I have engaged in numerous debates with people on Facebook and other media, and I’ve learned a lot about how to engage in productive conversation that furthers my goals of compassion and liberty. I’m proud to say that often my discussions conclude with friend requests. People aren’t afraid to keep the company of someone with whom they disagree, because I’ve proven to be respectful, I just happen to disagree with them. This is where peaceful, cooperative dialogue exists–a necessity for liberty.

Here are some key points I try to remember when engaging in internet debate:

1. Know Who Your Audience Is

Often, debates start because someone posts a comment disputing the ideas expressed by an article or poster. Argument ensues. I have often found myself arguing against popular opinion. Debates can often become dominated by name-calling, snark, and condescending language.

You have to learn to behave yourself. As good as it can feel to hit your opponent with accusations and cheap shots, this does nothing for your image from the outside–and that’s where you “win.” Your audience is actually people observing the conversation, those people who don’t have enough conviction to take a stand against you: those are the people who will be won or lost by your actions in this discussion. The sideline gallery is your target, your audience, and the ground you gain by being correct but kind, thoughtful and articulate.

2. Ideas vs. People

Your opponent in an internet debate probably has strong convictions. They probably genuinely believe what they say, and they are often well-meaning. When you attack ideas, realize that many people internalize their ideas as part of themselves. Remember not to attack people. Attacking people puts them on the defensive, but appreciating their perspective and their values, while challenging their ideas, can be a way to build them up while separating them from the ideas or solutions they cherish. People have a need to defend themselves, and if you diminish them, they naturally come back stronger. Do not diminish your opponent, embrace them–then you may contest their ideas. It’s the only way to win them over.

3. Live What You Believe

I have a (perhaps naive) notion that most of us are just trying to do the best we can. We have ideas and solutions based on our understandings of the world, and by being introduced peacefully to different ideas and solutions, we can advocate for and achieve more for those things we value. Being the example of your ideals is the best way to show people that what you think is achievable and helpful. If you constantly make excuses for why you’re not living as you idealize, you’re not doing it right. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” Gandhi said. It’s truly the best inspiration.

Keeping these three things in mind when participating in internet debate can massively improve the quality of the dialogue you’re having. It can change hearts and minds, and make you a better person along the way.

  • Christopher Shafer

    I struggle with this. I have a tendency to snark, born of a bad time in High School(in other words, about the average time one has in High School).

  • Wade Long

    “The sideline gallery is your target, your audience, and the ground you gain by being correct but kind, thoughtful and articulate.”

    Sorry, but people who are both interested AND undecided are probably morons. Nobody goes onto the internet to learn lessons or change their minds. They just want other people to feel bad for having different beliefs.

    • Wade Long

      And even when they *agree* with you, they will still hammer you for not being On The Same Side as they are, which only serves to create division on an issue where everyone should be united.

      (Yes, this was because when I posted the first comment, this site showed me Other Articles I May Enjoy, and one of them was “Anti Rape Product Blasted For Not Preventing Rape The Right Way”.)