Benjamin Franklin and arguing on the internet

Arguing on the Internet is the worst. No one ever changes their mind. No one ever really learns anything new. Internet arguers start their arguments aggressive with clichés, catch phrases, slogans and usually a not too subtle insult of anyone that disagrees with them. We’ve probably all done it.

We may open with a snarky meme and wait for the counter insults to hit. When we see an assertion we want to counter we rush to Google and type in what we want to hear. “Why it does not matter that lobbyists pay for trips” or “High cost of healthcare in USA is fake news”. We then scroll through the taglines looking for something that supports our position and then we cherry pick some seemingly, or could be, relevant stats and create a non sequitur assertion from them. We then add an opening or closing phrase like, “My assertion is clearly, irrefutably correct and only a Libtard or a Repuklican would disagree”. To slow down the other side we might clip and paste several internet links to sources in which at least the headline or tagline seems to agree with us.

Our opponent will then do the same. He/she may first look at our sources and seeing a news outlet of which he or she hasn’t heard or that they don’t like or they perceive has a reputation as having a bias,  they immediately say that the link is invalid because it is obviously from a source that favors you, and therefore regardless of what it says is invalid. Even if it contains sourced and cited facts it is invalid because it does not come from a source they like. Then begins the ‘counter Google’ with ever more divergent and far ranging, more tangential articles, factoids etc. Add in a periodic barrage of snarky memes, some that don’t even reference the subject but are intended to infer something bad about the other arguer.

Ask yourself honestly if an internet argument on social media or discussion boards has ever changed your mind. Ask yourself honestly if you believe that you have ever changed anyone’s mind arguing on the internet? I am going to bet that most of you can count the number of times that you or another have been persuaded to change your or their minds on the toes of one camel foot with a couple toes left over. You can’t include times that you battered or were battered into just saying, ‘yeah ok, whatever’.

Lots of factors contribute to the ‘Fail’ of internet argument/discussions. Some are fairly new such as the algorithm driven push of articles to our news feeds, and the ease with which we can find some source somewhere that will agree with us through search engines aka ‘confirmation bias’. However the problem of arguing without resolving or even learning or hearing is as old as man first figured out how to use words for ideas.

In the 18th century, one of the American founding fathers and probably the most respected American alive in the world at that time, inventor, writer, businessman, civic minded philanthropist, Benjamin Franklin noted the problem in his autobiography. Discussing a project to acquire for himself certain virtues Franklin said….

“My list of virtues contain’d at first but twelve; but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride show’d itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinc’d me by mentioning several instances; …”

Franklin noted in himself,early in life, (after having it pointed out) that when discussing any point he could be overbearing and insolent.

“…In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had compleatly overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility”

Yes, pride drives our swagger in arguing and it drives us to the point that we must win, must smash our opponent and when our opponent brings up valid points we must not acknowledge them but go around them.

Franklin stated that as a result of having become aware of his pride and insolent manner he…

“…determined endeavouring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added Humility to my list, giving an extensive meaning to the word.”

Franklin said of his attempt that….

“I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.”

In other words if he couldn’t be humble he would at least appear humble….

“ I made it a rule to forbear all direct contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all positive assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to the old laws of our Junto, the use of every word or expression in the language that imported a fix’d opinion, such as certainly, undoubtedly, etc., and I adopted, instead of them, I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine a thing to be so or so; or it so appears to me at present. “

Franklin decided to cease declaring things as absolutely true or ‘positively assert’ things . He changed the way he phrased things. Instead of declaring them true or certain or undoubtedly he said that he believes or conceives at the moment that a thing is true or that it appears to be true.

He further decided that…

“When another asserted something that I thought an error, I deny’d myself the pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing immediately some absurdity in his proposition; and in answering I began by observing that in certain cases or circumstances his opinion would be right, but in the present case there appear’d or seem’d to me some difference, etc.”

Ben opted to not directly contradict another when they said something he found in error or to try to show him/her that his/her statement or opinion was ridiculous. He instead would tell them that in some cases what he/she said might well be right but it appeared to him that in this case it might not be.

Franklin noticed a difference in the direction and tone of his discussions after he made this change…

“I soon found the advantage of this change in my manner; the conversations I engag’d in went on more pleasantly. The modest way in which I propos’d my opinions procur’d them a readier reception and less contradiction; I had less mortification when I was found to be in the wrong, and I more easily prevail’d with others to give up their mistakes and join with me when I happened to be in the right. “

His less strident, less positive, less arrogant manner and demeanor made the conversations more pleasant. His modest manner of proposing ideas made people better receive them. They were also more willing to admit mistakes and admit he was right. Just as importantly, if not more importantly, he discovered that he ‘had less mortification’ or was less horrified when he found that he had been wrong on a point and he was more willing to admit that he was wrong.

Franklin noted that just as a more humble approach to arguing may help one win an argument it also eliminated the backlash that winning arguments often creates.

“If you argue and rankle and contradict, you may achieve a temporary victory – sometimes; but it will be an empty victory because you will never get your opponent’s good will”

The rare victory that arguing without humility and the true desire to discover the truth creates is often temporary or hollow if you have beat the other party into submission, humiliated them or otherwise alienated them. The goodwill of the person with whom one argues is as important as ‘winning’ the argument.

The Junto aka The Leather Apron Club

In 1727 Benjamin Franklin, then only 21 years old, created a self improvement, civic improvement club called ‘The Junto’, aka as The Leather Apron Club after the leather apron worn by himself and other tradesmen. His newly discovered way of debating, arguing, discussing became club policy.

“Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory.”

To prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.”

It became the goal of his club to seek truth in their discussions without enjoying the argumentative nature and without caring about who won or lost an argument. He pointed out that as the chief reason for conversation is to inform or be informed or to please or persuade why negate that by being haughty or assuming.

“And as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive assuming manner that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure. For if you would inform, a positive and dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments may provoke contradiction and prevent a candid attention. If you wish information and improvement from the knowledge of others and yet at the same time express yourself as firmly fixed in your present opinions, modest sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably leave you undisturbed in the possession of your error. And by such a manner you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire.”

Franklin’s Junto Club met weekly, first in a tavern, and then in a room in a member’s house. It lasted for 38 years. A branch of the club exists today, The American Philosophical Society. The Club was mostly formed by mostly working tradesmen ranging from printers to glass blowers to shoemakers to surveyors with a sprinkling of men of letters and various characters.

From that Club and the discussions under Franklin’s rules sprung several major American civic institutions including:

  • The first lending library
  • The first American Hospital
  • The first volunteer community wide fire department (The Union Fire Company)
  • The first night watch
  • The first American Public University (The Public Academy of Philadelphia which later became the University of Pennsylvania)
  • The first use of private and matching funds.
But what does this have to do with the internet?

So how can we apply this to arguing with those disembodied bastards on the internet? Well some may be seeking maximum argumentation and head butting. They feed off the name calling, the making disagreements personal. I think the common internet jargon is that they are ‘trolls’. There is probably no way to convert hardcore trolling into productive, civil discussion. However it is likely that most folks ready to throw down hard on the internet are not trolls but just the normal, stubborn, pig headed citizens like ourselves.

Perhaps we can learn something from Franklin’s advice when we find ourselves arguing online. We might first:

  • Don’t state that a thing is definite or without doubt. State that it is how it looks to us at this time or that as we understand it then this is the way it seems. Even if we are quoting and citing a seeming statement of fact (the population of Switzerland, the chemical element symbol of radium, the distance from Bangor Maine to Little Rock Arkansas, ad nauseum) then simply say that according to this source this is the population or symbol or distance etc. State your facts with humility and identify your opinions as opinions and subject to change. This makes it less important for your opposite number to lower you a peg, makes you less threatening, makes it easier for him or her to concede a point and for you to concede a point if you discover that you are incorrect.
  • Don’t gleefully and forcefully correct seeming mistakes. If you see a mistake whether it be a spelling or grammatical error or a typo or an erroneous statement of fact then approach that mistake with restraint. If the mistake is of no consequence, then let it go. For example does it really matter if a word is misspelled or if someone says intensive purposes instead of intents and purposes? If it is of consequence perhaps try to ask a question as if you too don’t know if the misstatement is correct. Give the opposite number the chance to discover the mistake themselves and correct it. If the mistake is one of misapplication of facts (for example, if your opposite number says that the air pressure is 14.7 pounds per square inch when talking about Denver don’t jump him/her and say, ‘no! it is 12.1 ppsi. Instead say that at sea level he/she is absolutely correct but as Denver is around 5,000 feet above sealevel that it is instead about 12.1 ppsi) A gentle correction or acknowledgement of a partially correct fact makes an opponent much less hesitant to accept and calmly discuss things. The added benefit of the more restrained attitude towards correction is avoiding making an incorrect correction. Is there anthing more embarrassing than harshly correcting some one and then having it pointed out to you with arrogant glee that your correction was in fact wrong?
  • Don’t rankle your argumentative opponent if you can avoid it as you want them to remain open and friendly even if you convince them. If you have to beat, batter and humiliate someone on the net, especially in front of others, you have lost their goodwill from then on out. It is a hollow victory if the person that you bested hates you, hates all your future assertions and hates the very truth you exposed after being bested. Avoid personal insults, avoid looking at their profile pic or home page to find something about which to insult them. If they do that to you (usually a sign that they are out of counter arguments) ignore it or take the insult with good humor, don’t retaliate.

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