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How to Argue Politely, and Why You Should

How to argue politely, and why you should.

These days we have more opportunity than ever, thanks to the seemingly limitless power of the internet, to have our voices heard. It is a wonderful thing that so-called ordinary people have the ability to make their voices heard loud and clear, potentially globally, on issues that concern them. Revolutions have quite literally begun on Facebook (case in point the Egyptian 2010 revolution begun by a post by Google marketing exec Wael Ghonim). Should we capitalise on this? Absolutely. Should we question ideas we don’t believe in? For sure. We have to. Our voice is important. But we need and should be careful and mindful of we go about doing that, otherwise it is highly possible we will do more harm than good, for whatever cause we are defending and our society in general.

Paul Graham, a computer scientist and author, created a pyramid graphic called ‘The Hierarchy of Disagreement’, to go along aside an essay he wrote in 2008 called ‘How to Disagree’. The bottom tier of the triangle points to the weakest form of disagreement (name calling), with the second tier being one of most common: ad hominem (attacking the person rather than the substance of the argument). The top tier refers to what Graham considers to be the strongest form of argument: ‘refuting the central point’. Weaker styles of argument on the bottom tiers of the pyramid can actually cause the arguer to lose credibility with those who may have been persuaded to agree with whatever point or cause he/she is arguing for. Robert Montenegro wrote in an article for Big Think ‘Social Media and the SJW (social justice warrior) mindset…both promote a shouting-down of the opposition rather than a thoughtful attempt to sway opinion. It, by design, divides rather than unites’. Too often, arguments (particularly those on social media), are emotive and contain sweeping statements based on very little factual evidence. When challenged to provide facts, these arguers often fall silent. By then though, the damage is done. Often ‘opinion’ is masqueraded as ‘fact’. How do we know the difference? Because opinion always has a degree of subjectivity. Facts are backed by evidence. But it’s easy to let our emotions rule when we read, or post something on social media. Studies show that 90% of people do not fact check what they read on the internet before they click the like or share button. That can be very dangerous indeed.

People are also more like to argue or vent if they are against a view point or idea: supporters are more likely to stay quiet. This is partly because of the ‘spiral of silence’, where people are much less likely to express their opinion if it differs from those of their friends, and also because it is not always as satisfying to humbly agree. This often gives a distorted perception of where the majority of people’s opinions lay, when more of those who are opposed to something are vocal about than those in support.

Laura Hudson wrote ‘At best, social media has given a voice to the disenfranchised, allowing them to bypass the gatekeepers of power and publicize injustices that may otherwise remain invisible. At its worst, it’s a weapon of mass reputation destruction, capable of amplifying slander, bullying and casual idiocy on a scale never before possible’. We need to make sure that when we argue our point, we direct our argument at the idea, policy or opinion that we disagree with: not personal attacks ad hominem style., or we risk losing credibility and skating very close to school yard style bullying.

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