Arguing on the Internet

Every now and then, a peer of mine will ask me why I spend so much time "Arguing on the Internet" and they usually follow it up with a quip about how it's futile and how arguing on the Internet has never changed anyone's mind. I've always found this question to be a little misguided, but never quite knew how to articulate my misgivings.

You see, I'm a humanist - meaning that I believe in the inherent worth of every human, regardless of their race, gender, orientation, or religion - and I've been a fairly passionate advocate for it since I was old enough to string two sentences together. Plus, as anyone in my family will be quick to tell you, I like arguing - on the Internet or otherwise.

Late last year, I wrote about something known as the Deffuant-Weisbuch (DW) model which stipulates that people exist on a continuum that can be divided into three sections: An extremist for, an extremist against, and the moderate majority.  Under the DW model, "extremists" are defined as a minority of people who are very confident about and unlikely to change their beliefs.  Whereas the moderate majority are those more fluid about their beliefs, and are likely to be swayed by an extremist.

Graph is used to show relationships, not to express numerical facts.

This model can be used to highlight how topics marred by a lack of transparency and uncertain conclusions, like Climate Change or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), can cause people to become extremely polarized. Unfortunately, as I highlighted in several earlier blog posts, our political system is extremely opaque and uncertain - so it's extremely polarizing. When people are uncertain (or "fluid") on a topic, they find themselves being 'pulled' towards the extreme ends of their topics.

Graph is used to show relationships, not to express numerical facts.

There's an unspoken implication about the Deffuant-Weisbuch (DW) model that no one exists on one continuum, but rather many continuums. No one is a caricature, and while it may suit CNN to paint all Republicans (or FOX to paint all Democrats) as falling on the same place on every issue, that's simply not the case.

Which leads me to my point: Arguing on the Internet isn't pointless, it's a very real means to further ideas and intellectual dialogue - even if it does get hijacked by the occasional gamer gate scandal. When you argue on the internet, you are arguing your extreme view against the extreme view of another, and you furthering your intellectual agenda in two meaningful ways.

Graph is used to show relationships, not to express numerical facts.

Swaying the Moderates

So while a feminist may not be able to inform a deluded Men's Right's Activist that feminism isn't out to get them, they don't need to. The mere existence of the dialogue is likely swaying undecided moderates.

Graph is used to show relationships, not to express numerical facts.

Winning on Other Fronts

I mentioned earlier that, for every issue, people fall on a continuum regardless of their over-arching ideologies. So while you may not be able to sway your opponent on the main topic, you might win on another (e.g. Swaying an MRA on the Wage Gap).


For these two reasons alone, if not for the moral imperative to further the ideology of humanism, "Arguing on the Internet" should not be dismissed as a masochist's hobby; there are very real benefits in protecting The Open Internet and the dialogue it enables. Not only has this dialogue enabled us to become a more morally conscious and educated society, but every indicator suggest that the rate in which we right institutionalized immoral practices is speeding up.

Source: XKCD (Marriage) - Click through for link.

This means that if we can continue protecting The Open Internet, and we remain passionate about our beliefs enough to continue arguing on The Internet, we may have a chance to have a society in which we can all flourish. That starts with remembering that arguing on the Internet isn't about changing the mind of the person with whom you're arguing, but in expressing your views in an articulate and intellectually honest way.

The moderate majority aren't a dumb bunch of louts; they can and will make up their own mind, and they'll come around to the right side when they're represented with all of the facts. Similarly, the person with whom you're approaching Godwin's Law, isn't a caricature; no one thinks of themselves as sexist or racist - they need to be swayed on a multitude of sub-issues before they'll budge on the big ones, and that takes time.

So, argue on Internet.