Thursday, 17 March 2016

How to Cut Your Internet Argument Addiction

You know how it goes. You're idly flicking through your news feed, or you scroll to the "comments" section at the bottom of a news article. Some of the comments are nice and innocent enough, some make valid points; but there's somebody who has said something so ignorant, so disgusting, that you feel your blood start to boil. Perhaps their comment has bypassed most peoples' attention, or perhaps there is already a vicious battle going on by the time you stumble across it. There are misinformed, ridiculous comments being made - and you know exactly what to say to them. You might even have a few facts to back yourself up. You click "comment" and find that you might even need to register with this website in order to have your say...

STOP right there! Before you get your virtual knickers in a twist, take a deep breath and think about what you're about to do. How often in a heated, online discussion do you see somebody saying "Wow, I really see your point. Thank you for putting it that way!" (without sarcasm) and politely shaking hands with everybody, thanking them for the intellectual exercise?

Unless you've found yourself a particularly sophisticated debating forum, the usual drill is this: your comment is responded to with even more ignorance, perhaps a personal insult, you get angrier and reply again, ad infinitum until you're not really sure of what you're arguing about anymore. Eventually, the conversation dies down and you're left with that unpleasant feeling inside your stomach - anger, frustration, exasperation at the fact that there are so many awful people out there who actually have the power to make world-changing decisions, and you wonder what is the world coming to?

If this sounds at all familiar, then read on. I am writing this because I have found myself being sucked into various arguments in the past... be it about animal cruelty, gay rights, religion, politics or a TV show. I desperately search the internet for scientific studies to back up my arguments, take offence at the responses and feel that awful tension somewhere in the centre of myself,  the one that tells me that humanity is doomed, or perhaps it's just a reaction to confrontation. Over time, this kind of tension inside you can make you feel ill, stressed, and generally just more negative. It's like a little lead weight that you carry around inside you. I knew what I was doing to myself, and yet I just couldn't help it. Those comments lured me in, and if they do the same to you, then it's time to think about these things:

1) Imagine the situation in real life. How often would you walk in to another group's conversation and chime in with your own opinion? Set the scene; you're walking down the jam and spread aisle of the supermarket when you hear a woman say something completely offensive. You feel your jaw clench - do you step up to her and start arguing with her, there, among the jars of peanut butter? If this sounds like something you would do, then try to imagine the reverse. You're having a nice discussion with your friends, when suddenly somebody you've never met before steps in to tell you what a bunch of delusional, hippy idiots you are. How would you react?

2) Those words will be there forever. Of course, the one time I do find people chiming into others' conversations, loudly voicing their opinions, is when almost everybody involved has had a few too many cocktails. As many of us know, these "debates" can get pretty ugly. As you can hide behind your screen (and a fake name), the internet does a similar thing to alcohol - it lowers our inhibitions. After you've made a fool out of yourself when drunk, you usually feel ashamed and vow never to do it again. With internet comments, your heated words are archived somewhere forever the moment you post them - even if you later delete them, you can be sure that somewhere, they are stored. So, before you click "submit", ask yourself - do I really want these words archived forever (next to my name)?

3) Will your words really change things? Are those ignorant, angry people suddenly going to see the light in your words? Despite what the movies might show us about powerful, inspirational speech with motivating background music, the psychology actually points to a depressing truth: when your deepest convictions are challenged, your beliefs actually get stronger (have a look at this lovely article called The Backfire Effect to give you more information). As you've probably found out yourself, the more you calmly try to point out why the other person is wrong, the more adamant they become that they are right. And what about you? Have you actually stopped to consider the merits of the other person's argument? Remember that, for whatever reason, they are trying to change your mind, too.

4) Do you need them to agree? Evolutionarily speaking, the more people you have on your side, the better your chances of survival. In this way, internet arguments look like nothing more than a primal attempt to rally as many people onto our own side as possible - but, if they can't be swayed, then they are a threat. This "us" and "them" mentality is part of our most basic nature, and yet - while telling ourselves that we live in a civilized world - we let it dictate almost every aspect of our society (religion, politics, the town we're from, what football team we support). When people agree with us, we feel safe; when they disagree, we feel threatened. Remind yourself that this is one of your most basic instincts, meant to keep you away from rival tribes, and that it isn't really useful to get riled up about what some douche on the other side of the world thinks about your favourite band.

5) It isn't an outlet for your anger. Perhaps you're angry because of something else going on in your life. Your boss treats you like crap, so you take out the anger on online forums - after all, the consequences won't come back to haunt you, and you'll feel better after letting out the anger. Actually, it turns out that "venting" anger does not reduce it, overall - alas, that's a myth (see here). Anger isn't something that needs to be "let out", like steam from a kettle - perhaps we can thank all those old cartoons for fuelling this idea. Deep breaths, exercise and counting to ten will actually help your anger a lot more. After all, do you honestly come away from those arguments feeling refreshed and happy?

6) It won't make you smarter. OK, so the research you're conducting in order to back up your argument might teach you some interesting facts, and writing your argument in a coherent way might help you with your writing, structuring and persuasion techniques. So join a debating society or write a blog! Most of your amazing argument will fly over the opponent's head - because, as stated earlier, challenging their convictions will only make them hold onto them even tighter. You can quote statistics or Benjamin Franklin all you want, but the other people won't see a well-crafted, persuasive argument - they'll see opposition, plain and simple, and more than likely respond only to a small percentage of what you have said. And, at the end of the day, even if one person DOES concede that you have a point - what have you really achieved? You might feel a quick ego boost, but in the end you've spent a good chunk of your valuable time draining yourself of energy and your life is none the better for it.

7) What's your real motivation? Do you really hope that your persuasive prose will turn thousands, show them the error of their ways and convince them to join your cause? Isn't that also what the other side is trying to do? Take a minute to be truly honest with yourself. What do you hope to achieve from it? Do you want to see the belief systems of others crashing to the ground, or do you just want them to tell you how clever you are? Do you just want everybody to like you? A lot of people argue online because they are insecure. They would never say the things they say on there to a person's face, and they feel a sense of satisfaction at kicking someone's ass in an argument. Is that really who you want to be?

8) What else could you be doing with this time? If the comment that sparked your anger was about an issue that's important to you, then there are other things you could do about it. Volunteer. Join a pressure group. Campaign. Do publicity for Greenpeace, Amnesty, the political party of your choice. There'll be plenty of opportunity for face to face arguments, then! Even if you don't want to do that, think about how much time you actually spend reading, and responding to, those comments. When you say "I have no time", have you taken into consideration the time you spend getting dragged into online arguments?

9) Be the bigger person! I did say that people don't change their convictions easily, and for the most part, that's true. But what about the person who does say "You bring up some interesting points. I still believe <insert believe here>, but I respect the way that you defend your beliefs." - I'm sure that someone will still find a bone to pick with that, but what can you really say? The person who mans up, agrees to disagree, or - unthinkably - admits they're wrong, is the true winner. It takes a lot of balls to apologise or to admit defeat, and that person could be you. Then you can leave imagining the admiration other readers will feel for you... how's that for your ego boost?

10) You'll feel happier and healthier if you stop! In my last post, I talked about how your perception of events shapes your reality. If you constantly surround yourself with negative nay-sayers, people who put you down, you might come to believe that everyone is like this, that you're always wrong, or that nobody really likes you. By cutting out these unnecessary unpleasant conversations (which, as we covered, are almost impossible to "win" and achieve nothing), you're feeding your brain a lot less nasty, negative stuff. Spend more time with positive people - not just people who agree with you, but at least people who will challenge it in a friendly, polite way without resolving to name-calling. That way, nasty arguments can turn into intellectual debates, and you'll spend less of your day taking in negativity. Arguments cause stress, and as you may have guessed, stress is bad for your health (emotional, mental AND physical). I have personally vowed to spend only 5 minutes a day looking at the news feed on Facebook, and to fight the urge to post my opinions - although it's a struggle.

Finally - it's not personal - those people might call you all the names under the sun, but if they don't know you, they are arguing with nothing more than the embodiment of "the opposite of what I believe". That means that anybody sharing your opinion would receive the same treatment, but it also means your glories won't be personal badges of honour, either.

So, stop reading those shared photos on Facebook, don't scroll down to the "comments" section of a news article and steer clear of forums full of unpleasant people. You don't really know who is behind the comments, half the time, anyway - you might be wasting your energy arguing with a child or somebody with a serious personality disorder that stops them from thinking clearly! Just remember - you can be the smartest person in the world, but you'll always find somebody to disagree with you. Let it wash over you and spend your time and energy on things that will really make your life better!

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1 comment:

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