The Distracting Sub-Argument, Or: How Not To Fuck Up Your Comments

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 9.648% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

What I thought I had written was an essay on how it’s okay to like different things than I do. What I’d actually written was a plea for everyone to debate the merits of Internet poetry.

Because in my essay, as an example of Things I Disliked That Other People Loved, I discussed
I didn’t think that
putting random
into an essay
made it poetry, man.

And I specifically said that it was cool that other people loved that style of poetry.  I told people in the essay that the point was that even though I didn’t like that poetry, it was great that other people did.

Yet my comments
became a huge
on whether that sorta poetry
was cool, man.

The problem was that I’d used an example that was more controversial than the point I’d intended to make.  I could tell people all I liked that “Hey, this essay’s about freedom of choice” – but what their eyes focused on was “Ferrett raises the question on What Constitutes Good Poetry.”

Because honestly, that minor point about poetry was both more interesting and more debatable than the point I was trying to make.

Welcome to the Distracting Sub-Argument.  You didn’t mean for that brief aside you made to become your whole point  – but by introducing something more contentious than the point you were trying to make, that’s all that anyone will take away from your essay.

Which happens all the time in politics.  You’ll see someone, say, debating the merits of sex work, and they’ll say something like:

“I agree that sex work should be legal.  These poor women who have no better options should be protected.”

What that person meant to say was, “I am for sex work” – but they just also called every sex worker a) female, b) poverty-stricken, and implied that sex workers were c) so damaged someone had to look out for them.

As much as the author of that comment would like people to walk away going, “Wow, that person is for legalizing sex work!” they are instead going to have people debating the far more contentious point they didn’t actually mean to raise.


The problem with the Distracting Sub-Argument is that quite often it pops up as something you naturally assumed to be true, and didn’t realize it was debate-worthy – so you didn’t back it up with other arguments.  And then people will take umbrage at this controversial point you didn’t even realize was controversial – and the irony is, if you’d taken a moment to make your positions clear on the topic, most people would have agreed with you.

You see that in consent essays a lot.  People will have these heartfelt write-ups on Why No Should Mean No, and in the middle of it they’ll casually toss off some statement like “And you’re not obligated to tell anyone if they violated your consent” without backing it up.  And the entire comments section becomes people dragging that idea – “HOW CAN YOU EXPECT US TO LEARN IF YOU NEVER TELL US WHAT WE DID!”

Whereas if, instead, you’d put in a slightly better-defended subargument in, people would have gone “All right” and argued the topic you’d wanted them to argue.  If they’d said, something like, “Given that predators can often be abusive, and will actively work to get the community to shun you once you let them know you’re onto them, you’re not obligated to tell the person who violated your consent what happened” –

– well, there’d still be debate, but the Distracting Sub-Argument wouldn’t obscure the main point you were trying to make.

And it happens all the time.  I wrote a heartfelt essay on how “Be Yourself” isn’t necessarily the best advice for people, and what too many people took away was the inadvertent question of “Should teenaged Ferrett have paid more attention to his personal hygiene?”   I wrote an essay wondering whether sex is easier for men to get than people traditionally think it is, and what lots of people came away with is the question of “Is Ferrett shaming guys who can’t get laid?”

That’s not necessarily the fault of the audience.  If I hadn’t inadvertently introduced a more compelling sub-argument, folks would have had a better chance of getting the message I’d hoped to broadcast.

Learning that difference between what you’d intended to write, and what you actually wrote, is a survival skill for anyone writing on the Internet.  You should understand what parts of your essay and/or comment are going to be of the most interest to people – and if the most intriguing portion you’ve written isn’t your main point, then a) choose a less-distracting example or b) flesh out your sub-argument so it’s not standing alone with no logic to defend it.

you’re just
bad poetry debates

And no one
that kind of




1 Comment

  1. Joshua
    Jan 27, 2017

    Oh my god.
    It me.
    It me it me it me.

    When I was writing over at Alas, I ended up doing this shit all the time, and found myself constantly frustrated. Good catch, Ferrett.

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