Online Debate: Trolls, haters, tone and content

There has been much online discussion about online discussion and heated debates about the worth of heated debates, especially following an infamous Twitter ‘flame war’/debate/discussion about rape jokes, sexism and other things that seemed to be lost as the debate went on, and turned into a debate about the debate.

In some sense, the debate has been useful, and in other ways, it’s been circular and I fear a lot of what has been said is repeating others and not adding anything new so I was loathe to comment unless I had something I thought would add something new to the debate about the debate about the debateā€¦

As much as it is useful to interrogate that nature and tone in which debate with people, both who we agree with mostly, and those we disagree with entirely, I feel like much of the debate is more and more ignoring that content of which we are debating about. That goes for the debate of sexism, writing about women’s issues, but also for debate in general. For me, what we are responding to or debating about tends to be more important than how we say it.

In that sense, arguing that we should all be friendly to each other is both obviously true and all encompassing but at the same missing the point. I choose on how to respond to things based on a number of things, including whether or not I’m actually trying (and it is possible) to convince someone of my point of view, or and this should not be dismissed, to signal my own disapproval even though it is likely the person I’m responding to has no chance in hell of coming closer to agreeing with me.

But beyond that, there is a difference between responding fiercely and ‘rudely’ to someone who say, advocates for women’s rights as opposed to someone who says that women are to blame for rape, as well as a whole number of offensive things. If I responded to the later in a mean or ‘unproductive’ way, I make no apology. Focussing on how I responded rather than what I was responding to misses the point. The sexist commenter may put his or her opinion across in a polite way or a crude offensive way, but it doesn’t really change the content of what he said, and I would not give someone like that credit for putting across what they said in ‘thoughtful’ and ‘nuanced’ manner. The content of what this person said was offensive and that’s what I’m responding to.

For me, the problem is that the flame wars that crop up all the time on a range of different subjects can lose their original meaning when one responds in a certain tone, and becomes a debate about how you respond rather than the issues we’re responding to, which begs the question why I’m writing this in the first place, I guess.

But I think it’s useful to respond to in order to bring it back to think about the content we’re debating, rather than the tone. I have been the victim of many trolls and online haters, and attacks over the years, which is both frustrating and sometimes demoralising, but this does not mean that I hold back from responding aggressively when I think it is justified i.e. I’m not interesting in debating with Zionist commentator Ted Lapkin and so when I saw him on the street once, I didn’t stop and ask him for a cup of coffee to discuss our ideas, but let fly with a bunch of insults, which I suppose he enjoyed as much as I did, but the point was to indicate to the people around us where I stood.

Another example is often when I’ve campaigned around same-sex marriage rights, a number of times homophobic bigots and haters will come up to you and call you a whole number of things, and responding probably won’t convince that person to think that homosexuality is not wrong, but responding, often stridently, often meant passers-by who would usually just keep walking, would stop, sign the petition and become more interested in the issue because they were outraged with what the bigot was saying and agreed with my response.

The thing that gets to me about my own trolls and haters is not necessarily that they call me a worthless writer that no one reads (except them 24/7), but where they stand on the issues. I’m not just a worthless writer, but one that invites ‘hoards of refugees to invade our shores.’ I delete the trollish comments because in the end, there’s nothing to really respond to. Where as I might allow through other comments that disagree with me entirely, but this does not mean I have respect for their ideas or debating tactic, merely it is useful for the discussion to convince others around me, and not necessarily the person I’m responding to.

There may be differences in how a right-wing troll might attack me, and the exact tone I might use when attacking a right-winger, but what really should define it is the politics of the arguments and what side you’re on.

2 thoughts on “Online Debate: Trolls, haters, tone and content

  1. My own feeling on this issue is that it depends what you’re trying to achieve. When you argue with somebody, you might be trying to change their opinion, or you might be trying to ostracise them. For the former, being nice is more successful. For the latter, being aggressive is more successful.

    My own preference is to lean toward the former wherever possible. Largely because this is how I would prefer to be treated. But I’m not saying anybody else has to agree. Where we draw the line is something we each have to decide I guess.

  2. It’s a delicate situation that has to be judged on a case by case basis and sometimes you end up isolating yourself, even if you think the person cannot be convinced. That’s another factor I hadn’t considered.

    I know I’d rather not be isolated, but sometimes, from certain groups it isn’t such a bad thing to stand for principle instead of worrying about being respected amongst a certain group.

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