There have been references to the argumentative nature of the Internet for as long as I’ve been aware of such a thing, much less an active participant in it.
Without giving away my age, I was around back when people got into never-ending arguments on message boards about topics that ranged from the serious to the downright silly.
For those of you who don’t remember those halcyon days, message board discussions sometimes went something like this:
Thread title: Dogs Are Great
Anne: Here’s a humorous story about my dog not realizing that it’s Daylight Savings Time and waking me up an hour early for breakfast. I really wanted to sleep in, but he was so excited to spend time with me that I ended up getting out of bed early. Aren’t dogs the best?
Bernard: Oh, so you must hate cats then.
Anne: Wait, what?
Bernard: Obviously, everyone who loves dogs also hates cats. If you didn’t feel that way, you would have included cats in the beginning of this thread since they also like to ignore Daylight Savings Time.
Charlie: Yeah, what Bernard said. You really should have thought this rude thread through before posting it for these fourteen reasons that I will now list in exhaustive detail.
Diego: Well, I agree with Anne. Cats are the worst pets that have ever existed for these fifteen rebuttals to Charlie that I’ll now list in exhaustive detail.
Depending on how Anne responded once she realized that her innocuous thread about the joys of dogs had immediately been hijacked to argue about whether dogs or cats are the superior pet, this thread could go on for multiple pages and many days.
It didn’t matter what the original purpose of the message board was. I saw it play out on every one I ever visited. Maybe these kinds of arguments are an inescapable part of human nature in general.
At any rate, this pattern of behaviour carried over to social media as soon as such a thing existed. It’s shown no sign of of stopping since then.
No, this isn’t going to be a rant against social media or the Internet in general. Like many other tools, they can be used in all sorts of constructive or destructive ways depending on the intentions of the person behind the screen.
What I did want to talk about today is why not responding is sometimes the best possible thing you can do when someone online – or offline, for that matter – is determined to argue with you no matter what you say or do.
It Takes Two to Argue
I was originally going say that it’s impossible to argue with yourself, but I have seen a few examples of people so determined to win a debate that the lack of an opponent doesn’t do much to stop them.
Still, most arguments require at least two people to sustain them. If one person simply refuses to play the game, it becomes much more difficult for the other one to keep pressing their points. I don’t personally find any fulfillment in debating, but I’ve noticed that many people who do get a thrill out of any response you give them.
It’s not necessarily about the merit of the arguments themselves, it’s about the act of getting the other side to respond in any way.
Nobody’s Mind Will Change
There is nothing Anne can do to convince Bernard that her original post was intended to be lighthearted and happy. He is so determined to drag his own feelings about dogs and cats into every interaction he has that he’ll probably never stop.
Likewise, Bernard will never convince Anne that cats are better than dogs. That wasn’t why she originally signed up for this message board or started that thread. She has no interest in arguing with a stranger on the Internet on a topic she already has an opinion on, and there’s nothing Bernard can say or do to change that.
You’re Not the Cause or the Solution
A certain percentage of people have urges to do things like stir up conflict, always be right, or push their opinions onto everyone they meet regardless of the social context.
Nobody that I’ve known has ever learned to examine the reasons why they behave the way they do based on a conversation with a stranger. If or when they decide to work on changing those parts of themselves, they’ll seek out help on their own terms.
But you didn’t cause their behaviour and there’s nothing you can do to fix it. They are who they are just like you are who you are.
I Choose Peace
There’s something liberating about choosing not respond to everyone who wants to debate. The Bernards of the world obviously have the freedom to rant about cats and dogs as much as they wish, but they’ll soon learn that I’m not someone who will jump into fruitless arguments with them.
There are plenty of other folks on the Internet who are willing to do that, and I wish them well with their virtual battles.
How do you decide what you will and won’t respond to online?
Thanks for using the way-back machine (message boards!) to deliver this thoughtful advice. Timely too, as I was briefly considering wading into an internet controversy myself 🙂
You’re welcome. So much depends on how much emotional energy you have for a given controversy. I’m glad you made the right decision for yourself.
I love this post. A few months ago I decided to stop engaging in the pointless outrage discussions – like the one you posted above, but also politics, etc. The only thing I ever achieved was winding myself up and feeding trolls. I wish I read your post earlier, it would have spared me so much anguish and allowed me to allocate my energy to things that actually deserve it!
Thank you. Yes, life is much calmer when you bow out of fruitless arguments. I’m glad you’ve learned this lesson. 🙂
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