Cali the Cat at ComputerHow to Win Online Debates

by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

© 1996 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

Cyberspace offers many opportunities for discussing important topics, two of the most common forums being bulletin boards and newsgroups. No matter how tactful and polite you are, if you make a habit of expressing opinions openly (particularly about politics or religion), you will eventually find someone spoiling to argue with you. This is because of a phenomenon described by Jake Kirchner of PC Magazine:

"We've all run into far too many netizens whose sole purpose in life seems to be to cruise from forum to forum, flaming everyone in their paths. . . . Although they're a small minority, these drunks at the Internet bar can drive the average folks right out of a forum or chat room" ("Will Rogers Never Cruised the Net," PC Magazine, 10/8/96, p. 41).

I have met several people online of the variety described by Kirchner--individuals whose online "thrills" come from blasting others who dare to differ with their own muddle-headed opinions. I feel sorry for such people. When I debate them online, I don't hurt them much; I only destroy their opinions and blow away their credibility. Not only are they thus deterred from hurting anyone else, but the honest, decent folks in the forum find this sport vastly entertaining.

If this sounds like bragging, it's not meant to come across that way. What I have done can easily be duplicated if a few simple rules are followed. And I thought it would be something of a public service--now that I've semi-retired from this "sport"-- to share my rules for online debate success with the rest of the world. As an added bonus, I will also give some examples of these rules in action, to show how I confounded various online turkeys who thought they could intimidate me with their vapid rhetoric. Because it is not my intention to embarrass anyone here, I have deleted the screen names of my adversaries. (Presumably they were already embarrassed enough by the original appearances of my posts!) I have also removed the names of certain of my "allies" mentioned in these posts in the interests of their privacy. But I think you'll get the idea.

Anyway, here are the rules I have found most useful:

  1. First and foremost, have something to say. (This would seem fairly obvious, but in fact it is violated thousands of times every day by various users who get a thrill simply from seeing their stream-of-consciousness ramblings made public.)
  2. Know your facts. If you say something, be able to back it up when challenged, preferably with sound source material. Naturally, one can't know everything, but a line from Beaumarchais' Marriage of Figaro is apropos: "I don't dispute what I know nothing about." If you don't know a subject, either stay away from it or do all you can to learn about it and make yourself equal to those you wish to challenge.
  3. Watch spelling and grammar. All of us will make lapses on occasion, but those who habitually write posts marred with errors in spelling and grammar are like those who show up at a town meeting in shabby, tattered clothing. Since people have nothing by which to judge you except words on a screen, shouldn't those words be as tidy as possible?
  4. When you make a mistake, admit it. In fact, be the first to do so. Many times, when I have realized too late that I have made a mistake in a posting, I have posted an immediate correction. Once on a religion forum, I misspelled an adversary's name (a difficult one) several times in one of my posts. When I realized this, I immediately apologized via a follow-up post. No one else ever mentioned it after that. If you admit your own mistakes first, this will take the wind out of the sails of anyone who wants to ridicule you for erring. Conversely, if you stonewall and refuse to admit error, you will almost certainly be humiliated before scores of users in your forum.
  5. Avoid personal attacks. Going ad hominem is a sure sign of a lack of substantial argument, and will denote you as a first-class nincompoop to any intelligent readers of what goes on your forum. It's valid to say that someone obviously misunderstands an issue, but not to say that he or she must be stupid not to understand it. (There's a difference.) If you stick to the high road while your adversary throws mud at you, smart people (the ones you want to impress) will take note. They will take your arguments seriously and disregard the rantings of your opponent. In tandem with this:
  6. Be tenacious. Don't let your foe change the subject to your personality or the personalities of those you support. Kindly but firmly insist on the original issues. If you ask a question and it doesn't get answered, point that out and ask it again. This is a far more powerful weapon than the personal attack mode that ignorant people use. You can become a real thorn in someone's side by insisting that an issue he is trying to obscure be addressed rather than shrugged off.
  7. Employ wit. This will show others that you are taking what your opponent says lightly, without getting bent out of shape. Also, it will be more entertaining to read, and more frustrating to your foe when he realizes he cannot fluster you. After I caught one adversary, who had been distorting what I said, in an outrageous falsehood regarding one of his alleged reference sources, I posted a "Eulogy" for his credibility, and another user volunteered to bring the shovels to "bury" it! Another time, when an opponent posted extracts from an apocryphal "Testament of Adam" to bolster his religious doctrines, I responded with a "Testament of the Cleaning Lady," found in "Origen's wastebasket," to further corroborate him! (Notice that in both of these instances I lampooned what adversaries said, but did not assail them personally for being "stupid" or "dishonest.") Lightness of touch is sadly lacking in many of the rudimentary statements made online, so using wit will set you apart from the unimaginative crowd and make your pronouncements stand out.
  8. Retain a sense of perspective. It's not the end of the world if you don't swat every online fly who dares to challenge your statements. Some foes are not worth your while, and you should say so outright and not let yourself be goaded into an argument that you feel wastes your time.

Also, don't get caught up in responding to everything immediately; this makes you look like you have nothing better to do. Even if you don't have a life outside the computer, make it look as if you do. Space out your replies, and use the extra time to make them especially potent. It's not likely that anyone else in your forum knows what you're doing while you're not replying--and anyone who objects to your slowness of response leaves himself open to the charge of not having a life! ("Gee, CyberKnucklehead265, sorry that visiting my sick mother in the hospital kept me from replying to your post right away. Guess I need to get my priorities in order! ")

Such are my tips to you, the presumably-interested in online debating. Now, as promised, I want to show you some of my favorite responses.

·         Answering a Liberal Loose Cannon

·         A Dead and Buried Credibility

·         Vivisecting an Argument

·         Turning Back an Absurd Challenge

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