, but he's unwilling to even look at the teachers' point of view or consider the benefits of unions, and he's not alone. This is a very common view in America, particularly in conservative circles.

The point is, if we don't consider all the items in question, from inefficient teachers to poor working conditions to constant interference to the efforts to undermine public education, it's a fight between the varying opinions. Get all of them onto the table and discuss them with a view to dealing with each of them properly and we end up with a change for the better. My reading of the subject is that it's not an open and shut case.

And that's the point, really. Very few situations are open and shut, one size fits all. We need to be able to stretch and bend to accommodate those people who don't fit in with our worldview because if we don't they'll still be there, getting in the way of what we want. Working with them leads to a better situation than insisting on "my way or the highway." I really do see it as a sign of massive insecurity and deep-seated willful ignorance when people can't critique the positions they hold on a given subject. I can. I do it all the time. It's why people think I'm intelligent. As for that guy I was arguing with earlier, we've discovered that we agree on some points so he's a better person than I gave him credit for. Hopefully, I'll get the same credit from him.

UPDATE: He doesn't like facts and turned to personal insults. I hit back and muted the thread.

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