By David Mann
DEBATE IDEAS, NOT PEOPLE - Few of us are really expressing new ideas. More often, we are just mouthpieces for traditions and lines of thought that have been handed down to us. Unfortunately, ideas need people to express them and people are clumsy. Old Joke...
Q: How do porcupines mate?
Internet posts can be like porcupines. Focus on the ideas, not the quills. When you read a post, look for the idea that is being expressed. If you respond to the barbs of personal attacks, you have lost focus.
NEVER, EVER PERSONALIZE - Work very hard to avoid making personal assertions about other posters. While it is true that no matter how hard you try, somebody somewhere will take personal offense to what you wrote, still make the attempt to keep it impersonal. In the other direction, ignore personal attacks made against you at all costs. It is a practical impossibility to defend your honor while engaged in a mud slinging contest. Besides, you will find when you meet over beer/coffee/whatever that most of the personal attacks weren't meant. People type and read without the aids of body language and feelings get hurt easily.
LET YOUR IDEAS DEFEND THEMSELVES - Be confident that the ideas you express have a power of their own that will make them capable of defending themselves. This will free you to resist the urge to convince others to join your point of view. Just as importantly, never criticise another's beliefs as inferior or illegitimate. If you can not affirm another's rights to hold their beliefs, you are not prepared to have a civil discussion with them.
CS Lewis said that you defend God like you defend a lion. You unlock the cage and let the lion defend itself. If you can express an idea in a civil fashion, consider it a success. Don't measure success by convincing others. This is unachievable. Instead, remember that while the person with whom you are discussing ideas won't change his or her mind, others who read and lurk will be considering the merits of both sides. Allow the idea to defend itself to those readers.
DON'T TAKE THE DEBATE BACKCHANNEL - Don't take debates to private for channels of communication like e-mail or private messages. This is to be avoided for 2 reasons. First, it changes the dynamic for the listener. The conversation moves from an open discussion in the school lunchroom to a private confrontation behind the school, so to speak. Private challenges are simply ineffectual in terms of influencing people. Worse, they remain ineffectual no matter how hard one works at trying to be reasonable and kind. I have concluded that people can hear me better in the relative safety of a public setting where my words can either be supported or challenged by our mutual peers.
Second, I find I that I do a better job of expressing myself in a positive, constructive manner when I choose to submit my words and my reputation to the accountability of public review. Putting it frankly, I generally conduct myself better in public posts.
BE WILLING TO TAKE ONE FOR THE CAUSE - When you step into a discussion of ideals, you can be guaranteed that somebody will disagree. When you do this on electronic forums, you can also pretty much guarantee that somebody will disagree with you in an inappropriate manner. This is simply the cost of doing business. You must ask yourself 2 questions at this point. First, is the idea you hold dearly important enough that you are willing to voice it while knowing that others will disagree? Second, can you sleep at night and ignore inappropriate personal attacks made against you in public? If the answer to either question is "no", then you probably aren't in the right frame of mind for the discussion.
NEVER WRESTLE WITH PIGS - It is amuses the pig and makes you look muddy. No matter how polite and tactful you try to be and no matter how hard you try to avoid personalization of attacks, you will occasionally run into people who will hold grudges and launch personal attacks at every turn. Ignore them entirely. Never respond to their posts.
DON'T BE AN ARROGANT EXPERT - In many internet forums, there is at least one guy (and it always seems to be a guy) who plays the roll of the arrogant expert. Don't be that guy.
Internet forums are great at bringing together people with common interests. One of the best things about this is the opportunity for novices to learn from experts and for experts to give back to the community by helping novices. In the vast majority of cases, it's a situation that rewarding for everybody involved. But there is also the chance for things to go wrong.
One common problem is a form of teacher burnout. After answering the same basic question for the zillionth time, the expert becomes testy to the next novice who unknowingly asks that question for the zillion and oneth time. This burnout can be exasperated when the expert feels like the novice failed to do a basic amount of research on their own before asking the question. There's an infamous internet acronym of RTFM, which grew out of this type of frustration in the context of technical support. Read the f***ing manual (or man page).
Another factor may be that the zeal for the subject that drove the expert to become an expert also makes him less tolerant of incorrect statements about his beloved subject that are made by those with less experience. In protecting the "truth", the expert can come off sounding rough.
But the most pernicious aspect of expert arrogance is how technical expertise can be used to establish a pecking order within the forum. It is very common to see a novice make a post that kicks off a long debate among the forum's experts. This has little to do with answering or correcting the novice and has everything to with establishing who the alpha males of the forum are.
Anyway you look at it, technical help and advice is great. But rude is always rude.