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The Thrill of Debate

I have a confession to make: I argue with strangers on the internet.

So, today, let’s see if it’s worth it.

TL;DR Summary

No, it’s not worth it.

Why would anyone argue with strangers online?

If I’m being generous, I’d say I/we argue with strangers online, in the hopes of influencing them to see an alternative point of view, hopefully, in service of making a world that is kinder, safer and more equitable.

Continuing to be charitable, I’d also say that correcting misinformation and disinformation does occasionally provide a benefit for the spectators of that conversation. It’s not unusual to see someone commenting confidently and with conviction but be completely factually inaccurate or ethically bankrupt. Correcting that through fact checking, persuasive argumentation, and logic is part of fighting in the war of ideas that continues to play out over the course of human history.

This often begins with the best intentions.

Why does anyone argue with strangers online?

Arguing with people online is different from debating in-person. What makes online arguments unique is the sufficiently distant, often anonymous, dunk.

To own someone with words, or to make them look foolish.

(To) Dunk on, Urban Dictionary

Debating in-person, or face-to-face, leaves one more likely to humanize their opposition. We see their faces and body language and can’t help but see them as something more multidimensional than an online avatar.

Additionally, when you sit across the table from someone there is always the unfortunate possibility, that taking the wrong tone — the one we so often use online — will get you punched in the mouth, or worse. It’s for these reasons why even though some have made a career of being the debate bro and “destroying” or “humiliating” college students, most who engage in face-to-face debates tend to soften a bit.

The truth is, dunking on strangers online, who are objectively wrong, especially those expressing harmful racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted beliefs is among the most addictive activities you can do. Systematically dismantling a racist’s worldview “in front of the world” using data and an airtight logical argument gives a dopamine rush like few things can, along with a temporary buzz of perceived moral superiority, and a pressure release for frustration and anger.

But it’s an illusion and the feeling is short-lived. Because like many addictions, this one is not at all healthy.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over…

I have developed a mild addiction to this online dunking. It comes and goes in waves. But every time I go back to drink from this well, I forget how much that last time made me sick.

What I keep forgetting is that no one ever wins this game, we just waste time.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve been able to win one of these dunk contests, but I’m sure it’s far less than I fantasized before I posted my very first reply online. While it does, temporarily, feel good to dunk on an ignorant interneter, the satisfaction is short lived and dwarfed by the subsequent anger. Inevitably, they will look up at from the ground having just been dunked on, laughing about how they’re actually winning.

It’s exhausting.

They will go on to ignore every painstakingly researched source and side step each thoughtfully crafted argument only to reply with something so nonsensical, ignorant, or hypocritical to one of their prior positions that it’s all but guaranteed to whip me into a frenzy. And so, not content to just let someone be wrong, incapable of losing a one-sided debate, and ignoring the impossibility of actually winning the argument, I just waste more time researching, writing long winded responses and pointing out the holes in their position…only to watch the cycle perpetuate.

It’s a common mistake: believing that facts really do matter more than feelings. But it’s a lie. It’s all vibes, few are swayed by facts. And so, the delusion of changing the world through arguing with internet strangers has finally come into focus for me.

Who really loses an online debate?

Who really loses are the people we ignore while fighting with strangers on the internet. These are our partners and kids, our colleagues and friends.

What could we be doing instead? What important projects go ignored? How many moments were missed staring at the phone?

How many hours get wasted in this pointless exercise? Well, I’ve seen my screen time report, and I’m not going to answer that question beyond saying: far too much.

Weening and Quitting for Better Options

Like all bad habits or addictions, there has to come a time where you acknowledge the problem and do something about it. I realize that seeing someone say something harmful and discriminatory online is a trigger for me, and I now see the downsides of it clearly.

I recently changed my homescreen during mornings and evenings, when I‘m most likely to take the bait.

Some Better Options

If you, like me, feel the need to engage in this sort of activity, here are some options that I’m exploring to kick the habit.

If you want a better use of your time.

Spend some time being present with friends or family.

Call someone you haven’t spoken to in a while — which, by the way, means texting them first to setup a time to talk instead of just calling them out of the blue…it’s not 1997.

Work on an important project.

If you want to hone your position.

Argue with yourself on paper (response on Quora)

This is an excellent critical thinking exercise, anyway.

If you feel you must engage online…

Be SUPER nice (response on Quora)

Use lots of emojis and be super duper nice. For sure 😻!

If you feel that you need to debate or argue with someone else

Do it face-to-face. Meet up IRL or jump on Zoom. You’re less likely to let yourself get as angry or carried away, though not guaranteed.

Sometimes the best thing is to walk away

Becoming Superhuman involves strategically selecting how you spend your time, and making sure to conserve your energy for what is most important.

Sure, it can feel like losing to let someone else get the last word, but when you finally realize you’re both running in place, you’ll stop trying to win an endless race.

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