How to Discuss Social Issues On Social Media and Not Go Crazy
6 Tips For Healthy and Fruitful Conversations
Ok, you’ve decided to comment on that article or say two words to a friend of yours. You have been silent for a few days now and you think a comment won’t harm anyone; it might even do some good!
First, let me say you are not alone: every day millions of people add their comments to corners of the interweb where they reasonably shouldn’t be. This pulls other millions of comments into hundreds of thousands of lose-lose confrontations.
Moreover, the aspiration to convince others of something right or good is one that is deeply engrained in us, even when our thesis is neither right nor good.
It is certain that we won’t get out our problems without talking to each other, and it’s looking like a sizeable part of that conversation will happen online and on social media, so here are a few pieces of advice to make it as painless and fruitful as possible.
This part describes behaviours that will benefit you, regardless of what your interlocutors do.
‘Sleep on it’ is an advice that we all accept as useful. While it’s not always practical to sleep before saying anything, you should always let a few minutes (or hours) go by before responding to comments in an online discussion. This is the most important advice for discussions that happen in open spaces. What you get by doing so is to add time to the conversation, time that all participants can use to think more on what has already been said, including you, especially you. In addition, when you wait, you might find a better response or realize that your comment is not needed at all. This will result in a higher quality of debate. When you wait, you also force the other side to wait, so you can unilaterally push yourself and your interlocutor into a better place.
Concede the Last Word
The biggest mistake you can make is to enter a discussion with the single exit-strategy of leaving once you’ve proved yourself right. This is most important in closed spaces, where people are likely to invest more time on a single issue. Having the last word is not so valuable, in fact it does not matter. Trust that the body of the conversation has add an effect, however small, on your interlocutors, and do not obfuscate that effect by chasing smaller details down rabbit holes and adding words that are intended more to prove that you are right, rather than the original thesis. Concede the last word even if your interlocutors have given no signal that they’ve taken any of your points into consideration. For discussions that happen in closed spaces, even where there is a majority consensus around a certain position, not every conversation that criticises it has to end with an explicit reaffirmation of the position.
Less is More
A comment thread is no place for an essay. To be precise, essays are good, but wasted; consider writing a medium post instead. Furthermore, you always need to be on the lookout for the right moment to leave the conversation: I usually do so when I find myself repeating this that have already been said (this also means I will not enter a conversation if I have nothing new do add). Comment threads are also badly structured to engage in conversations that bifurcate and keep track of all the branches, so don’t do that. Always try to focus on the core of the argument and let go of the smaller parts whenever possible. In particular, never talk about two things at a time: avoid opposing an example with another example, try instead to show how the given one is a bad example or not an example before introducing another.
This part describes principles that are unlikely to bear any fruit when the other part is not contributing; nevertheless, it’s a good practice to always adhere to them.
Make sure you are right about something before saying it. If possible check it again just before typing it; and if you cannot check it, then be quiet. Also in the spirit of being honest, always imagine the strongest version of the opposing arguments and respond to that. In other words, do not advance arguments that you know to be faulty just because their faults are hidden behind the faults or the inability on the other side.
Be generous and admit clearly when you are wrong and when you change your mind about a part of the discussion. This makes it easier to keep track of the premises that are settled are those to be discussed. More importantly, it makes your interlocutors more amenable to compromise as well (although there is no guarantee they will). If you believe you are a better understanding of the matter at hand and a better use of language, you cannot at the same time expect the other side to keep up with your language and adhere to your terminology; it is on you to make yourself understood.
Beware of Absolutes, Understand Conventions
Absolutes are not valid categories to reason about social issues. It is unlikely for the intersection of absolute concepts with society to be bigger than the empty set, so be careful about using words like all, none, always, never. As captain Picard says:
Even life itself is an exercise in exceptions.
On the other hand, do not abuse of logic and frustrate all reasoning about social issues by raising formal defects. People use shortcuts, abbreviations and build upon certain shared understandings of reality; not all occasions are appropriate to analyse a vertical slice of all levels. A statement introduced by ‘tall people are’, together with its context, can reasonably be understood to be true for tall people without binding all tall individuals or requiring a mathematical definition of tall.
There is a way to reason about social categories that takes exception into account and allows conclusions to be reached. Let’s practice that.