How To Win Arguments On the Internet

Internet debate is a double-edged sword. It can help us undertand each other, but it can drive us apart, too.

In the past year, I’ve watched lots of internet arguments — some ugly, some not — unfold within the gaming community, most recently around issues of gender and inclusion in the aftermath of the Knutepunkt convention.

These debates have crystallized some thoughts on argumentation and tone. Forgive me for meandering a bit below: my core point here is that tone matters — sure, it doesn’t affect the content of your argument, but it does affect how that argument is perceived by your core audience, and therefore it affects your overall persuasiveness. This is my pragmatic world view — that if you want your argument to achieve maximum effectiveness, tone matters.

Yeah, “Tonal Arguments” Are Problematic.

I should point out that, yes, I am familiar with the inherent problems around tonal arguments. In a nutshell, the problem with tonal arguments is that when used abusively, they can derail the content of a debate and silence people who need to be heard. In other words, if I’m  just in from two weeks of exposure in the desert and I say, “I’m dying of thirst, fetch me a glass of water, jerk,” you might respond with “hey there spanky, you get more flies with honey. Say please!” you do have a point, but your point doesn’t actually negate the contents of my speech. I still really need a glass of water, like, now. The idea is that you should respond to the content of my speech, rather than the manner in which I’ve made it. And in general, I agree with this. But the tone of an argument also hits people on a gut emotional level, and that means it affects how likely your message is to penetrate your audience.

To reiterate: I agree that tonal arguments can be problematic, especially when they’re used like a weapon to deliberately derail productive conversation. I also acknowledge that sometimes, people — often people from non-dominant groups — just get tired of explaining stuff over and over again. If I had a flame thrower for every time I’ve had to argue about concepts that seem like feminism 101 to me, well, let’s just say there’d be a lot of crispy bodies scattered around the earth. I assume that trans people get tired of explaining trans issues, that people of color get tired of explaining racism, that larpers get tired of explaining larp, etc. etc. For me, at least, this fatigue causes the phenomenon of “ragesplaining” (it’s what mansplaining makes me want to do!). This is what happens when I feel like I have to explain X to a new group of people for the bazillionth time for me, although perhaps it’s only the first time for my audience.

I think all of this comes into play when talking about sensitive stuff on the web, or honestly, in person. And while tone doesn’t negate the contents of anyone’s speech, it makes a huge difference in how your message is received by others.

(Sidenote: Though the “basic” conversations can feel frustrating to have repeatedly, I think they’re some of the most important conversations to have, because they bring outsiders up to speed on what must sometimes seem like inside baseball. And usually, people who haven’t encountered basic concepts before simply haven’t thought about the issue very deeply yet, so it’s a good opportunity to spread some basic knowledge, and persuade these noobs over to your side.)

Pick a Tone Appropriate To Your Audience

Though there are lots of reasons to to engage in debate about sticky wickets like, say, gender or free speech, or whatever, I see four main reasons:

  • To rally the base that agrees with you
  • To change the mind(s) of the person(s) that you disagree with, but who are weighing in on the debate
  • To persuade people on the fence who may be listening, but not necessarily posting.
  • To give voice to people who may feel the same way you do, but who don’t feel comfortable speaking up.

All of these audiences are important. But to my mind, the middle two are the most important because they are the most likely to create real change by growing the base of people who agree with you. Persuading someone who is a fierce advocate of an opposing position has ripple effects as well — if I can change Darth Vader’s opinion on planet explosion, how many storm troopers will follow? My argumentative mantra is: every “enemy” is a potential ally.

To my mind, ragesplaining may feel really really good, but it pretty much only appeals to an audience that already agrees with you. I think it alienates fence-sitters, and it makes the people you disagree with feel attacked. It also takes focus away from the issues at hand and gets people’s pride involved.

How do I know this? Well, I’ve been on both sides of the equation.

During and after Mad About the Boy, I had a lot of arguments about feminism with different sects of people. Early-on, this argumentation meant persuading some men in the community that it was OK to have a game and invite only women. Later, the game took a lot of heat around gender issues from a number of feminists. I don’t want to reopen what was a painful episode for people on many sides of the equation, but this discussion felt frustrating to me, and others on the organizing committee, in part because we consider ourselves feminists and felt we had many goals in common with our adversaries. However, from our perspective, the tenor of the arguments made it difficult for us to want to engage in debate. Plus, we’d used up much of our energy for debate before the game. For me, this felt like a wake-up moment, because I learned what it feels like to be told that you are not being politically correct/understanding enough, and so I feel like I have some empathy for both the critics and the criticized.

Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

To me, the best arguments begin by giving your opponents every advantage — by giving them the benefit of the doubt. Here’s why I think it works:

  • If you couch your opponent’s position in the strongest way possible, then your devastating critique is that much more damning. It doesn’t leave them the wiggle room of, “you misinterpreted me.”
  • As much as we like to think debate is abstract and about the issues, most of us identify strongly with the beliefs we hold and the activities we do. Attacking these can feel like an attack on a person’s identity. That gets pride involved, which makes it emotionally more difficult for the opposition to “give in” on points you might have otherwise persuaded them about. Giving someone the benefit of the doubt, generally includes assuming that:
    • most of us are normal human people who sometimes make flawed decisions
    • most of us don’t intend to hurt others, but sometimes do so inadvertently
    • most of us are thoughtful people who have tried to do their best

As the saying goes, “intent isn’t magic.” To borrow a metaphor from the Knutepunkt debate, even if I didn’t mean to kick you on the dance floor — even if my intent was good — your shin may still hurt, and perhaps you’ve got a bruise to contend with for a few weeks. No apology can fix that. But surely, “I don’t know if you noticed, but you kicked me rather hard, and I’d like to talk about the dance moves you try to bust,” is likely to get a better return than “you’re a horrible person. Why’d you kick me, jerk?” (By the same token, “I’m really sorry I kicked you, but this is the dance style I strongly prefer,” will get a better response than “Stop being so sensitive, it was just a little shove.”)

I don’t want to put the burden on the person who is already hurt to be extra understanding and extra nice and to overcome lots of natural rage. That isn’t fair. It sucks. It’s a nearly superhuman demand. I think people in the position of handling critique should also exercise their empathy, to understand that perhaps this isn’t the first time I’ve been kicked on the dance floor and that I’m having a compound reaction, to give me space to calm down, perhaps to help calm me down so we can have a productive discussion, and so on. Of course, that can be difficult as well. But as Lewis Carroll put it, we should all try six impossible things before breakfast, right?

I think this is particularly important to remember within debates about charged topics within the gaming community, in part because most people do gaming stuff on a hobby level, not for money, but because they want to create things for others. Hostile debate and not giving organizers the benefit of the doubt can produce a chilling effect on the community. After all, we want to encourage people to organize stuff because then there’s more cool stuff to go to — if the perceived social cost of organizing an event becomes too high, that’s going to discourage well-meaning people from participating, and I think that’s not good for the community in general.

Venting vs. Arguing

When I’m really mad, it’s hard to argue, because I can’t control my tone, which doesn’t effect my goal of bringing people around. It can alienate fence-sitters. It can make the opposition dig in its heels merely out of pride. For that matter, it can make me dig in my heels out of pride.

So before I argue, I vent privately to a small circle of trusted people I know won’t judge me for saying stuff that will be mean. And sometimes, I really need to say stuff that is mean, to get it out of my system. To calm down. Only then am I ready to argue, that is, to give my opponents the benefit of the doubt and try to win them over to my side.

I’m not anti-anger. Anger is important — it’s part of what drives us toward passionate and needed debate, but it’s possible to explain why you’re angry/hurt/etc without making the person you’re talking to angry as well.


I’m not concerned here with what’s fair or easy — the world is neither — but I’m concerned with what works. And in general, I think a kind tone, working hard to understand your opponents, and giving them the benefit of the doubt works. Sometimes that means dampening the natural urge to ragesplain things, even though that feels SO JUST AND GOOD.

When things get heated, try to remember that the point of communication is to get ideas across, which means considering what your audience is able to hear.

4 thoughts on “How To Win Arguments On the Internet

  1. Pingback: My Knutepunkt 2013 » Lizzie Stark

  2. One of the virtues of diplomacy is that it makes harsh words hit that much harder when you do use them. Seriously.

    Diplomacy is generally by far the most effective rhetorical strategy in internet arguments (and many others). Diplomacy does have one failing, though. Engaging politely with horrible arguments can have the effect of giving social approval and respect to them, even while you disagree. Propping up the status quo. To both those you argue with, and to bystanders, you can give the impression that this (the topic in question) is something that reasonable people can have reasonable disagreements about. If the question of the day is something like “are women really people”, this is unfortunate in my opinion.

    Once I have ascertained that this is indeed the case (and the doubtful benefits have been duly conferred), and the people I’m arguing with don’t seem to show signs of coming around even a little bit, I believe it’s a good time to rein in the hamsters of polite disagreement and let slip the dogs of war. Not so much with profanity and ALL CAPS!!!, but with harsh and unequivocal words. Coming from “someone reasonable”, this can hit hard.

    Kind words, reasoned argument and strongly worded withdrawal of respect and acceptance are all tools in the rhetorical toolbox. For maximum effectiveness, we need all of them, to use when the occasion demands.

  3. Excellent post, Lizzie.

    I couldn’t agree more (except of course that I probably feel even more strongly about the positive effects of tonal arguments than you do). And venting is VERY important. Knowing where to vent even more so. ;o)

    Love and woohoo fra here!

    – Claus

  4. Great post, yet again.

    One thing I’ve noticed, or think I’ve noticed, from my side of arguments and debates (and I’m in one almost weekly, because rage fuels my creativity), is that the person I am arguing with might be having other issues that aren’t related to me at all.

    There might be something that is really bugging them that I have no idea about, and they can’t, for whatever reason, express themselves to what is the deeper issue. In other words, I get angry with my wife for small slights when some other greater stressor, unrelated to her, is leaning down on me, and I can’t lift the weight.

    It’s the same thing that happens when I poke at our cat’s tummy when her hand is near his head: he bites her, because that’s the closest target.

    This idea doesn’t always apply, and it’s hard to detect sometimes when the flame war is really just the exhaust from another blaze. The person might not be aware of what is really bothering them, and/or they might not be able to articulate it, or won’t explain it to a stranger.

    A corollary, and this is just a late night, half-drunk theory from a cisgender straight white male in his 40’s, is that you can trace SOME misogyny back to a divorce. The nastiest comments against women, in my experience, have come from men who have or are getting a divorce.

    And all the rules about stereotyping apply here: not all divorcees are misogynists, not all misognyist males are divorcees, not all arguments are caused by divorce frustration, etc.

    I could be totally wrong about all of this, of course. And I don’t really know what to do about it when it happens, except to be aware of it when it is me being the snippy one due to a totally different issue. I try, at least.