Arguing on the internet (and why you should just be nice, okay?)

Let me preface this with the following:

  1. I had intended to post a ribs recipe today, not something serious (don’t worry, the recipe is coming).
  2. Anyone who knows me even the slightest knows the love I have for social media and opinions.
  3. I don’t actually like having to remind people of basic manners.

Now, with that aside, let’s talk about arguing on the internet and why your opinion, and your right to have an opinion, doesn’t mean you get to be a dick.

Twitter has been rife with talk of pile-ons lately. It stems from an article published on the NZ Herald about a teen dad being made Head Boy. I didn’t read the article. I didn’t read the commentary. This post isn’t about that. Sufficed to say a lot of people had a lot of opinions. And that’s great. We need to talk about teen pregnancy. We need to talk about parenting. We need to talk about academic success and making up for your mistakes. We need to talk about these things as much as we need to talk about inequality, racism, transgendered rights, feminism, right-to-die legislation, poverty and so much more. But we don’t need to be dicks.


Source: Know Your Meme
Source: Know Your Meme


I love discussing ideas. Please don’t think this is me encouraging people NOT to discuss complicated and often divisive concepts. I hate small talk and would far rather rock up to a stranger and discuss the way society constructs gender and identity than for one moment mention the weather. I will probably do this at the wedding I am attending tomorrow.

This comes from personal experience. I have been the subject of a pile on. I have had people do all of the below to me, good and bad. And it left me in an incredibly precarious position mentally. I lost people I had considered true friends because they didn’t take the time to ask me to explain myself or give me the benefit of assuming I wasn’t just an awful human. I’m not defending what I said that started it; I misspoke and offended people in a way I had never intended. That is inexcusable and I expect better of myself. That being said, I learned a lot from the productive parts of the ensuing discussion and feel I am a better person for it. I also cried so hard I almost passed out and contemplated dumping my boyfriend, cutting ties with my friends, quitting my job and checking myself out of life. I didn’t contemplate suicide but I wasn’t many steps away. I never wanted to be around another person again. I felt that each and every tweet, whether I was tagged into it or not, was proof that the whole world thought I was an awful human. People were setting me up so others could take pot shots at me. My timeline was full of vitriol and personal insults and when you see that hour after hour it’s hard not to take it personally.

I wasn’t a special little snowflake who couldn’t handle being wrong. I was a human worthy of respect and I wasn’t receiving any. Because the internet had decided I’d said something bad.

If we’re going to have discussions about The Big Stuff we need to ensure there’s a safe space in which to have them. That means showing some basic human decency and following some simple rules of etiquette:

  1. Don’t gang up on people.
  2. Don’t throw around slurs and ad hominem attacks – we’re debating ideas here, not people.
  3. Don’t post screen-caps and retweets of people saying things you disagree with in a manner that implicitly or explicitly encourages others to join a complicated discussion midway through and throw around their opinions without taking the time to understand the issues and all the standpoints. In other words, don’t be a bully!
  4. Don’t assume you understand what someone is trying to say in 140 characters without reading their other tweets, understanding them as a person or gently and reasonably asking for further clarification. Accept there is every possibility you have gotten what is often termed “the wrong end of the stick”.
  5. Don’t be a white knight. By all means, step in if you think someone is being a dick. But don’t expect anything in return for it. Don’t think it gives you some higher moral ground. Remember this especially if you are a dude who wants to defend a woman. She doesn’t owe you anything for defending her; you made that choice freely.
  6. Don’t join a thread that has more than three names in it if you don’t have something life-altering to say. It gets messy and confusing and will probably make the original poster feel wholly overwhelmed.
  7. Dont gang yell. This one is important. Have at least three people already said the same thing you want to say? Good. Don’t say it. More voices won’t make it more convincing. It will likely just put someone on the defensive and shut them down to meaningful dialogue.
  8. Don’t be a dick.

Instead, try these things:

  1. Remember to treat others with the kindness and respect you would like them to show you.
  2. Engage in meaningful, one on one discussions with people who hold different beliefs to you. It’s amazing what you might learn.
  3. Ask someone if you can DM them to discuss. Don’t slide on in, but equally don’t assume they don’t want to talk.
  4. Try to remember you are talking to an actual human who has their own life problems, their own demons and their own struggles and perceptions. Do them the favour of not assuming they’re the most privileged person on the planet (they probably aren’t).

I’m sure plenty of people who read this will disagree with me. I invite each of them to engage with me. Productively, if they don’t mind.