The topic of this post has been covered ad nauseum; nonetheless, I feel it is necessary to bring it up because it continues to be a problem. I get that people often have strong and passionate opinions on various matters, and it is natural to want to share these opinions. Discussion and dissent are important, but only when productive. Too often, disagreements devolve into vitriolic spats with both sides becoming defensive, which defeats the central concept of open dialogue—you know, talking to each other not at each other.
For those of us that aren’t speaking just to hear ourselves speak, communication, particularly in the form of online comments, would be far more productive if people would follow these guidelines when disagreeing with one another.
Don’t use threats or violent language. I shouldn’t even have to write this, but feel like I need to because of the ubiquity of these extreme types of bullying, particularly against women. Threats and violence should never be used to ‘win’/silence arguments. Don’t be that person!
No name calling, bitch, asshole, goatfucker, bleeding heart, righty, fascist, elitist, misogynist, etc. This is the lowest form of disagreement and is completely unproductive to open dialogue. First of all, name calling is a classic bullying tactic. Basically, the name caller is trying to feel superior by tearing someone else down. Second, and more importantly, name calling instantly shuts dialogue down by making the recipient (or dissenting voices) feel defensive. Once you put someone on the defense, they often become closed to your argument, even if it is valid. So, congratulations. No one is going to hear your valid point, because you shut down the conversation by calling someone a name.
No personal attacks. Maybe you don’t participate in name calling, but you try to win an argument by attacking someone’s personality traits or character—what are you, five. (See how I did that? Attacking your intelligence doesn’t open the conversation, does it?) Again, personal attacks are a feeble form of disagreement. Whether you call someone inconsequential, or refer to someone’s lack of expertise in a particular topic, you are not actually explaining why you disagree with someone’s point of view. Instead, you’re implying the person’s argument is flawed just by virtue of who the person is (or what you think they know) which may or may not have anything to do with the validity of his or her argument. Instead, specifically address the flaws in the other person’s argument. (Seriously, it would behoove you to check this out). Calling out minor mistakes in names, numbers, grammar, etc. almost always fall under this category too.
Don’t critique tone. Disagreeing with someone’s tone is a low hanging fruit and is yet another weak form of disagreement. You’re not
disagreeing with the content of someone’s argument, but the way they deliver it. Importantly, this critique is too often gendered—women get called out on tone far more than men—which is really bullshit and needs to stop. Women shouldn’t have to be perceived as being “nicer” just to be heard. (As a side note, I’ve also been told by male colleagues that they actually like me more because I swear. This is a variant of the gendered tone critique). Moreover, tone critiques are subjective. People bring different contexts to discussions, so, someone might find a dissenting argument to be neutral, but someone else might perceive the argument to be offensive. For example, some might find my language above offensive and others won’t. This is especially true in written form, where arguments are often misinterpreted as more aggressive than the author intended. While we’re on the subject, don’t invoke the tone argument to condone the poor forms of dissent discussed above. For example, name calling, personal attacks, and other forms of bullying are not matters of taste; they are inferior forms of disagreement and are simply not productive to open discourse.
Additionally, I want to point out that by using these weak forms of disagreement, you can also end up completely turning off bystanders who may not originally have a strong feeling about the topic. Not only are you failing to get your point across to dissenting voices, but by demeaning or demonizing dissenting views/authors, you’re also losing the argument to people who are ambivalent about the topic. In fact, if you do end up changing the minds of ambivalent parties, it is usually not in your favor; people (overwhelmingly) tend to side with the underdog, particularly if you’re not clearly countering or refuting an argument. Basically, you’re defeating yourself.
Make counterarguments that are specific to the central concept of the disagreement. Too often, counterarguments are slightly (or completely) off-topic, which can lead to people arguing about different ideas with or without realization that the argument has shifted focus. For example, when I wrote about turning a sexual harassment incident into a teachable moment, some commenters counterargued whether the incident would qualify as sexual harassment in court. This argument was an attempt to derail the central point of the post—teaching students what it means to be respectful human beings in addition to course content. So often, counterarguments nit-pick side issues without actually addressing the validity of the central concept.
Refute the central theme of the argument using credible sources. Try picking out a direct passage or quote that you disagree with (not your interpretation of the argument), and explain explicitly why you believe the author is mistaken. Additionally, the use of credible sources is important to successfully arguing your point.
You may not always convince the other side that you’re right by refuting (or countering) the dissenting view, but at least you gave it your best shot, which is far better than resorting to weak forms of dissent, which are definitely not going to win anyone over who doesn’t already share your view.
This post is certainly not an end all for constructing productive arguments, but it should be a good start. Here are a couple additional references for crafting persuasive arguments:
Now, let’s practice productive discourse!