Three Reasonable Tips for Debating Rude Persons on the Internet

I read an article awhile back that resonated with me, because I think it helps explain why the majority of online debates over “deep issues” like religion, politics, and philosophy get so…nasty. (Don’t believe me? Just type the word “religion” into Youtube. Click on any video with 100,000+ views. Read the comments.)

“The problem with smart people is that they like to be right and sometimes will defend ideas to the death rather than admit they’re wrong. This is bad. Worse, if they got away with it when they were young (say, because they were smarter than their parents, their friends, and their parent’s friends) they’ve probably built an ego around being right, and will therefore defend their perfect record of invented righteousness to the death. Smart people often fall into the trap of preferring to be right even if it’s based in delusion, or results in them, or their loved ones, becoming miserable…(continue)”

This problem is particularly bad online, when the “humanness” of one’s adversary is replaced with a keyboard, a computer monitor, and a half-eaten bag of Fritos.

boromir argument internet

I see the pattern all the time in those who initiate debates with me on this blog, and elsewhere. I see it in myself, at times (though I wouldn’t call myself a “smart person”). While I’d like to think I do a decent job of obeying the first half of 1 Peter 3:15-16, I often botch the second half. (So that’s my way of admitting that I’m not 100% qualified to be writing this post.)

I give you, then, Three Reasonable Tips for Debating Rude Persons on the Internet.

1. Don’t Debate Rude Persons on the Internet. Or at the very least, know when to call it quits. If the Rude Person ignores your well-crafted, novel-length rebuttals…don’t keep writing them.

If you’re anything like me, this has probably happened to you. Someone posts an inflammatory 5-sentence comment on an obscure news article, so you respond by pouring two hours into a 50-sentence essay (complete with a half-dozen documented sources) that matter-of-factly explains the problem with his initial comment (because let’s be honest…it’s a “him”). Your adversary then responds with an even more inflammatory 5-sentence comment – one which clearly shows that he didn’t read a word of that thesis you poured your sweat and blood into.

So it’s really tempting to respond like this:

Which brings me to…

2. Be Nice to Rude Persons on the Internet. Throwing a Wonka-tantrum might feel gratifying at the time, but it does nothing for the other guy…or your cause, for that matter. And it only turns you into a bitter person, in the long run.

Instead, if you REALLY want to shake your adversary to his core, try responding like this:

Now granted, it can sometimes be difficult to pull this off without your niceness sounding like tongue-in-cheek snarkiness. But once you’ve decided to be nice, the toughest part becomes choosing your words to avoid being misunderstood.

It’s hard to go wrong by just being nice. Ridiculously nice. Nauseatingly nice. When your adversary begins unloading his vilest insults on your intelligence, your character, your religion, and your pet hamster…just think of Mr. Rogers. Which brings me to…

3. Pause to Think Before Responding to Rude Persons on the InternetIf you find yourself getting angry, go spend a few hours doing something away from the computer.

Last weekend, in response to a post I made on Facebook, an anonymous individual took a swipe at me with a crude innuendo, then claimed that my entire post was “a ginormous example of the argument from ignorance fallacy”. (That’s another thing you’ll notice with Rude Persons on the Internet. They like to remain anonymous, and they like to accuse others (falsely, in most cases) of committing logical fallacies. But by pointing this out, they’ll probably say I’m committing an ad hominem.)

Anyway, my initial reaction was something like this:

Had I responded right away, I probably would have regretted it later. So instead, I grabbed some ice cream from the freezer and spent the rest of the evening watching the Oscars. When I logged on to Facebook the next day, my blood pressure was back down to 120/60. It still ended up turning into a lengthy debate…but by taking time to cool off, I was able to avoid responding to his insults.

So there you have it then.


7 thoughts on “Three Reasonable Tips for Debating Rude Persons on the Internet

  1. So true, so funny, so good! If I can figure out how to do it, I’m going to re-post it. Great workMatt, I love the mix of humor and truth.

  2. i’m learning that very few people who comment or respond to comments on the internet are really interested in two-way Dialogue. they just want to put their two cents in. the ‘rude’ ones are just interested in telling you how wrong you are or how right they are regadless of considering your point of view. logic, fairness, tac and polite manners break down when the ‘other person’ is seen as not ‘really’ a person, but just an opposing opinion to be utterly destroyed and ignored.
    sadly, i’ve come to the conclusion that in very few cases is online internet debate or conversational learning from eachother possible anymore.
    the cases where it is and does happen are pleasant and welcome suprises. thank you for raising the issue and providing opportunity for comments.

    • I very much agree, and I think it depends a lot on the forum. Most comment threads on news articles and major websites encourage people, by their format, to give an opinion without any thoughtful or meaningful dialogue. Some sites are definitely better about this than others, though, and there are actually a handful of really good groups on Facebook (and elsewhere) that encourage debate – and set ground rules about content, etiquette, etc. These are definitely an exception to the rule, though.

  3. I enjoy tormenting rude debaters… lol… I have tried the long essay approach, too… never has worked… people just love being right. Often times if they’re just bent on being digusting and rude I’ll just tease them like I use to do my little brother… then leave and not even look at their response after that… if I don’t look at their response I won’t get sucked back into the argument. For now, that’s about as nice as I can get with some of them.

  4. One of the approaches that annoys me is when I offer a thoughtful response, hoping for a thoughtful rebuttal and they just try to dismiss what you say as completely ridiculous, to such an extent that it deserve no response.

    For example yesterday I was having a discussion with an atheist about the fact that 99% of the species that have existed have went extinct, and the implication was that they therefore could not be intelligently designed. I told him that his assertion presupposed that the designed did not intend for mortality.


  5. The advice here is perfectly sensible, and presented with a good sense of humor. To me the whole point of being online is to learn something from others, and if possible, find friends, and not to stew in rancorous verbal battles. Certainly that sort of thing gets very old very fast. Although I’m not religious myself, I am revolted by atheists who are foolish enough believe they’ve nothing to learn from anyone who is religious, or who cackle like cartoon villains in their comments & replies. I’d rather hang out with Fred Rogers than with someone like that.

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