A new competitive pastime has emerged, and I’ve been practicing. Move over sitcoms, online debate has become my pastime of choice. When we plop on the couch for the evening, I log into my social media accounts, looking for a fight I can join, or a viewpoint that needs to be taken to task.
Some people have Words with Friends opponents, I have gun control debate opponents. Some people chase balls around, whacking at them with sticks. I chase ill-formed logic around, whacking at it with facts.
So committed I am to my new sport, that I’ve created my own training ground by assembling a social media account full of passionate advocates and fiery tempers, just so I can observe, learn, and strengthen my skills.
Now an amateur couch-sociologist of sorts, here is the lineup I like to keep my eye on:
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- Trolls: Trolls browse social media to spit insults at anyone who dares have views different than their own.
- Tinfoil hat people: Conspiracy theorists run in packs, citing controversial food blogs and discredited websites as political sources. They thumb their nose at silly things like evidence, proven facts, news reports and science.
- Devil’s advocates: Those who will present an argument for the opposing side, regardless of which side holds their loyalty. Devil's advocates must be dealt with carefully, as their end game is to bait and switch, turning someone’s words back against them.
- Fact-finders extraordinaire: Posters of expert articles, charts and facts. They know their stuff and wield it well.
- Fact-ignorers extraordinaire: False news stories, misattributed quotes, inaccurate statistics — these people will provide any evidence, however flawed, to support their case. Often, when informed their information is incorrect, they’ll respond with, “Well, it should be true.”
- Sunshiney positivity addicts: The sun shines brighter on Mr. and Mrs. Positivity, with their rosy outlooks and the profusion of gratitude and hope they spread. They can’t be beat, and most of us should consider joining them.
- Passionate followers traversing a narrow path:Those who cling to a belief because it’s what they’ve always believed. They’ve never questioned it, and are often astonished by logic and facts which do not fit into their narrow, tightly honed viewpoint.
Before I turned recreational with my debating, I found myself sad, and at a loss when I simply could not make others see my point of view. But with recreational debate, my definition of “winning” has changed, and it’s now my goal to defend my point well, and understand the other sides better. I’ve found that following these tactics sets me up for a personal win:
- Make others feel smart. Any conversation is more effective when both parties feel respected.
- Ask questions. Allow someone to explain their point of view. Agree when you can.
- When offering a persuasive argument, present it as a question. “If it’s part of the CDC’s job to study causes of injuries, why was the CDC pressured by the NRA to stop studying gun violence?” Many times, they’ll see your point without you ever having to state it yourself.
- Provide evidence from sources they trust. Know the person you’re debating with, and provide them sources they respect.
- Listen to and/or read the evidence they provide, even if it’s not from a source you generally read. Understanding the spin that someone hears on an issue helps you gain perspective and tailor your points.
- Look for understanding, not changing others’ minds. I’ve finally realized that most people will not change their minds. However, if we each leave a debate with a broader understanding, especially having found some common ground, we walk away stronger and enriched.
The days of not talking about religion and politics are long gone. It’s time we learn to engage respectfully and effectively. And it might even be time to print up team jerseys.
Emily Parnell lives in Overland Park, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org