First let me give some background. My friend and editor of the CAA Newsletter EQUIPPED, +Glen Richmond recommended that I blog about online debating in light of a rather heated, yet civil discussion that has been taking place on my Facebook page for a few days now. And since sleep is overrated, I've decided to at least start writing about it. If you'd like to read the full conversation check it out here, though I'm no longer following the conversation I might respond to further comments.
The first rule of fight club is probably the hardest.
#1 - Be polite!
This one is particularly tough. People are smarter (sometimes) than you might think. If you disguise your disdain for someone as a person, you'll probably fail. Dawkins attempts this in his book The God Delusion with disastrous effects. If, I'm assuming this is true, his goal in that book was to get people to rethink their beliefs in God, he completely failed because he unsuccessfully attempts to hide his disregard/disdain for that type of person. This one is also quite difficult because it's not a common rule for discussions online. Many a YouTube video comment stream has fallen into multiple people slinging so many insults that people who aren't even involved in the discussion are disgusted.
I tried my best to be polite throughout both the online discussion that triggered this entry and the two discussions I've had recently in real life. As much as it might seem impossible, tolerance is certainly possible. However, don't make the mistake of applying a modernist view of the word "tolerance." To be polite you do not have to agree that the opposition is right and a mutually contradictory view is also right. Tolerance doesn't mean what people think it means. Today tolerance is used to mean, "treat all views as true." What it really means, "treat all people respectfully, regardless of their views." I think Ravi Zacharias, who is a model of great tolerance, has some great points about this and I suggest you listen to/read his stuff to get a sense of what it means to be tolerant. This is important because one's view of tolerance can shape the whole debate. If your opposing side wants you to be more tolerant and accept their view as true they need to prove that their true is correct. Because, remember you can be tolerant without accepting their view. When modern debaters ask for tolerance (especially from conservatives) what they're really asking for is approval. You do not need to approve of someone's position to be tolerant, but in all this you must still maintain politeness!
#2 - Be gracious
This one is also tough. Indeed depending on your personality this one may be more difficult than the first rule. What do I mean by gracious though? Well, at the risk of sounding condescending let me put it like this. You may be an experience intellectual who has debated on national stages about your particular area of expertise (that's not me!), but your "opponent" may be a high school dropout with an axe to grind after reading some internet news article, or you both may be somewhere in between. The point, if you don't get it already, is to be gracious to the opponent's argument(s). Maybe they phrase the argument in an odd way, maybe they ignore too many suppressed premises. Maybe they don't know what any of the typical terms in debates are at all. Then again they may have taken the Coursera class Think Again: How to Reason and Argue and frame their argument intentionally ignoring certain premises. The issue is not that you need to engage your opponent(s) and go in for the kill, the point is getting to the real arguments and dealing with them, not with your opponent's inability to frame his/her views well.
One of the best ways to be ungracious is to focus on the minutiae, e.g. grammar/spelling/punctuation among other things. If you're unwilling or unable to look past those kinds foibles you ought not debate either in person, but particularly online. Nothing kills your witness and credibility faster than pointing out someone's misuse of punctuation or grammar. Sure, you may be right, and there may be times when you need to clarify something, but you need to do so graciously and be able to look through the "mistakes" and understand the real arguments and deal with them, not the grammatical mistakes.
#3 - READ!
Though the first two were probably the most difficult to do, this one is easy to do, yet incredibly important. First, read every, single, reply. Every, single, time. If you don't read what your opponent has written, you're being neither gracious nor polite. In fact, you ought to read your opponent's writings twice especially if he/she is not particularly competent, or if he/she is beyond your level of understanding. If you don't really understand a particular sub-point your opponent brings up, ask! Do not just proceed as if you understand! You probably will make a terrible mistake in your arguments and end up both losing the argument (if there's even such a thing) and looking like an idiot in the process. Also, every internet argument will most likely include one or both sides providing links to support the arguments being made. Do not ignore these posts. Read each link with an open mind, searching for the argument(s) being presented and weighing those statements just as you would in the discussion forum. Then, after you've read and reread, attempt to comment one what the person is trying to say. Keep the conversation focused (see rule #5). (I almost forgot to mention the one exception here. If someone posts a link to a whole book, you do not have to read the whole book to be able to comment. There is a reasonable limit to the amount of reading you have to do in order to respond, you draw your own line then be gracious in responding even consider reading books with which you will not agree.)
#4 - Eschew Obfuscation
I've always loved that joke! Eschew: deliberately avoid using; abstain from. Obfuscation: obscuring of intended meaning willfully ambiguous or harder to understand (often with the connotation that one is using longer/larger/lesser known words to do so). It may be difficult, and I imagine some people read my stuff and assume that I don't follow my own advice. Perhaps. But if I do confuse people it certainly isn't intentional. I like to be clear, and I generally try to use "clarity of language" to borrow a line from "The Giver" (movie). In debate/discussion and in philosophy in general it is important to convey one's thoughts as clearly as possible. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't use technical language, just that you ought to explain your thoughts in a way that your audience will understand your point. If you confuse your opponent you haven't "won" the debate, you've merely irritated him/her to the point that he/she has given up, or soon will give up on the discussion.
#5 - Stay focused
As I'm writing this, I've come to realize that I've said that each different rule is the hardest. Unfortunately, this one also falls into that category! Haha. Well, tell me. How many discussions online have you been involved in that actually stayed on topic? Now, I understand a bit of a tangent. (If you know me in person, I'm sure you've experienced my ADD-like conversational style.) However, when you're discussing ... say ... abortion online, don't get sidetracked into discussions about war or the death penalty. That's not to say you should ignore those tangental discussions, just politely bring the discussion back to the primary topic. Obviously those (and other) topics could be related to the topic at hand, but if you want the discussion to proceed try to keep it on track. This one is more difficult if the discussion is taking place on someone else's page, because it's not your page and you cannot really control the flow of conversation. If it is your page, then you can use any number of methods to control the conversation. I typically delete completely unrelated comments; I also delete completely emotional attacks or completely insensitive and rude comments. When it's your own page, you can control the flow much differently/better than when it's not your own forum.
Before I close this entry, I need to apologize. I had this entry started months ago as a response to an online conversation I had, and since then I've had at least one other discussion on Facebook that went, more or less, the way I wanted it to go. Then after some incredibly unsavory discussions, I decided to forgo Facebook for Lent. I won't be back on Facebook until after Lent so I won't be engaging in the types of discussions addressed here for some time. I do not really recommend Facebook as a forum for discussion, but it's a decent option because it's wide open and there is more openness with a wide range of interlocutors. God bless you in your discussions.