How to Win Online Debates
by T.L. Hubeart Jr.
© 1996 by T.L. Hubeart
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:
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:
- 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.)
- 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.
- Watch spelling and
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?
- When you make a mistake,
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.
- 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:
- 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
- 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.
- Retain a sense of
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
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
A Dead and Buried
Vivisecting an Argument
Turning Back an Absurd