Dealing with our discourse

The risk that flawed debates pose to real progress

However well intentioned, online debates too frequently devolve into a mean-spirited exchange of insults.
However well intentioned, online debates too frequently devolve into a mean-spirited exchange of insults.
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In an age where our opinions can be shared with little more than a flurry of keystrokes, we haven’t taken full responsibility for the weight of our words. 

The increasingly distant way we communicate through social media creates more and more intolerance when it comes to important public issues.

It seems like every day we log onto Facebook or Twitter to find some vicious status or meme advocating for one point of view over another. Military involvement, marijuana legalization, same sex marriage, immigration and politics are the new battlegrounds where people can express their anger or resentment. 

Don’t get me wrong — it’s important to advocate for what you believe and try to bring about the change you want to see in the world. These topics justifiably deserve the amount of attention they receive. 

But in all the social media debates where we try to make a better world, are we inadvertently creating something bad by so aggressively attacking the opposition? 

A scroll through your newsfeed should give a resounding yes. We’re hindering our own progress because we’re unable to converse effectively about these key issues. We need to do three things if we’re going to bring about civil discussion on social media:

1. Understand the difference between attacking a person and attacking their ideas. 

2. Be more tolerant when we communicate with people who hold opposing points of view. 

3. Understand the weight of what we say on social media.

There’s a Latin phrase, Argumentum ad hominem, that literally means ‘argument to the person.’ It describes a fallacy where someone attacks another person rather than their ideas, leaving the truth or falsity of the opposing argument wholly untouched. 

It’s a mistake to believe you’re disproving another argument simply by attacking the character of the individual who presents it, however tempting this may be. Looking like a better person than your opponent doesn’t make your argument more correct.

It’s easy to find examples of this. The most recent national leaders debate held by Maclean’s had more than one political leader attacking the personal qualities of another leader, while completely ignoring the topic of conversation. 

While this technique makes one debater seem better than another, it doesn’t address the problem at hand. 

Similarly, online debates more often than not devolve into a back and forth where each commenter tears the other down. I’ve seen instances where one person proclaims their view on gay marriage only to receive numerous hateful slurs in response. This obvious correction to our dialogues on social media is a point of logic; if our intention is to come up with a viable solution, it makes more sense to critique your opponent’s ideas than their personality.

Once we understand this first, and the most important mistake we’re making, we can move to the more challenging improvements to our communication. 

My second and third points represent this need. We must tolerate other points of view, and understand the implications of how our point of view will affect others. Or, to put it differently, we must understand the weight of our words.

To do this, we should identify the cause of the problem. 

When it comes to social media, we’ve drifted alarmingly far from tolerance in how we communicate. The reason is quite simple: the new, physically removed way we share our ideas has allowed us to detach ourselves. 

We say things we might not if we were speaking to a person face to face. Scrolling through comment sections will yield insults and threats that would be shocking to hear one person say to another in public. It might even warrant a call to the police in some cases. 

It has become easier to be less empathetic towards one another because we have tools available to us that have never before been seen in human history. Now, many of the people we interact with every day appear to us as no more than a name and thumbnail picture, and it’s much easier to tear down names and pictures than another person face-to-face.

By keeping in mind the people we encounter online and how even the written word can affect someone, we can identify when we’ve become too detached from one another. If you wouldn’t say it in person, don’t say it online.

Remembering to focus on the topic of discussion will help us recognize when we aren’t being fair to our opposition’s argument, or when we’re being unfair when proclaiming our own views. 

We’re all involved and we’re all responsible for the solution. 

These three changes could lead to civil discussion on social media, which would contribute to progress — progress that’s important for issues like the federal election, military involvement, marijuana legalization, same sex marriage, immigration and more. 

Luke Tincknell is a Masters of Public Administration student.

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