A democratic society requires certain things of its citizens, and one is the ability to coexist with people with opinions different from our own. Democracy is based on the notion that if everybody is free to voice and defend their ideas, the best ideas will win out over the others. That's the theory anyway. It obviously doesn't always work in practice, but free and constructive debate is still one of the essential pillars of democracy. If it breaks, the whole thing will come crashing down.
You would think social media would be an incredible tool for democratic debate. For one thing, it's partially a written medium, and writing can be better than speech for communicating subtle ideas. It lets people set their thoughts down, look them over to see if they make sense, and then rework them if they don't. It also leaves a record, so people can go back and see exactly what points have been made, rather than relying on memory. Social media is also as fast and global as the Internet itself. If you and I are both on Facebook, I can write a comment, and you can read it and respond immediately, whether you're on the other side of the room or the other side of the world. And of course, mass distribution is no problem. Hundreds of millions of people could be reading this right now if they cared to. Which they don't, but the possibility is there (I won't hold my breath.)
So what have we done with this amazing tool? We've told jokes and shared pictures of puppies, which is fun. We've gotten back in touch with each other, which is great. And we've made each other real, real mad. We've divided up into mutually distrustful camps based on politics and religion. So, this amazing technology that could have been the greatest gift to civil, democratic debate since...ever....has helped drive us apart. Why? Because we don't know how to have a civil discussion with people we don't agree with.
We screw it up, and we screw it up badly. One problem is that we can't decide what we want to accomplish by debating. Is the point of a debate to win? If so, how is winning measured? By how thoroughly you get your opponent's goat? By how much you humiliate them in front of observers? Neither of these are especially worthy goals. After all, what good does it do to anger or humiliate someone, besides giving you a little thrill of not-very-noble accomplishment?
But maybe the idea of winning a debate is not quite so crass as that. Maybe it's not about insulting or humiliating your opponents, but simply, and without malice, pointing out their mistakes. That is necessary sometimes. If they're saying something you know to be completely inaccurate or illogical, then the record needs to be set straight, especially if others are likely to believe and spread what they're saying. But don't assume you've taught them any lessons. Psychologists have shown that even if you give people absolute proof that they are wrong, most of them will go right on believing anyway. Proof, it seems, is no match for conviction.
But maybe the idea of winning isn't the right way to think about debate. Maybe the goal of a debate should be to convince others to see things from your point of view, at least for a little while? In that case, thinking in terms of winning and losing isn't helpful. If people see debates in win/lose terms, and see changing their mind as "losing", then it's going to be very hard to convince them. Nobody likes to lose. So, if your goal is to convince people of your point of view, then you need to proceed very differently than you would if you were just trying to insult or humiliate them. You have to let them save face as much as possible, so they can come around to your view without feeling embarrassed or defeated.
There's also a third way of thinking about the point of debate: maybe instead of victory or persuasion, the goal is to compare notes; to get a little closer to the truth cooperatively than we could have separately. Think about the old story of the blind men and the elephant: the blind men each touch a different part of the elephant, then draw different conclusions about what sort of beast an elephant is. Then they commence fighting among themselves over who's right, when none of them actually is...at least not completely. If they had realized how limited their individual points of view really were, and had the good sense to compare notes, they could have learned a lot more about elephants. This kind of cooperative dialogue really does work. One of the best reasons to get in a debate is that other people bring up points you never would have thought about on your own.
But this isn't widely appreciated, to say the least. As far as I can tell in online discussions, winning is the most common goal, with persuasion a distant second, and comparing notes hardly considered at all. And that's a shame, since so many people think of winning in terms of baiting or embarrassing their opponents. That really doesn't get us any closer to truth. And the truth is what we're really after. Isn't it?
Part of the reason we're more likely to get mad than learn anything in a debate is that we have so much trouble seeing things from the other person's point of view. And I'm not just talking about their opinions. I'm talking about how they see the debate itself. We make comments that strike us as witty and decisive, and expect our opponents to see them the same way we do. But they don't. They see them as aggressive, sarcastic, and overconfident. And you would too, if you were them. But we don't look at our own comments from the other person's perspective. We look at them from our's, which is why we're astounded that, not only do they not find them witty and convincing, they may find them downright insulting. We think, "How can they possibly argue with such such ironclad arguments? Why don't they concede the point?", without considering that if we were in their shoes, no force on earth could make us concede--not to somebody being that smug, and certainly not with all those people watching!
The other problem, besides our inability to see the debate through our opponent's eyes, is a lack of restraint. We get heated up, and everything we say takes on extra bite. We taste blood, and it gets harder and harder to hold back. We're too busy thinking about our next point to think about anybody else's perspective, so we forget there's even a reason to be restrained. Which just goes to show we're not as smart as we think we are.
If we're ever going to learn to have constructive debates online, then, we're going to have to learn two things: taking the other side's point of view, and restraining ourselves enough to stay polite. Both are hard, especially in the heat of a good argument. That's when we forget the whole point of the debate, and just start trying to make our opponents look stupid--which is not the least bit constructive. What we should have done is try to convince them of our point of view, try to learn something from theirs, or both. If they really do need to be proven wrong, then we should have tried, as the saying goes, to "make a point without making an enemy". But all this is, once again, incredibly hard. We're prone to seeing our comments in the best possible light, and theirs in the worst. That means if we feel like we're bending over backwards to stay civil, we're probably hitting just about the right note. Then we might actually convince someone to see our side.
Of course, we also need to be more charitable not just when we talk, but when we listen. If we keep in mind that people's comments probably seem more aggressive to us than they do to them, it's easier to shrug off their little digs and keep our cool. Easier, but not easy. None of this is easy. And lots of people think it's not even worth the effort. They figure that if someone is saying something stupid, they deserve to be ridiculed. "That'll show'em", they think. But that's the thing. It won't.