Monday, March 03, 2008

How to "win" an internet debate when you're wrong

I recently involved myself (as I'm apt to do) in a totally absurd argument about artistic genius, social influence, and individual effort over at (Yes, the familiar cliché about having to post message after message because "Someone is wrong on the internet!" does apply.) It basically amounted to someone claiming that, for example, Harry Potter is the creation of an individual genius that transcends issues of influence and cultural antecedents, and two others of us arguing that it's absolutely insipid to claim that Rowling acted in a vacuum and that Harry Potter could not have existed if, for example, Tolkien had never written Lord of the Rings. To anyone with a modicum of knowledge of social or cultural theory, this is hardly revolutionary - at its simplest level, our ability to communicate relies on our use of a symbolic order that precedes and exceeds us, and within which we are constantly acting and being acted upon.

To this other debater, though, this is an opportunity to invoke some of the stupidest and most underhanded means of declaring victory in an internet debate. So my issue isn't so much with this particular argument as it is with the sorts of strategies that she deployed in order to fake a "win". This list is incomplete (feel free to propose new items), but succinctly sums up the unfortunate turn that this discussion took in the past 24 hours or so:

1. The common sense victory - Reduce your position to an unfair, but totally undeniable, truism and assert that your opponent's disagreement with you equals a rejection of the truism. (For instance, assert that you're just supporting the artist, whose craft requires hard work and dedication (the truism), and that anyone who doubts the "wholly individual" genius of an artist lacks respect for that artist's enormous efforts.)

2. The moral victory - Announce that you're walking away from the debate. (Bonus points for returning because you just couldn't let your opponent continue to get it wrong.)*

3. The victory in absentia - Mock one of your opponents in a forum that is restricted or to which s/he doesn't have access, but to which you know a number of other participants in the forum have access and will be able to witness your victory dance. (Bonus points for classiness if 3 follows directly after 2.)

4. The lowest-common denominator victory - If all else fails, play the intellectual laziness card by suggesting that your opponents' efforts to refute your argument - via various appeals to textual authority, social theory, and lived human experience, as well as their need to correct your theoretical errors - and refusal to agree with you is evidence of irrationality and a closed-mind. (This is especially effective if your opponent is right.)

5. The ad-hominem victory - Ignore all the arguments and poke fun at your opponent with a non sequitur or other incomprehensible and ostensibly humorous gesture in order to emphasize that while his/her seriousness is surely derived from insecurity and anxiety, you are so comfortable in the truth of your opinion that you can openly joke about it. (Although I'm lost on exactly what this one is supposed to accomplish and how it could fool anyone.)

It's incredibly difficult to do any of this offline - or, at least, to do without someone calling you on it immediately - but all too common online. And this is why I sometimes hate the internet.

*I am, of course, occasionally guilty of engaging in this one myself.


Jason Powell said...

I'm reminded of our debate over the interpretation of "We Can Work It Out," during which you constantly failed to acknowledge the hard work and dedication that Lennon and McCartney put into the writing and recording of said song, because you are so closed-minded.

But whatever. I've said all I'm going to say about this topic. Someone's got to be the bigger man here.

Omar Karindu said...

Oh my...well, I certainly didn't know about #3, no...

neilshyminsky said...

Omar: 4 and 5 might have also happened publicly, but they happened quite explicitly behind closed doors, too. It was all very surreal, once any semblance of decorum dropped away. And just a little frustrating. (Naturally, since it led to this little rant... which I should probably tone down, because it's slightly embarrassing.)

Jason: I remember you saying something about your mother being of the sky and your father being of the earth... but, in all honesty, I just tuned you out.

Jason Powell said...

Well, half of what I say is meaningless -- but I say it just to reach you, Neil.

omar karindu said...

It's sort of old hat to say it, I guess, but this is also symptomatic of a deeper problem in many forms of pseudo-popular discourse in which even basic elements of theory come in to play. Fallacious reasoning and outright deception or evasion tend to produce more digestible, simpler, and superficially "clearer" statements in general.

And worse, the amount of explanation it sometimes requires to reveal fallacy as such becomes not only a sidetrack to the explaining debater, but also a flatering in a different kind of discursive performance aimed at third parties.

This is hardly limited to the Internet, of course: witness any number of political or scientific arguments carried out in mass media formats. (I here withdraw my terms "public" and "popular" from earlier on.) These are fairly standard moves, for example, among Intelligent Design proponents and anti-global warming ideologues across a wide range of media.

I think it raises some interesting questions about the ways in which, say, public intellectual work demands a very specialized awareness of the media of communication and the way they qualify both halves of the "public intellectual" label. It also raises a more troubling question about the degree to which one should be thorough and honest about one's points in such a situation. Many of these concepts simply don't lend themselves to succinct, memorable, and forceful formulations of the "I drink your milkshake" sort.

neilshyminsky said...

Omar: I'm reminded of an argument about gender that I also engaged Deborah in, where every attempt of mine to use gender theory was met by a response of "you're complicating something that's very simple". (Nevermind that she had first stated a biological gender imperative and undermined it herself by subsequently citing an example of a trans co-worker who, Deborah reasoned, could choose whichever gender she felt was right. Admitting such contradictions still did nothing to change her mind.)

The issue of public intellectual work is also an important one - we have to be able to balance our often inaccessible knowledges against the demands of a mass media format that seems to prize simplicity and obviousness. (I sometimes think that I can manage this in teaching, but I have a captive audience so that's hardly fair.) Relatedly, I was reading a dialogue with Chantal Mouffe where she suggested agonism as a solution to political debate - a willingness to weight all sides of an argument and find compromise, without resort to adversarial posturing. It quickly occurred to me that Mouffe probably hasn't had a debate without someone outside the academy in some time, much less a debate with someone on the internet.

omar karindu said...

Much of the trouble with the position "public intellectual" stems as well from the radically different location of communicative agency in mass media contexts. The university, after all, is still in many ways a hierarchical system, a kind of ancien regime with ranks and privileges that translate into discursive power.

In contrast, the position of "intellectual" or "expert" in mass media fora is not the location of anywhere nearly as much power; the nature of the medium is such that multiple sets of interlocutors share agency.

One concrete example might be, say, the ability of a newspaper editor to headline Stanley Fish's columns; the agency by which his commenters select partial quotes and fragments of argument with which to debate; and then the ability of other columnists at the Times or another paper to likewise select and frame Fish's own column.

All of these are essentially part of the reception of the original column in a way that is far less critical with a classroom lecture, an academic book, or a scholarly article for which the whole unit of the argument and the reputation of the scholar create a less diffuse mode of discursive agency.