Avoiding arguments that cannot be won = less stress = more good

24 08 2010

Last night, as I watched the Tennessee Titans soundly thrash the Arizona Cardinals in their Monday Night Football pre-season matchup, complete with humans hurdling over other humans, I also monitored my Tweetdeck. I’ve had a long love-hate relationship with Twitter and right now it’s in an upswing. I’m using it frequently, reading those I follow and during last night’s game, monitoring hashtags that I’m interested in.

The hate part of the relationship came early on, when I first started tweeting a little over a year ago under a different account than the one I have now. I allowed myself to get sucked into the rabid healthcare debate that was going on last August and found that it was the most absurd arena in which to communicate anything like that. You can pack a lot of hate in 140 characters and people did.

To go even further back, in 2002 and 2003, I started my very first blog back when blogs were still a pretty new phenomenon. Back then, being younger, much more foolish and a hell of a lot more idealistic, I’d frequently blog about politics. I’d also read about politics on other blogs, become incensed like they were and would frequently get involved in debates.

After a while, I discovered two things. First, that it really made me unhappy to get riled up all the time and second, that it’s impossible to have a real debate on the interwebs.

I’m sure most everyone is familiar with the Greater Internet F***wad Theory by now, but for those lucky few who’ve never experienced it, it goes like this: If you take a seemingly normal, everyday person, give them the anonymity that the Internet affords them and then introduce an audience, you will produce a raving, blithering, foul-mouthed and insane idiot. For the original illustration, see the Penny Arcade comic from March 19, 2004. Yes, it’s that old and is even truer today.

What I’ve decided over the course of the years and what I had forgotten briefly last year on Twitter were two important principles to keep in mind that are probably good corollaries to the GIFT theory.

  1. You can never win an argument on the Internet.
  2. You can never win an argument with an idiot.

I would argue that the two are inextricably linked, because it at least appears, to both sides of any given argument, that the other person he or she is arguing against on the Internet is also an idiot. If that’s the case, then it follows that all Internet arguments are arguments with idiots and should be avoided. Thus, the two rules are functionally one in the same.

It took a lot of learning and pacing around the house for me to really get it and I think I’ve got a good handle on it now.

In fact, I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance (not a close friend) about something in a game we play together which devolved into a debate. Mind you, the stakes in just about any debate are pretty low, but I found myself trapped again. In this case, since I knew the person, we both behaved well, but the debate quickly became silly and illogical. I found myself getting caught up in the same assumptions and I realized that it’s far too easy for anyone to defend any position, no matter how crazy and contrary to all real evidence, because the Internet makes everyone look like an illogical idiot. For once, I showed wisdom (I know, I’m very proud. I nearly wrote it on my calendar) and let the conversation drop. Even knowing the guy, I knew there was no way to “win” the argument and decided instead to live and let live.

What really concerns me though is that the Internet pushes back into the real world far too much. It’s one thing to have an insane debate when anonymity is in place, but I’ve discovered more and more that people are willing to abandon the anonymity and still come with the full on craziness. In a lot of ways, we’ve become so (mis)informed by the Internet that we allow this to creep into our real lives and conversations. I’ve observed that extreme viewpoints are much more often the norm than they used to be. Nowadays, I avoid talking politics at all if I can help it.

Facebook is a prime example of this. Informed by Internet sources, I’ve seen too frequently that people I know to be sane, mild-mannered people get suddenly taken up with whatever political cause there is of the day and say the absolute craziest things. In front of people they know. In print. Where everyone can see.

Speaking one’s mind like a loony-bird gets you defriended in my world. I have a personal rule that I never, ever, ever discuss politics on Facebook (one that I’ve stupidly broken twice and regretted both times) for fear of coming across like a loony myself.

This is because even the most innocent comments on the Web can approach only madness. Sure, it might start off well-reasoned and mild, but it will inevitably lead to someone comparing something to Hitler (Godwin’s Law). People have a hard time speaking in moderate tones to begin with, but on the Web it’s clearly intensified. Nothing can just be debatably bad, rather everything is always the Absolute Worst Thing Ever to Happen and will Destroy America.

Folks, nothing out there is about to just flat-out destroy America. Calm the hell down.

Not even the Cordoba House/Ground Zero Mosque, which, incidentally is related to the mistake I made last night. In my Tweetdeck, I started following three hashtags: #nfl, #titans, #mosque. Bad idea. What I saw in that column reaffirmed every conviction I have about Twitter having the capability of being the biggest cesspool of political thought imaginable. Lines and lines of 140 characters of hate-filled insanity each and within seconds, I already found myself getting upset.

So, I closed it down again just as fast and went back to watching the football game. No regrets about that, it was a nice game and a lot less stressful.