5 Things That Don’t Make You Right on the Internet

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It’s true that not everyone on the internet spends all their time arguing. It’s just that the people who do argue online spend so much time and so many words at it that it drowns out almost everything else. Cat pictures manage to rise above but only because cats have trained us not to argue with them.

Of course, we can’t just argue. Arguing as a genial pastime is apparently one of those social activities that require face-to-face interaction. Online, we have to win. We have to be right, and we have to make other people acknowledge that we’re right.

That, however, is not so easy on the internet, where anyone can cut and paste any old nonsense to keep an argument going until you start to think that camping on the Arctic tundra sounds like a nice vacation. Gish Gallops, links to irrelevant pay-walled articles, and long-discredited assertions of fact–all get in the way of declaring our victories even when we’ve managed to earn them.

So what do we do when good arguments don’t do the trick? We make stuff up. We pick out behaviors that sometimes go along with being terribly, horribly wrong, then we claim that anyone doing them has lost the argument.

That may work when all we really need is a reason to step away from the computer and get some sleep. It’s a terrible idea if we have any interest in getting to the bottom of a disagreement. Unfortunately, once we’ve come to some agreement on these made-up “rules”, many of us act as though we believe they determine the truth of an argument.

Here are five common arbitrary internet rules on winning that don’t actually make us right online.

1. “This is just like Hitler!”

It’s one of the oldest laws of the internet. “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Still, as catchy as Mike Godwin’s observation about online behavior is, statistics is not really what the internet was built for. That would be arguing.

Two black cats fight outside, one lying on its back on the ground boxing the other's cheeks. Two more black cats look on from nearby.
“Fighting cats” by Ryusuke, CC BY 2.0

Don’t believe me? Ask a group of former Usenet users. They’ll eventually get back to you, right after they manage to come to some kind of consensus. You can go get a drink while you’re waiting. Or a college degree. Or great-grandchildren.

In fact, the prevalence of online argumentation means that most of us don’t even recognize the original Godwin’s Law. Instead, we know it in its debased form: “The first person to mention Nazis or Hitler in an online argument loses.”

Hear that, people who want to talk about anti-Semitism, eugenics, or government propaganda? You’re going to lose! Pull out the best-studied, most common point of reference on your topic? You lose! Lose, lose, lose!

Sorry, talking about Hitler makes me hyperbolic. Still, you can see the problem with this form of Godwin’s Law. Do people deploy Hitler as the monster under the bed in their online arguments, the big bad that’s supposed to make us all stop thinking about our positions and our reasons and simply quake in fear? Of course they do.

Some people are terrible at arguing. The internet is amazingly good at broadening your exposure to people, meaning that you’re going to encounter more people who are terrible at arguing. If you hang out with them long enough, one of them is going to throw the corpse of Hitler under your figurative bed, scream, and insist he’s still twitching.

However, the fact that the original version of Godwin’s Law holds true doesn’t mean that its more-famous corollary does as well. There are good reasons to talk about the dangers of ideals of genetic “purity” or the consequences of scapegoating or about how “good” people can come to commit evil or what it means for a country to use military force on its own people or all the other factors that came together to cause the Holocaust.

Unfortunately, none of these died in a Berlin bunker in 1945. They’re still being debated today, often online, and we’re poorly served if we insist that we leave Hitler and the Nazis out of the discussion. While some Hitler analogies are hyperbole, we’re better off explaining why the person comparing mandatory vaccinations for schoolchildren to concentration camps is wrong (and kind of disgusting) than declaring victory when someone points out that those arguments about Jewish bankers ruining the middle class sound awfully familiar.

That said…

2. “You called me names!”

That person calling you Hitler is annoying. Also–up until someone gets reincarnation to work–wrong. Unfortunately for you, their case of mistaken identity doesn’t tell you anything about whether they’re wrong on the bigger scale.

People don’t only engage in name-calling as a last resort. It might be a better world if they did, though that’s a cultural change that would require huge amounts of persuasive work, not to mention discussion about how we ethically express our displeasure with other people. Eventually, I’m sure we’ll manage to hash it out online.

As one step on that road, let’s have a little chat about what name-calling is. More to the point, let’s talk about what it’s not. Yes, I’m talking to you, Mr. “How dare you refer to me as ‘a white guy’?!”

There is a difference between naming things–a requirement of that human communication that has allowed us to dominate and maybe destroy an entire planetary ecosystem–and calling names. Calling names involves the use of terms which have dehumanizing associations. Those can range from terms that reduce people to effluvium or its production (“wankstain”, “poopyhead”) to those that were used in justifications of genocidal violence (“nigger”, “kike”).

Photo of a young gray cat trying to chew on the ear of an older white cat.
“fight” by Andrew, CC BY 2.0

Name-calling is not applying a descriptive label like “racist”, “misogynist”, or “trans-exclusive radical feminist (TERF)”, no matter how much people don’t like the behavior being described. Jerks are people too.

You don’t have to like these descriptive labels or even agree with them. After all, you’re already having one argument. What’s one more? But if you want to look like your understanding of antagonistic discourse has progressed since your elementary school playground, stop telling people someone called you a name when they named your behavior.

Even with that distinction, however, name-calling remains one of our favorite means of signaling our distaste for arguments and the people who make them. And as it turns out, we’re as capable of being grossed out by arguments that are inept and wrong as we are of getting frustrated over arguments we’re having trouble refuting. Some of us get really worked up over bad arguments.

More often, people who get upset about arguments aren’t as unhappy with the form of an argument as they are with its consequences. Online arguments have a sneaky way of not staying online. Devils’ advocates end up accomplishing real deviltry: supporting bad science, prejudices born in ignorance, and an oppressive status quo. There’s a lot to be upset about there.

Getting upset might even be the most rational response to the situation. That’s right. If you make a bad argument that hurts people, someone calling you a name could be the act that emphasizes how wrong you are.

3. “You swore!”

Are you fucking kidding me?

The first time I came across someone claiming that they’d won an argument because their opponent swore, I lolled. And this was before I had a word for what I was doing. I had to use three.

Sadly, in the intervening years, I’ve seen many more people claim that profanity loses an argument. They all seem to be quite serious about this too. I’ve even checked Know Your Meme to make sure this isn’t some big internet joke that everyone but me is in on. People seem to be serious about this one: swearing loses you the argument.

For a long time, I thought this was a variation of the name-calling claim. “You said something mean to me, therefore you’re wrong.” Unfortunately, it’s worse than that. What people usually mean when they say someone lost an argument because they swore is “You used unserious words. That makes you an unserious person and your argument an unserious argument.”

Now, first of all, most arguing on the internet just isn’t that serious. You’re not on the floor of the United Nations. At best, you may change a couple of minds. That’s a worthwhile thing—if you’re actually right—but it’s still a small thing.

Photo of a gray and white kitten with a black kitten in an ineffective choke hold.
“Kitten Fight by Jennifer C., CC BY 2.0

More importantly, however, it’s downright silly to connect “being a person you have to take seriously” with “swearing”. It relies on two bad ideas: that there is only one class of people worth taking seriously about ideas and that these people don’t swear.

See? Silly.

Academics swear like a motherfucker (however those swear; do they all swear alike?). They don’t swear in their journals. They don’t swear in the magazine articles they write to popularize their fields. But arguing with a rando like you on the internet? Fuck yeah, they swear, or some of them do.

The only reason this surprises you is that you have weird ideas about academics. Don’t worry. Lots of people have weird ideas about academics. But if you want to be right on the internet instead of just claiming that you are, it’s probably time to get rid of those. Academics swear like everyone else.

Also, while we’re discussing weird ideas about academics, let’s take a look at this idea that if someone isn’t an academic, you don’t have to take them seriously. We take academics seriously, or we should, because they’re experts. Their expertise is limited to their field of study, a fact more academics should remember, but that expertise is what makes them people worth listening to.

They aren’t, however, the only experts out there. There’s a lot of expertise to be gained by hands-on experience rather than scholarly study. That means that if you’re using swearing as a marker of whose arguments to take seriously, you’re already wrong. Twice.

4. “You’re grammar sucks!”

Before you stop reading and rush off to comment that my argument is invalid, “you’re” is deliberate. It’s a reference to another one of those “internet laws”. This one, sometimes called, “Muphry’s Law”, says that internet complaints about typos or grammatical errors typically contain errors of their own.

In other words, spending undue time and attention on how someone gets their message across online can cause you to screw up. It can make you overconfident in your own use of language. It can also distract you from the worth of their actual argument.

The idea that typos and bad grammar can tell you the worth of someone’s argument is related to the idea that swearing can invalidate a person and their argument. In this case, the idea is that grammar and error-free typing are a proxy for education or intelligence.

This is even trivially true. We all learn grammar as we learn language. After all, grammar is really a matter of how we put words together to get more meaning out of them than they’d have as a list. However, academic grammar, the grammar of Standard English, rarely matches the colloquial, regional grammar we learn from our families. Most people have to learn that grammar in school.

Not everyone, of course. Some people grow up in households with “good” grammar, a grammar that is closer to academic grammar. They don’t require further education to speak and write the way we expect educated people to. Some people go into physics and get weirdly exempted from learning anything else about the world, including academic grammar, no matter how much education they get. In both cases, grammar is disconnected from education.

Photo of two white kittens snarling at each other in someone's arms.
“272” by Jennifer C., CC BY 2.0

Then there are the folks for whom English is their second or third language. Let’s face it, they’re probably fluent in at least one more language than you are. If the argument goes to the person with more education (relax; we already established it doesn’t), that’s not the person with the good grammar here.

There are plenty more reasons for typos and bad grammar that have nothing to with education. Some learning disabilities don’t affect a person’s ability to reason but do affect their ability to write or to spot typos in what they’ve written. People get distracted or busy and don’t want to invest the time to polish their arguments to a high gloss. Not everyone wants to adopt an academic grammar in their online interactions. No, not even for the very special occasion of arguing with you.

Even if the use of an academic grammar were somehow necessary for making good arguments, however, a person whose opponent made every grammatical error possible still wouldn’t necessarily be right. Why?

5. “You committed a logical fallacy!”

Photo of two very stately tabbies up on their hind legs about to bat at each other.
“Cat fight” by Tom Taker, CC BY 2.0

“Ad hominem”. It’s the first lesson every internet warrior learns, passed down from philosobro to skeptic to astroturfer to truther. Fittingly for a Latin phrase, it’s often used as an incantation. “I name thy logical fallacy. Thus do I compel thee to follow my every command. For thy first act as my thrall, admit that I’m right. Come on. Do it. I said the magic words.”

The internet has done a wonderful job of teaching people the names of various formal logical fallacies. It’s done somewhat less well helping people to recognize those fallacies in the wild. (Can you tell the difference between a fallacious ad hominem argument and cathartic name-calling?) It’s failed utterly to teach the basics of what fallacies are and what they mean.

Fallacies are a set of heuristics that don’t rise to the level of logical proof. This means you can apply fallacious reasoning to true premises to come up with a conclusion that isn’t true. It doesn’t, however, mean that you always will.

Many fallacies are shortcuts in reasoning that work “well enough” in some contexts. Appealing to the bandwagon usually works for settling questions like “Where are we all supposed to be?” Most of the propositions we reject because we personally find them inconceivably ridiculous really are that ridiculous. There really are claimants we’re better off treating as unreliable, like Glenn Beck or Dr. Oz. When we’re deciding how to live our lives, paying attention to what makes us happy can be very useful.

The problem is when we treat these heuristics as reliable in all cases instead of as shortcuts to be used in the low-stakes decision-making that comprises most of our mental work. An appeal to emotion is suited to choosing a haircut, but it’s a bad basis for public policy. You might find it difficult to imagine that something can be both a wave and a particle, but the components of an atom aren’t going to change for you. And even if you think Richard Dawkins is an ass, the evidence we have suggests he’s probably right about the God question.

Still, it’s the evidence that tells us Dawkins probably got this one thing right. It’s not the myriad people calling him an ass, even though “Dawkins is an ass, therefore atheists are wrong” would really, truly be an example of an ad hominem fallacy.

That’s the problem with claiming you’ve won an argument because someone else has used a logical fallacy. All you really get to say when you spot a fallacy is that someone’s conclusions may not necessarily follow from their premises. The person who used a fallacy hasn’t proven their point, but neither have you.

In fact, claiming that use of a fallacy proves someone wrong has its own name. It’s the fallacy fallacy.

Yep, it’s fallacies all the way down.

The truth of the matter is that arguing in informal contexts, like, oh, the internet, is a lousy way of figuring out who’s right and who’s wrong. If you (and the people you’re arguing with!) find it fun, more power to you. But we could all use a little more humility when we talk about the results.

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5 Things That Don’t Make You Right on the Internet