Debating on Social Media

When I was a younger man, I really liked to argue about things. I’d pretend it was all about the art of debating, but really, I just loved the ability to absolutely defeat someone with a little bit of verbal gymnastics. It’s not that I was purely chaotic in my will to debate. I actually generally liked to give people reason to consider the other side of the coin. I liked playing devil’s advocate because people were often so set in their opinions that they couldn’t even consider another side of the discussion.

As I got older, I realized that some of the topics people were wanting to discuss (namely, politics) were ones I had no interest in. This meant I had limited information about and often the discussions involved a lot of short hand gained from watching the talking heads on tv. I often felt as though I didn’t stand a chance in these debates which people would fight with great fervor, mostly because I didn’t even know the names they were tossing about. But also, these debates often devolved to simple finger pointing and name calling, which didn’t feel all that fun and often derailed any attempts to logically work through a debate topic.

I learned that there were a lot of tricks involved in political debate that simply didn’t feel fair, things which were obviously perfected by those same talking heads. Things like berating and changing the subject and absolutely useless metaphors and anecdotal evidence. Things like focusing on belittling the competition by noting incorrect pronunciation or improper grammar or spelling. These little things that could waylay the course a person was going with their point, knocking them off guard and making the debate more about who could frustrate the other one first. People were no longer actually debating, but talking past each other to see who could confuse the other one first. This wasn’t debate, it was arguing.

Then social media came about, and people were suddenly given this platform to proclaim all of their most ridiculous of thoughts regarding politics, science, and religion, and would gladly do so in the most inflammatory of ways. The world started feeling a lot more angry, because people had this new place to declare how much they despised the people on the other side of the fence from them. I quickly determined this was a dangerous playground to play in. The kindnesses afforded in personal interaction were suddenly gone and people didn’t care about making sense. And these “debates” often became nothing more than personal attacks.

This might have been the first time in my life I actually began biting my tongue. I was rather outspoken in my youth, feeling ready to give my thoughts on most anything at any time, always ready to question the status quo. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how little people wanted their beliefs questioned. While they would put their questionable comments out for everyone to see, they didn’t do so because they wanted someone to propose alternative viewpoints, they just wanted everyone to state how much they agreed.

I became a lot quieter in general, biting my tongue in most situations. Even outside of social media, people simply weren’t keen on thinking about things from any other angle than the one they had always believed to be true. Even at work, a place where I prided myself on enacting change through finding the truth, I simply lost the will to fight and allowed (continue to allow) all of the dumbest things to continue because I just didn’t have the will to fight it any longer. Because, more often than not, these shouldn’t have been fights. It’s incredibly disheartening to come into a meeting armed with the facts about why something is being done wrong only to have some respond with “that’s how we’ve always done it so we’re going to keep doing it that way”.

I’ll admit I still appreciate a good debate with someone. I actually got into a debate just a few days ago about who was better between Kenan Thompson and Darrell Hammond. And I ended it immediately after the discussion turned into one about how I just like to argue. I still believe Darrell Hammond is the better actor, but if the person who disagrees with me wants to make a personal attack, I simply don’t see the need to continue. Because this is what debate is now, right? One can’t have different opinions and give their reasons for the opinions. If their opinions are different, it’s a debate, an argument, and they’re just being argumentative for supporting their own point. And, of course, when we get into debate mode, we resort to the old standards of personal attacks and finger pointing.

Even biting my tongue at that point about a topic that I really don’t care much about, was difficult for me, because although I simply made a statement that was not in agreement with my conversation partner’s belief, he asked for supportive reasons, which I gave, didn’t even ask for his similar supportive reasons, and I was declared as argumentatively invalid. It wasn’t a debate I cared about enough to continue with past that point, so I stopped, but I respond similarly with debates I do care about, because I don’t see where they will proceed usefully.

Which is why I tend to take my oppositional thoughts to my writing. And I so often have these high hopes from my writing, thinking I could write something so profound that it would change the world. But the truth is, people don’t want to be changed. Even I have a hard time with this. I struggle constantly with the idea of completely cutting people I disagree with out of my life because of it. I fight it, because I think it’s important to see the other sides of the argument, to be your own devil’s advocate and to ensure, especially in this world of highly partisan political commentary, that you aren’t blinding yourself to anything.

I don’t like the idea of shutting down the other side of the debate, because I think it’s healthy to argue most topics. It’s healthy to be certain of why you believe what you hold dear. Of course, you have to argue with being open to the idea that you might be wrong, with listening to the opposing arguments, with truly trying to see what your opponent believes, holding it against the light and seeing if any of it holds true.

Debate is healthy. It’s important. But debate means listening, and that’s something that I think we all fail at. I recently got into a debate on Facebook with someone in which I disagreed with how they used a metaphor. Their response was a diatribe about their feelings on the subject they were making their metaphor about. Nothing about the metaphor itself. In fact, they presented an idea in their debate which went in complete opposition of the metaphor they originally presented, meaning their metaphor meant nothing to them. They simply wanted a place to yell about their thing of the moment.

And I’ll admit that I struggled to continue as a good listener with every change of what we were arguing about and as each new baseless statement was made, but I tried, and I researched both sides of the argument and even asked if he had the information he was claiming existed, not as a way to shut him down, but because I was truly interested, as it might be enough to change my thoughts on the matter. But that was the point things stopped. For some reason that appears to be the point in which a lot of things stop: when asking for more than just the words, but looking for the supporting facts which are claimed to exist.

And the only reason I can have for this is because we often debate today because we want other people to know our truth, not because we want to find the actual truth.

And that’s a dangerous place to be.

So, I’m here to tell you that I’m wrong often. I will very often hold things to be quite dear to me as truth only to have someone tell me something that completely changes my worldview on a topic. This happens so often that I end up second guessing every piece of knowledge I hold in my brain. And honestly, with the very entirety of human knowledge literally at our fingertips today, I think we could all do with a little second guessing.

At the very least, be open to the fact that others might have valid reasons for what they hold true.

Published by Adam Oster, Adventure Novelist

Husband, Father, Creator/Destroyer of Worlds

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