On the Internet and Basic Interpersonal Skills

Disclaimer: If this comes across as ranty, that’s probably because it is.

There’s this trend online where some people seem to think that being in front of a computer entitles them to flout the rules of basic interpersonal decency. For example, in meatspace, you wouldn’t just walk up to a group of strangers engaged in conversation and start throwing your opinions around as fact, condescendingly contradicting everything they were talking about. In most cases, interjecting without at least beginning with an introduction (“Hello, I couldn’t help but overhear you discussing X. Mind if I say something?“) would rightly be regarded as inappropriate behavior, even if you’re officially an expert on the subject. You’d very likely be told to piss off and be disregarded entirely. Why, then, do some people react with such horror to facing the same consequence online? (“I showed up and told you were all wrong, and when I tried to correct your terrible inaccuracies, you were rude to me!“)

“Normal person + anonymity + audience = total fuckwad” Source: Penny Arcade

For all its wonderment, the Internet is not without its flaws. It is ridden with rot in the form of the common presumption that every space defaults to being a debate club, and any argument to the contrary is (wrongly) interpreted as “censorship.” I enjoy arguing as much as the next guy, but only when I’m in the mood. I cannot grok the perspective that says “every exchange must be treated as a faux-scientific debate!” You don’t get to come into my house and tell me how to arrange my furniture. Similarly, you aren’t entitled to enter someone else’s online space and demand they acquiesce to your demands.

This isn’t an issue of critical thinking—you aren’t making an ad hominem fallacy by telling someone who’s being rude to go away. There’s no fallacy involved in saying “I think you are an asshole, so I do not want to associate with you. You are leaving now.” Hell, most of the time you see “ad hominem” thrown around online, it’s being used incorrectly. Getting tired of someone’s dishonest argumentation and washing your hands of them doesn’t magically prove them right, nor does it prove you wrong. As they say, an argument stands on its own merits.

There is no obligation to engage an argument just because it has been left at your doorstep. If saying “I don’t have time or energy to waste on you” made the other person right, we would have to concede that the world is only 6,000 years old. Since it is not, I think it is safe to conclude that being shown the metaphorical door does not make one’s arguments any more valid. There is no such thing as the “fuck off, you ignorant brat” fallacy.*

The most likely explanation that I see for this phenomenon is hubris. “I am so great that I have the right to dictate how other people—even complete strangers!—conduct themselves online. If they do not live up to my standards, they are wrong.” As trivial as this might seem to a third party, it quickly grows tiresome. Amusingly enough, however, it is quite often followed up with a wonderful display of arrogant fallacy (“Since you’ve failed to live up to my personal standards of discourse, you’re obviously terrible at critical thinking/skepticism/self-aggrandizement rationality.“), and giving in to a cognitive bias is not a very critical thinky thing to do.

For many, engaging in “gotcha” debate theatrics is standard operating procedure. In meatspace, this would make you a social pariah, but online, they believe this makes you a good master debater. Ultimately, I have no interest in wasting time on those who can’t be bothered to conduct themselves with a modicum of decency, and I see little merit in catering to these people. I especially have little motivation for coddling them in the hope that my niceness will somehow reverse the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. You might be the smartest person in the world, but until you can engage with others as though they really are human beings, I can’t be bothered with you. If you are such a person, I’d like you to know that your arguments are probably completely terrible, and no, I am not obligated to point out why. If you’d like to discuss the matter, pull your head out of your ass first. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to hear the explanation. I welcome good-faith evidence-based argumentation, but if you’re just here to spread your shit along the walls, I’ll be keeping you outside the gates.

* On a side note, I wonder if the people who think otherwise have a coherent understanding of the concept of consent… Ah, well. “The world may never know.”

Addendum: Now that I’ve got this all written out, it occurs to me that I had a troll here recently. If you’re reading, Troll-in-Question (and let’s not kid ourselves, you probably will, since the post you commented on was not recent), I hope my deletion of your comment left you with a bad taste in your mouth. Although I did not write this post for you, now that I think about it, it certainly applies to you.


19 responses to “On the Internet and Basic Interpersonal Skills

  1. ”…in meatspace, you wouldn’t just walk up to a group of strangers engaged in conversation and start throwing your opinions around…”

    Yes, you would if they were all wearing T-shirts with the words “Welcome to Our Chat Forum” and the topic they were all discussing was one on which you ALSO had an opinion. And you knew from previous experience at similar gatherings, that only sheeple stand around agreeing with each other all the time about every single topic.

    BTW – Nice blog.
    Nice welcome sign for passing strangers.
    “Your feedback is welcome and encouraged.”

  2. That’s quite a quote mine, Lion IRC. Try again without trimming the next part off:

    For example, in meatspace, you wouldn’t just walk up to a group of strangers engaged in conversation and start throwing your opinions around as fact

  3. Did you notice that my entry into the group was conditional upon the word ”if”’ ?

    “Yes, you would if they………….”

    I would certainly avoid a group of people wearing T-Shirts that read :
    “Welcome to Our Hypocrisy Club”

    And I wouldnt want to be in a group which didnt know the difference between facts and opinions based on facts.

    Note that the operative word is ”conversation” and facts are pretty boring and dry when they are not…you know…being discussed, considered, interpreted, evaluated.

    And I wouldnt like to be part of the “We Only Do Facts – Not Opinions About Facts” discussion group because everyone would be continually arguing over which facts mattered most. Then you’d have to ban ppl and the Mods would be slinging around their subjective opinions about who was and wasnt welcome.

    Dont worry, I understand that banning people from a private conversation between a group of like-minded individuals is necessary for all sorts of reasons.

    I was making a point about sheeple and echo chambers and beer halls.

    But I’m glad this place welcomes strangers. 🙂

  4. You seem to be having difficulty grasping my point. I’ll try to rephrase: people who think their opinions are automatically Real Truths(TM) and wave their Too True To Be False beliefs around, especially uninvited, without addressing the responses they’re getting are assholes who should not be surprised when they are shown the door.

  5. Uninvited / unwelcome opinions?

    Yes, well in that case, I agree.

    ”Open the pod bay door Hal…”

    …fire the nose lasers.

    …etc. etc.

  6. No, Lion. I don’t know why you’re having such difficulty with this. Not just “opinions.” “Opinions that are wrongly presented as fact.” “Opinions held with illogical certainty.” “Unevidenced, strongly held opinions.”

  7. Have you got a real world, typical example of an opinion being stated as fact? Something which exemplifies the ”group of strangers” model of your Op.

    Dont use culture, religion or soft science hypotheses as an example because these are clearly much more widely acknowledged to fall within the realm of opinion and belief. (Eg. The Nicene Creed states ”I believe”, not ”…it is a fact that”)

    I thought the group discussing/analyzing facts would consist of people sharing opinions ABOUT those facts. Otherwise, what is there to discuss?

    In my experience, most opinions are offered AS opinions and the discussion about whether something is or isnt a FACT necessarily includes the sharing of opinions.

    Surely the ”group of strangers” wouldnt have any difficulty demonstrating someones error of opinion if The Facts in question are so easily recognised and veridical.

  8. …but as I alluded, if an uninvited person, who doesnt know the difference between opinion and fact, gate-crashes the inaugural ”2013 Fact Lovers Convention” and doesnt leave when asked, then obviously you need to call the bouncers.

  9. Am I mistaken in reading your consistent subtext to indicate that you keep trying to “coyly” refer to a specific event? I have no interest in discussing whatever bone you’re interested in picking on this page. I made a general observation. If you want to talk about that observation, fine, but leave your baggage at the door.

    …speaking of fact lovers, nice Wikipedia article you reference in the Op.

    Care to elaborate? If this is you making a passive-aggressive jab at wikipedia, keep that sort of thing to yourself in the future. I am quite well versed in the nuances of that website, thank you, and I am not interested in entertaining a conversation about whether or not it is acceptable to use it as I have done so here.

    Have you got a real world, typical example of an opinion being stated as fact?

    My daily interactions are full of such examples, with people uncritically repeating falsehoods and/or fallacious arguments. It is Dunning-Kruger in action. Sometimes such people are amenable to reason. Sometimes they are not. This latter category includes people who are more likely to fall into the pattern I’ve identified here.

  10. Surely the ”group of strangers” wouldnt have any difficulty demonstrating someones error of opinion if The Facts in question are so easily recognised and veridical.

    See, this is exactly what I mean by flouting the rules of interpersonal decency. Who would walk up to a group of people and demand that they stop having their conversation to say “listen to me, and if you disagree with me, you must refute my arguments“? No, those people are probably going to tell you to piss off because they were having a conversation and you interrupted it. That’s arrogant as hell.

  11. What it comes down to is this: if you’re in debate club, then yeah, you should expect a certain level of formal confrontationalism, but before you start treating people like you’re in debate club, you should make sure that’s where you actually are. That often isn’t done on the Internet. Many people are all too happy to assume that the world conforms itself to their preconceptions. It doesn’t, and they often get mad when you point that out to them, presumably because they think it should.

  12. >Lion IRC, have you read Collin’s post titled “The Digital Plague?” It addresses this precise issue.

  13. Subtext?
    Trying to “coyly” refer to a specific event?

    Wow, youve got some ego going on there Collin. Now I understand the condescending paranoia about ”strangers” who are obviously busting their gut to intrude upon your irresistible ”facts only” discussion group.

    You think it’s all about you and the in-group that adoringly surrounds you.
    Strangers keep out. Unwanted opinions be GONE!
    (I want this group all to myself……..)

    @ Brad Hudson.
    Youre right. Collin’s post titled “The Digital Plague?” addresses this precise issue as well. It’s like a theme or something.

  14. Lion IRC, it’s a good theme. I see the behavior he describes all over the net. And it’s behavior that would be considered rude and boorish if it occurred in real life. Going forward, when someone does it to me, I’m referring them to Colin’s post. And telling them where they can shove their demand…. 😉

  15. “Ego?” How does what I said to you convince you I have an ego? I don’t follow the reasoning. You had disagreements with mutual acquaintances on another place on the internet. I don’t care to talk about that here. I’m entirely willing to ignore what disagreements you’ve had with those people provided you engage openly and honestly here. I will have no patience for passive aggression or sniping.

    (I want this group all to myself……..)

    This is entirely wrong. Wanting not to be condescended to is not the same thing as “I want this group all to myself.” Wanting to spend one’s time in the company of polite people (as opposed to arrogant assholes) is not a bad thing.

    Opinions you disagree with can be found in people you like and people you dislike equally. I have many friends who have opinions I dislike, yet I still associate with them. I assume you are the same way?

    Can we agree that merely having a difference of opinion with someone is not grounds for writing them off? Can we furthermore agree that having someone be rude to you is distasteful, regardless of whether or not they share your worldview, and that it is appropriate to choose not to associate with someone who does this regularly?

  16. I totally agree with your final paragraph here referencing the need not to dismiss one because of an argument they have presented. No one has a monopoly on wisdom and for that reason it is wise to consider all opinions and not merely those one agrees with. And also, as you have suggested, one should not be disrespectful towards one s fellow debaters either. I am always considered towards anyone I engage with. I might attack their argument but I never attack them. I however do not demand or expect this behaviour in return – preferable though it may be. I only have jurisdiction over my own thoughts, words and actions and no one else s. I do not have the moral authority to tell others how to behave. I may occasionally reference this however, but it is merely a comment in passing. I treat others according to the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But if that is not reciprocated I do not worry about it. I have a life time ban preventing me from judging others anyway, so it would be wrong for me to break that covenant

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