Room For An Argument

“Is this the right room for an argument?”
Monty Python

If you express an opinion via Twitter and no Derailer is waiting to pounce and instigate the pile-on, are you still wrong?

The answer is, of course, yes. How ever humble, arrogant, studied, or ill-considered your opinion, someone somewhere will disagree with it. But the answer is also no. Though the facts or ideas surrounding it may be wrong, your opinion remains your opinion, and you are entitled to hold it, regardless of how silly it is or how vital it may be to educate you out of it. And make no mistake, someone online will try to ‘educate’ you in their own sweet, unique way, which on closer inspection will probably turn out to be neither sweet nor unique.

I am talking about the particular type of Internet troll I call The Derailer. The Derailer may act out of innocence, ignorance, boredom, spite, or even a combination of these and other factors. What they do is throw a spanner into the works of an argument or conversation and either take it off into an unrelated tangent, or drive it around in circles until it disappears up its own logic hole.

In a real-life, one-to-one discussion, a practiced Derailer can run enough rings of confusion around you to make you start to doubt yourself and have you explaining what you meant in such convoluted ways, the conversation has effectively been shut down before you realise what they’ve done.

The interesting thing about online arguments is that you start to see many different people using the same derailing techniques, which enables you to deal with them more effectively. Here are some of these techniques. I am deliberately using Wikipedia links to the following terms for two reasons. Firstly, the articles are a useful springboard to further research; and secondly because seasoned Derailers will often try to tell you your points are invalid because you’ve used Wikipedia links. So bring it on.

The Straw Man Argument

 This is one of the most popular derailing techniques. Basically, it’s when someone ‘tears down’ your argument based on what you didn’t actually say.

I’ve experienced this numerous times both online and in the real world. While sometimes this is done maliciously, I don’t think every instance has been deliberate. Sometimes people feel so strongly around a certain subject, they imagine you’ve said something you haven’t. Or perhaps I’m being too charitable.

An extreme example would be Person A says ‘animals shouldn’t be in zoos’ and the Straw Man Derailer would come back with, ‘But think of all the chaos and lives lost when you turn wild animals loose on the streets! How could you propose such a stupid thing?’ Person A has proposed nothing of the kind, but now has to waste time explaining what they did mean only to find said explanations will be similarly misrepresented.

The Fallacy of Relative Privation

This is the famous ‘How can you complain about x when there are children starving in Africa?’ This example is given on the above Wikipedia page, as is the one about ‘crying over having no shoes until meeting a man who had no feet.’ Taken to its (il)logical conclusion, the man with no feet should be chastened by the existence of the man with no legs, who in turn should count his blessings he’s not the man with no limbs at all, who himself is thanking his lucky stars he’s not the man who’s dead, who, by all accounts used his last breath to give thanks for the life he had, a life which had been denied to the man who never existed at all, who, in this world of fallacious arguments, appears to have trumped everyone. Let’s all think about him for a moment with our eyes downcast in shame.

In a nutshell, it is the trick of dismissing someone’s argument or cause because something worse or more important is going on somewhere in the world. It is an attempt to make you feel guilty or foolish for expressing what they would have you think is a shallow, unworthy concern.

In reality, you are allowed to care about many things of varying magnitude. Just because you’re concerned about the immediate problem of, say, your television having caught fire and have dared to tweet about this First World Problem doesn’t mean that you’re saying you have it worse than people starving or living in a war zone. It is a form of

Whataboutery or Whataboutism

Another popular ploy is the

Ad Hominem Attack

where instead of countering the points of the argument, the Derailer attacks the person making the points instead. Sometimes this can be relevant, people in glass houses, and all that, but you don’t have to be pure in every thought and deed to recognise injustice and point it out.

All these derailing approaches more or less boil down to the same thing: you’ve said something the Derailer doesn’t like, and they want to shut you up and leave you feeling as bad as possible. If you get into an argument with one of these types, you have a few options.

The most common advice given is Don’t Feed The Trolls. If someone is outright abusive, it’s simpler to report, block, and move on. The problem with Derailers is that they either start out reasonably to draw you in, or their initial attack is an almost clever misrepresentation that you can’t just leave unchallenged.

For any kind of discussion based argument with anyone my recommendations are as follows.

1. Never, ever resort to ranting, abuse, or swearing. What happens on the Internet stays on the Internet. Somewhere there will be a permanent record of your exchange. Don’t be the one who comes across as the aggressor. While reeling off a litany of profanity may offer some instant gratification, it won’t be quite so gratifying if selective screencaps portray you as a foul-mouthed bully.

2. Make sure your argument is sound. By which I mean that you’ve actually thought it through, you stand by it, and, above all, it’s reasonable. This may sound like some kind of cap on freedom of expression, it’s not. If you stand by unreasonable views, you come across as an unreasonable person. It’s always surprising how the most reasonable of opinions can provoke an unreasonable response on the Internet, so why put yourself in the position of having to defend or backtrack over expressing something that makes you come across as the troll?

3. Keep calm. Always. Point out where they have misunderstood or misrepresented you and explain simply without condescension. This approach will bore them into giving up faster than any other.

And it’s all summed up perfectly here.