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.