Charles' Rules of Argument

by Charles Miller on March 21, 2004

Another thing I used to have time for when I was at University was getting into long, involved arguments. Anyone who had the misfortune of sharing one of the SorceryNet IRC mailing-lists with me during the late 90's will probably remember one or two rather vicious ones. (Let me be clear here: this isn't going to be an apology. I was right, you were wrong. End of story.)

Now, though, I have much less time, and pointless arguments were one of the things that had to go. If I get in an online argument these days, I inevitably just end up annoyed that this thing is taking too long, and that the other party in the argument obviously has all the spare time I don't have any more.

So over the last few years I've come up with an informal set of rules for argument. I've never thought of them as such before today: they accreted over time as unconscious heuristics that I am now attempting to put into print. I'm still not perfect in following these rules, but when I do follow them, I end up happier and less frustrated with life than when I don't.

Rule one is scarily simple. You will never change anyone's mind on a matter of opinion. Someone going into an argument believing one thing, and coming out the other side not believing it is a freak occurrence ranking somewhere alongside virgin birth and victorious English sporting teams. People change their minds gradually, and if anything a prolonged argument only serves to back someone into a corner, huddling closer to the security blanket of what they believe.

Correcting a factual error is much easier, but never confuse correcting a factual error with changing the opinions that fact was being used to support. The opinion will survive in the absence of the fact, until a new fact is found to justify it. (See also, the many reasons for invading Iraq).

Seeing as arguing is largely pointless, one of the best things to do is to severely limit what you end up arguing about:

  1. Never seek out things to disagree with. There are too many of them out there, and correcting the ills of the world just isn't your job.
  2. If you come across something you disagree with while randomly browsing, let it pass without comment (see rule 1). If it's truly frustrating, write a reply, then delete it without sharing it with anyone else.
  3. Even in the limited scope remaining, it is not your job to correct everything you find that you disagree with. Try to limit yourself to things where the subject is at least something that makes some practical difference to your life.
  4. Do not argue about politics, religion, or matters of personal taste or comparative morality.
  5. DO NOT argue with Lisp programmers, believers in the Semantic Web, or furries.
  6. Saying something controversial in your own space (i.e. your weblog) is only arguing if you directly reference somebody you are disagreeing with (or it is clearly understood in subtext who you are disagreing with), and that person is likely to give a shit about what you said.
  7. If someone disagrees with something you've said, you're already in an argument. See below.

Once you find yourself in an argument, your job is now to make your point clearly, and then leave. You are allowed two passes:

  1. State your case
  2. Clarify any misunderstandings

Once you have stated your case, there's no point re-stating it. Going over the same ground repeatedly will damage your case: nobody likes reading the same interminable debate over and over again. Similarly, if people read what you have to say, understand it, but continue to disagree anyway, there's nothing more you can do unless you suddenly come up with a totally new argument. The only productive thing you can add is if people clearly don't understand what you're saying, and you need to clarify.

There's a trap here, though. Sometimes, understanding is experiential. For example, to understand religious belief you must at some level 'experience' God. Someone without this experience can understand the mechanics of belief, but never understand the belief itself. Besides religion, I also have precisely this problem with RDF: I get into long debates where people try to explain the damn thing to me when I already know the mechanics. I just haven't experienced that spark of enlightenment that has gone with it for the True Believers.

If you are in one of these arguments, you can clarify 'misunderstandings' until you're blue in the face, but someone who has experienced the belief will not ever be talking on the same wavelength as someone who hasn't.

After you've stated your case and made a single pass at clarifying any misunderstandings people may have about your case, that's it. Time to leave. Getting the last word is only important in a protracted argument: the longer the argument, the more valuable the last word becomes. Keep the argument short, and it barely matters.

Postscript: October 14, 2014.

And that's where I should have ended the article when I first wrote it, but I decided it was time to be “clever”. The remainder was meant as a satirical coda, a throwback to my days on Usenet where defeating someone in a flame-war was often more important than having either the moral or logical high ground. As this post spread from people who know me personally to a much wider audience, I got more and more worried that someone might take it as serious advice.

To put it bluntly, what follows is a step-by-step guide to Tone Trolling. It's a horrible, cynical way to argue, and one that is far too often used by people in positions of privilege (who have the luxury of being emotionally distanced from whatever they're arguing about) to silence people who are legitimately angry about something that affects them.

Don't do it.

Meanwhile, if you liked this, you might also like: Charles’ Rules of Online Forums

Original transmission resumes…

Sometimes, you'll ignore all these rules, and get into a month-long argument about RDF with a fundamentalist gun-nut emacs-user. What then?

The ideal attitude to project during any argument is one of calm disinterest.

Any emotional involvement you show is a weakness that can be exploited by your opponent. Even being passionate about your subject is dangerous, because over time passion becomes zeal, and zeal becomes shrillness. Affect the air of someone who is completely convinced of their correctness, but does not really care that the rest of the world is so stupid as to not realise it.

If you can get away with it, try for a mildly amused disinterest. It will infuriate your opponent, and if your opponent gets angry while you're remaining calm, that is a distinct advantage, especially when there is an audience involved. People who are sitting on the fence in a debate will naturally gravitate to the speaker who is perceived as being reasonable.

Other useful techniques are being nasty out-of-band, in the hope your opponent will bring that into the debate, or saying something inflammatory and then immediately retracting it: your opponent will run with whatever it was you said, while the audience discounts it due to the retraction. Both these techniques will make you enemies, but generally they'll only make enemies out of people who don't agree with you in the first place.

Amused disinterest also gives you a face-saving escape plan: if you were never emotionally invested in the argument, you can walk away from it without conceding defeat.

Previously: In Defense of Wiki Markup

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