Stephen Curry has an interesting article about how to have an argument on the internet. It discusses a rather amusing exchange on Twitter between Douglas Carswell, UKIP’s only MP, and Paul Nightingale, Professor of Science Policy at the University of Sussex. Paul Nightingale made an analogy – which may, or may not, have been any good – between trading and the Moon causing tides, and Douglas Carswell insisted that the Sun caused the tides. Much hilarity ensued, because the tides are primarily caused by the Moon, not the Sun.
One reason I found the article interesting is that it said
[o]ne tweeter pointed out that the sun’s gravitational influence on the tides is actually about 40% that of the moon’s
The main reason, however, that I found the article interesting was the comments about online discussions, in particular how easy it is for discussions to simply degenerate into slanging matches and how the ability to communicate widely has added little to the public debate. The author suggested that they had started trying a different approach, and had met with someone who they’d confronted on social media and found a lot of common ground. I’ve done the same, on occasion, and it is indeed true that face-to-face is far more amenable to reasonable discourse. In fact, I’ve mainly discovered that when you meet someone in person you find that your online disputes are driven more by mis-understandings than by genuine disagreements.
Therefore, what I have been trying to do (I don’t always to succeed) is to not say anything more, if the only thing I can think of saying would not be particularly nice; in particular, I try not say anything that involves the words “You are a…”, or equivalent. It can be a little frustrating to walk away from a discussion while the other party is still throwing around invectives, but I have found that the frustration wanes far faster than the regret I feel if I don’t manage to avoid saying something unpleasant. If you’ve got to the point of throwing around insults, it’s probably got rather pointless anyway.
It might be nice if those who were interested in genuine discussions could draw a line between robust disagreement and outright insults, but I suspect things are unlikely to change. From what I’ve experienced many either do not recognise what they’ve said as insulting (assuming, I think, that if it is true, it’s not an insult) or they find a reason to justify their insults, while complaining about anything comparable from others.
As I think I may have said before, you’re only responsible for your own behaviour. If you think there is merit in improving online dialogue, all you can really do is improve your own and see if others follow suite. Complaining about the behaviour of others (specific, or general) without considering your own is all rather pointless. My intent is to avoid discussions that are likely to degenerate into personal insults; I may not always succeed, but I do intend to try.