How (not) to win an argument

The internet is brilliant. You can spend all day watching educational programmes, learning a language, being entertained, or, slightly less usefully, looking at pictures of cats that look like people. Or vice versa. It has benefited humanity by allowing people who would otherwise never meet or have contact to connect, communicate and share their knowledge and opinions. Its freedom has led to huge, open, collaborative projects like Wikipedia and it has given a voice to those without one. Unfortunately apart from providing a tremendous opportunity to waste time the internet has blunted one of humanity’s collective skills honed over millennia. We used to be able to form, cogent, lucid arguments based on evidence to support a position and hear countervailing views in a considered, rational way. But lately it seems we have lost our ability to debate properly. Or rather we don’t seem to want to or can’t. In ancient Greece debating was considered a key part of being a good citizen, and the Roman Forum was used in part to discuss the important issues of the day. The coffee houses, literary salons and new scientific institutions of 18th century England and France were the crucible of the Enlightenment where new ideas were enthusiastically discussed. It is perhaps no surprise that these three eras have spawned so many influential figures in philosophy, science, political theory, economics and literature to name just a few.

Today, the instant access and freedom for all has meant that anyone can contribute and it is very easy to do. I would argue too easy. How often have you read something online, thought about adding to the conversation and then looked at the comments posted by other readers “below the line” and changed your mind? Or simply been turned off from engaging? Even if you ignore the vitriolic, abusive or plain silly, finding a constructive, well balanced, insightful post is a rarity. Now I’m all for freedom of speech — however idiotic — and I wouldn’t want heavy handed censorship as that narrows the collective view of contributors. But what it leaves is often a body of dialogue that is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. For important issues that affect people’s lives this dilutes any worthwhile contributions to the discussion.

“There are no facts, only interpretations.” Friedrich Nietzsche

Take a recent debate that has had widespread media coverage; that of junior doctors and their ongoing dispute with the government. It’s a very emotive issue for many and one that warrants discussion in the public domain. I have my own views about it but I would think long and hard before committing them to print to try and argue a case one way or the other. Why? Because I am neither a junior doctor nor do I work for the Department of Health. The matter at hand is a very complex one and forms part of a wider government policy surrounding the NHS. I don’t have the necessary facts to make an informed comment, and so I reason that anything I do have to say about will be my opinion, based on my own personal biases, emotions and experiences and nothing more. This will be true for most people and is absolutely fine as long they recognise this when posting, but the majority don’t. They will swear they are right and others are wrong without any basis in evidence to support them. Fuelled by emotions, those opinions then often stray from the central issue. I conducted some cursory research into comments below articles about the junior doctors’ dispute in the mainstream media and found people that people felt the need to write about: privatisation of the NHS, MPs’ salaries and working hours, wider government performance, the contribution to society of the other emergency services and armed forces, a good deal of politics, NHS inefficiencies, public health, not to mention some fairly choice personal barbs directed towards Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary. Furthermore, individuals often wrote about more than one of these wholly separate topics in the space of a sentence or two, or neglected the main issue itself. I am sure you could find more and the point is where this might merely be irritating if the original article was about say, football, with such an important topic any useful contributions are soon lost in the avalanche of conflation and irrelevance.

I am sure that Jeremy Hunt hasn’t read any online comments and frankly why should he? He is unlikely to find anything to sway his point of view. And this highlights the underlying problem. For such a finely balanced, complex issue to arrive at the best conclusion he needs to hear the well reasoned persuasive arguments; the ones that concede he might have a point in some way and are prepared to compromise. Not being privy to the formal negotiations I have no idea whether he has heard such arguments. I sincerely hope he has. But he definitely won’t have got them from comments sections written by the general public.

Today’s world is full of equally “wicked” problems that do not have a single, definitive solution. Climate change, inequality, and poverty are huge, multi-faceted challenges for societies to deal with. To reach the best solutions requires us all to put aside our prejudices and think and persuade dispassionately, accepting compromise and co-operating. There are many outlets to do this including the internet if used wisely. It is a pity that today so many embrace the chance to contribute on the one hand yet simultaneously choose to waste their opportunity on the other.