Like many of us, I spend a fair bit of my life online. I like to read articles and have discussions, learn stuff, see what’s going on in the world and what other people think about things.

If you’re anything like me in that regard, you probably also see a fair bit of debate online. It’s only natural that people aren’t going to agree on everything. However, back in the days before we spent half our lives online, we probably didn’t encounter those we disagreed with so strongly as often as we do now. Some people even actively seek out those with opposite views for the sole purpose of  a lively debate. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that- debate and discussion is interesting and gets your brain working.

However, online debate and discussion is not for the faint of heart. Here’s a list of things to remember if you like a good online debate but don’t want to seem like a total dick.

1. Don’t go into it trying to change someone’s dearly held beliefs.

If someone has a belief you consider irrational, wrong or even dangerous, they won’t let it go because of anything you say. You won’t change their spiritual beliefs or convince them that vaccines are generally safe or that chemtrails aren’t a real concern if they don’t want to be convinced of these things. By all means, present your argument, throw some evidence down to support what you have to say, but don’t let “winning” consume you. Chances are, anything you say has been said to them at some point and if they didn’t change their views the first time, they won’t change them because you try to set them straight.


2. Lay your facts down anyway.

If you read my first point, you might wonder why you should bother with this second one. With discussions online- whether on Facebook or a forum or whatever, there might be a handful of participants or there might be heaps of them but more often than not, there are a bunch of people reading along and these are the people who might benefit from anything you put out there. They are the fence-sitters, reading along and trying to get a bit of insight and knowledge. They are the minds that maybe aren’t yet made up or who might be holding views they aren’t confident in. These are the people who might read your comment or post or see your link to a helpful article. These are the people your argument might help in some way. Several years ago I was active on a few parenting forums and I had many a message from a silent participant in a thread asking me for more information or thanking me for a link I’d posted.


3. Be respectful.

You can politely disagree in debates and discussions. You can do so firmly and you can still not be a jerk about it. I know, because I have spent years trying to do just that. Turns out the whole catching more flies with honey thing is spot-on. When you’re downright rude to people, you lose credibility. Even if you’re correct. People are simply less likely to believe you or even be interested in what you’re saying if you’re carrying on like a douche-canoe. If someone disagrees with you (and trust me, it’s the internet- someone on it disagrees with you) and they are rude arsehats about it, they’re the ones who will come off sounding ignorant and stupid.


4. An opinion is neither evidence nor a valid defense.

I once read this great article about opinions. It basically said that saying “It’s my opinion!” is like the last refuge of the damned- it’s the very last thing a person has left to defend a belief that should probably have been abandoned long ago. Think of science-deniers or racists or people against same-sex marriage. The catch-cry of “Well, it’s MY OPINION!” is generally the only thing left available to somehow legitimise their beliefs. An opinion, no matter how cherished or how commonly held, does not make it a fact or something that must be accepted without question. Many people hold the opinion that vaccines cause autism, for example. We know, however, that this is not true. There are dozens of studies confirming no causal link between the two. Many people reject this evidence in favour of their “opinion” but is that actually a defense? Hell no! One person believing it or one million people believing it doesn’t make it any less incorrect. The way I see it is that if you feel not only entitled to an opinion but also feel the need to speak it publicly in some way, then you should be prepared to back it up with the reasons that you hold it.



5. Facts vs. Feelings.

Sometimes people are truly upset by facts. I think this is because we all carry our own unique set of circumstances that colour how we see things. For example, I recently I saw an article with a headline about the Australian Breastfeeding Association saying alcohol-tinged breast milk was safer for babies than formula milk. I realised that the article would be intending to let breastfeeding mums know it was okay to have a drink or two and still breastfeed with no need to substitute with formula. I knew this because I’m ABA member and had read this on their website before. Unfortunately, the headline itself was immediately divisive for many. Many readers couldn’t see past it and their initial reactions to it. They took it as a personal attack on them for bottle feeding or a general put-down of formula feeding mums. I think the desired effect of the article was lost because people were so upset by an insensitive or ill-concieved headline that they didn’t recieve the actual message. Factually, it was correct- the ABA does say that it’s safer to give a baby breast milk tinged with alcohol rather than introducing formula milk. However, there may have been more tactful way to get that point across. The right information is important but it’s useless to expect people to absorb it when they feel they’re being attacked or insulted. We humans simply can’t turn off our emotions. So just have a little bit of sensitivity- if you want to make a point, you can generally do it without inadvertently making people feel like crap.


6. Delete, block, report and walk away.

There are many, many people online. Some we will agree with, some we will not and some are there for neither purpose. Some people are just there to troll. They just want to provoke, insult, offend. Engaging with them is well and good if you keep in mind that you won’t win and you just want to lay down some information for those playing along at home. But when they start personally attacking you, don’t be scared of the block button. You don’t have to engage with these people. You don’t have to tolerate abuse. Report and block. You don’t have to justify your position to them, you don’t have to (and won’t be able to) convince them of anything. That’s not why they’re there. They’re like over-tired toddlers who can’t differentiate between positive attention and negative attention- all they want is attention and a reaction. And you are under no obligation to provide either.



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