"Internet Arguments Are Useless." "No They're Not!"

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 10.854% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I do not expect to change anyone’s minds during an Internet debate.  Most people show up with pre-configured opinions and won’t be budged.
That’s not the same as Internet arguments – or political arguments in general – being useless, however.
I’ve had my mind changed in Internet clashes – I’ve come around to more nuanced positions on consent, I’ve gotten some radical education on trans issues, I’ve moderated my stances on gun control, often during some very flameworthy discussions on the topic.
Here’s the trick:
I rarely changed my mind during the argument itself.
I think what folks are looking for when they want to prove the worth of Internet arguments is the courtroom trial confession, where someone crumbles weeping on the stand and admits they’re wrong before all the world.   They want someone to change their mind in mid-thread, acknowledging their reasoning is a sham, and to roll over to the new side.
On the rare occasions that happens, it’s worthy of a viral screenshot.
No, what generally happens is that someone who seems intelligent scores a few significant hits during an argument, and friends I respect are on this person’s side, and while I’m too caught up in the moment to really acknowledge the hit was scored – in that sense, I’m often caught up in the wussy Internet equivalent of berserker rage, where you can shrug off critical hits and keep flaming – I’ll sometimes settle back later and go, “What I said didn’t seem right.”
I’m now sensitized.
And over the next few months, whenever the topic comes up again, I approach it with a little more curiosity, that concern I might have gotten something wrong, and a year later I’ve incorporated some new facts and my position has been modified.
At that point, I generally don’t even remember where the argument started that first made me go “Hmmm.”  I don’t go back to the people who were yelling at me to tell them “GREAT SUCCESS.”  In many cases, I still loathe those people for being mean.
But that argument has changed my mind.
And yeah, that’s not everyone, or even the majority of people!  But I’ve seen debates I’ve started play a part in changing other people’s minds.  I know some people reading me thought strongly that polyamory never worked, and years later, they’re hesitant to say that.  I’ve watched people who used to be against me on political sides slowly ally with me.  Sometimes, rarely, they even credit me…. but I wouldn’t blame them if they didn’t remember we’d once crossed swords, or didn’t want to admit I had a part in it, because I know there’s some folks who put the tip of the chisel in who I’m still pissy at.
But I wouldn’t be out here writing essays if it was useless.  I don’t like howling emptily into the wind, nor do I like singing to the choir 24/7.  (Though I’ll be honest, it’s nice to sing along occasionally.)
And no, it doesn’t happen all that often.  It’s like panning for gold; lots of water, lots of grit, hardly any gold.  (And the percentage success on random idiots searching strangers, looking for a fight on Twitter is even worse.  That, I’d advise is so low as to not be worth it.)
But as I’ve mentioned, if it only works 1% of the time, 1% differences are enough to swing elections.  I get it if you don’t want to go to the effort of debating, as it’s stressful for the conflict-avoidant, but…
Don’t lose yourself in snark.  It’s tempting to write all that heat off as bullshit, but the fact is that gay marriage is accepted in this country when it wasn’t ten years ago.  Ten years is a small time.  Some significant percentage of  people who once went, “God, why should the gays get married?” turned around and said “All right,” which means that minds can be changed.
It is hardly ever a pleasant process.  And as noted, you hardly ever get anyone who flips their position wholesale.  You hardly ever get anyone admitting error in the heat of the moment.  Hell, the majority of people won’t ever admit an error period.
But some do.  That’s why it’s worth it. That small percentage of people who listen are worth their Internet weight in gold.
That’s why I keep discussing.  You don’t have to; as noted, some days it’s more work than I’d like.  But don’t just shrug and say “It never works.”
It works sometimes.  And given how difficult it is to change anyone’s mind on anything, sometimes is enough.

1 Comment

  1. Alexis
    Jun 23, 2016

    I’m glad you wrote this. Too often people criticize me for arguing with people about issues on the Internet, but if someone doesn’t stand up and say something, nothing changes. I’ve convinced many people on issues like gay marriage (you have no idea the amount of crazy BS people believed about it a few years ago). Sometimes a well-timed respectful comment makes a huge difference.

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