How to avoid getting into unnecessary online fights

Credit: jdxyw

The main point of reading old books written by philosophers is not to find instantly applicable solutions to immediate problems. After putting down such a book, the general sentiment is rarely renewed confidence in a particular course of action. Rather, the opposite tends to be the case: a profound confusion spreads through the body like so much bad coffee on a particularly grumpy morning. When looking for clear directions and immediate results with speedy expedience, philosophers are the least useful sources to turn to.

Sometimes, however, things are rather more straightforward. Nietzsche, for instance, writes about the eternal recurrence (or eternal return). This is the thought that whatever you do, you will do again in some distant future, and again, and again, for time eternal. This goes for the big actions in life, the defining acts that shape who you are in the broadest of senses. It also goes for the smallest of small gestures, down to the point of insignificance. Everything is included in the eternal rerun, and thus you will have to deal with it all over again and again. All of it. Forever.

As you might imagine, this is not a structural claim about the universe. Nietzsche is not stating this as an empirical fact that can be proven or disproven, but rather states it as a thought experiment. It recontextualizes whatever you are doing in the presence of eternity. Putting up with something annoying or burdensome once is an easy sell — it will only be this one time, so just power through it. If it is fated to happen over and over and over again, however, it takes on a distinctly different character. An eternity of annoyance is probably not worth it, in the grand scheme of things.

Thinking big is not opposed to thinking about small things. Sometimes, they are the same.

Attentive readers will have noted that the title is about online fights. What I am asking you to do is to recontextualize your online behavior in the face of eternity. Particularly, the picking of fights with perfect strangers about the nuances of words, the newest news item or some trivial matter that will be forgotten mere weeks from now. Petty bickering about forgettable things with an insignificant return on energy invested? Is this really what you want to do forever?

An easy way to immediately solidify the eternal recurrence is to think back on what you have created over the last few months. The blog posts written, the objects made, the acts of friendship performed. The things that matter and will continue to matter. Then contrast this to the results achieved by being in online fights. I will hazard a guess that the former is more memorable than the latter. The crux is that you actually have to do the work in order to achieve something worth remembering, and you are not performing it while you are in the midst of several heated online arguments about — what even was it again?

At this point, someone might object that randos find them and initiate fights naturally. Which is a true and solid objection, all round. Thing is. You have a choice as to whether you fight back or not. When someone writes fighting words at you, you always have a choice between dodging or counterpunching. Counterpunching will inevitably lead to things escalating — lashing out at people has a tendency to do that, even if they started it. Dodging, on the other hand, will avoid confrontation without necessarily conceding defeat. A great dodge will allow the conversation to continue without it turning into a fight (at least on your part).

There are several ways to dodge. The easiest way is to simply not reply to people who obviously enter your mentions with the intent of picking a fight. Don’t fight the trolls. This is a legitimate option, albeit sometimes forgotten in the drive to engage and be responsive. Just go about your day and do the things you want to do instead of being in an online fight. The conversation will continue with those less prone to conflict.

Another way is to reply with low-effort sentences. Ask for clarification, “how so?”. Say “That’s interesting”. Interject with statements that do not actually say anything, but which throws the ball over to the other person. If they really want to continue fighting, they will have to do so on their own. Make sure that it is brutally clear to everyone involved that the choice to pick a fight is squarely made by the other person, and that you are not really invested in either arguing or “winning”. Who knows — they might actually phrase the crux of the issue in a constructive manner, given the time and opportunity.

(An interesting variant of this is to respond by alternating “I agree” and “I disagree”. It is somewhat rude, albeit useful if someone really wants to pick a fight and does not respond well to non-replies.)

A more difficult way of dodging is to genuinely try to understand the other’s point of view, particularly when it involves persons you know from previous interactions. They might be trying to tell you something important, and being able to take in this information in a graceful way will improve your day immensely. If possible, separate the useful information from the confrontative potential of the situation.

Telling which kind of dodge to perform in which situation is a skill, and like most skills it only improves with use. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions that will enable you to sail through life without getting into online arguments. But by being aware that you have a choice as to whether to join the fray or try to remain out of it, you can reduce the chances of getting into the more easily avoidable fights, be it with randos, relatives on facebook, or twitter trolls who search for specific keywords to yell at people about. Sometimes, you can just choose to not fight. At other times, tact and careful exploration of the situation will be called for.

This applies to who you talk to and how you do it, as well. If you write at someone, make sure you are not accidentally throwing a punch. Avoid phrases such as “so what you are saying is that you want [bad thing]?” and other accusatory introductions. Find ways to initiate conversation that are invitations to co-think the issue, rather than argue over it. Dodge the fight preemptively.

This is not to say that you should not get into any arguments ever. Rather, the point is that you should choose your battles, and do it in such a way that when you do get into an online argument, you know why you’re doing and what you want out of it, rather than just aimlessly flailing at everyone for the sake of argument. To wax philosophical: spending eternity screaming at faceless strangers online is probably not the best possible use of your limited lifetime. In the grand scheme of things.

[Shameless self-promotion: I have a patreon. And a Ko-Fi. Fight me.]

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