Arguing Over Argument in the Internet Age

The Internet means that today anyone can discuss any topic at any time with anyone who is interested in it.

When the possibility first appeared it seemed to open up a brave new world. Whatever your interest you could always find people who wanted to discuss it. The innovation also seemed to have political consequences that came at just the right time. Serious public thought was becoming concentrated in an ever more careerist academic world. Journalists were becoming more credentialed, journalism more professional and dominated by a few major outlets. The age of intellectual independence and skeptical hard-hitting reporting seemed over, and public discussion was becoming the preserve of a small self-perpetuating class with its own interests, alliances, and biases. It seemed that the Internet would break up the monopoly and make the public forum a true forum, where attempts by powerful interests to control the discussion would inevitably fail, and we could all meet and discuss common concerns as we saw them.

To some extent that’s happened. It’s much harder to cover up the news today, or to keep ideas and information away from those who want to find out about them. If you want to see what actually happened, you can look it up on YouTube. Nonetheless, the brave new world of the Internet has turned out not so brave or new. A cacophony of thoughtless words and images has become a white noise background to the same official views approved by the same kind of people who dominated public discussion before it came along. There is still a conventional wisdom that is found on the editorial pages of The New York Times, and it’s no wiser than before. If anything, it is less so.

There are a number of reasons for how things have turned out. The ease of entering discussions has meant a lot of very bad discussion, much of it hardly worthy of the name. Obstinate people who have one answer for everything and ignore what others actually say find it easy to churn out commentary. Combox exchanges especially tend to devolve into repetitious gibes, slogans, and personal abuse. Normal people give up, and the bad drives out the good.

Intelligent discussion is work, and often unrewarding, since the same errors and dodges come up again and again and resist correction. Even if someone wants to understand a position it takes a great deal of imaginative effort to do so if he doesn’t already almost agree with it. If someone hears an assertion, he thinks of what it would be for him to make it. If he believes that “gay marriage” advances the purposes of public recognition of marriage and hears opposition, what he hears is “I want to pick on gay people.” That’s what it would mean if he took such a view and all his other beliefs remained the same. Such barriers can be quite difficult to overcome.

To make matters worse, the very diversification of opinion and information promoted by the Internet has put a premium on more effective ways of dismissing disfavored views. All too often people don’t want to understand because it would complicate matters to do so. To maintain the stability of their intellectual and social world in an age without legitimate authority they find ways to exclude whatever doesn’t fit. The result is that the more open public discussion seems to be the more partisan and taboo-ridden it becomes. Opposing positions are not described fairly or understood correctly, and what’s presented is less argument than insult, sophistry, bludgeoning, and half-truth or outright fiction. Issue is never joined, and discussion goes nowhere. At times in the past there has been a conception of honor that demanded a certain standard of honesty and good faith in public discussion. Those who violated it were discredited and ignored. In today’s marketplace of ideas that’s disappeared, and cheating pays off as long as it supports the answers people want.

Those who wish to carry on an intellectual struggle against dominant positions, including almost any serious Catholic who wants to take part in public life, need to consider how to respond to such a situation.

It is true that discussion can seem pointless today. How often do we convince anyone? How often do we even think we’ve made ourselves understood? Saint Ambrose commented that it has not pleased God to save His people through argumentation (“non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum”). If so, it seems even less likely He’ll save His people through blog posts and combox rejoinders, or even thoughtful essays on esteemed websites.

Nonetheless, the pointlessness of argument is easily exaggerated. Discussion is important because man is a rational animal. That doesn’t mean he is always sensible, but it means that in most respects he is mostly so. If people weren’t mostly rational they wouldn’t survive.

Rationality is basic to what we are, and deeply affects what we think and do. If nothing else, it saves effort to have our thoughts in order. That is why language is such a rational system. A study of grammar shows that the language spoken by even the stupidest and most unreasonable people is a model of order and logic. Even its irregularities can be laid out in neat tables. If something so basic to our way of thinking and expressing ourselves is universally so logical and systematic, why not other aspects of our intellectual world?

We all have principles that explain a great deal about our lives. Those principles can be discussed, and the discussions can ultimately affect how we live. If nothing else, argumentation can help us hold whatever position we hold in a more intelligent and stable way. We have to think about our beliefs to present them and respond to objections, and in the end the need to think them through forces us to face the issue of whether our position is actually correct or needs to be modified or abandoned.

Those who try to engage in serious discussion are affected by the experience, so why not assume that others have the same capacity? Argumentative exchanges have a cumulative effect. They can clear up confusions or point out unsuspected problems, and sometimes someone says something that supplies the missing piece we needed so a question suddenly becomes clear. Even if those directly involved get nothing from the exchange onlookers may do so. That is one reason it is important to maintain standards in what you say and how you say it, no matter how objectionable your interlocutor. Paul gives reliable advice that applies to almost any serious topic: “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season … be unfailing in patience and in teaching.” You never know who might be reading, and you want your side of the issue to seem as reasonable and well-motivated as you believe it to be.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • Mack

    This morning I learned that Canadian Broadcasting self-censors.

    Having a sleepless night, I made some coffee and turned on the computer so I could listen to Anthony Germain give the news and frozen moose reports from St. John’s.

    A very Soviet notice on the Orwellian telescreen said that the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) live feed was not available in the USA until after the Olympics due to IOC (International Olympic Committee) restrictions. This is not a matter of Olympic coverage; ALL live feeds from the CBC are off until the Olympics are over.

    You’d expect this sort of censorship from Attorney General Eric Holder, but not from Canada. Self-censorship is not an attribute of a great and free nation. The lines in Canada’s national anthem about the “True North strong and free” sound pretty dar(r)ned hollow this morning.

    • tom

      Censorship and government voyeurism are major problems.
      Everything anyone says can be tapped for review by General Clapper, who was so embarrassed by this massive intrusion into civil discourse that he committed perjury. Meanwhile, never confuse claims of “transparency” with Truth.

  • Vinnie

    The problem is anonymity and not having to use any of your senses – interaction – when you’re having a discussion or debate. The internet has walled us off from each other right down to the individual.

    • tom

      You’re right. That’s why we have to go to the streets, march from parish to parish, pass out slingers on street corners and occupy the “real” public square, not cyberspace. The citizens of Kiev are doing that right now. The most active are the Catholics! Here, the “Catholics” aren’t practicing Catholics and the real Catholics are sheep, pecking away on our keyboards, anonymously. Peccavi!

    • DD

      Not necessarily true. The issue is not the person but the arguments. Truth is truth no matter whose name is upfront.

      • Vinnie

        DD, I agree, but truth is much easier to ignore or distort when you’re not face to face or, at least, voice to voice.

  • Guest

    Thank you for another wonderful article. Well written and with clear and cogent logic.

    One issue I seldom see discussed is the role of the hearer. It seems today there is over emphasis on perceived tone and less emphasis on truth. There is no shortage of people claiming offense even when they have no right to be offended.

    • Good point about how people read things. Every disagreement is a personal attack. Every comment is taken in its relation to the reader’s private list of hot button issues. Or so it seems.

      • DD

        As I was reading your piece I thought of another piece here by Austin
        Ruse that generated many comments. Those defending the “New Homophiles”
        told me that when discussing certain topics we must adopt the contrived
        and deceptive language of this group. The use of common Catholic
        language is seen as intolerable, confusing, and an invective.

        person hearing this fundamental Catholic teaching would be an academic
        with a doctoral level degree yet, they can’t grasp or seek an
        understanding of the topic unless we use their terms.

        If I refuse to play that game am I being uncharitable? Is it reasonable to claim one must adopt a false language to “evangelize”?

        My stance is that the hearer is not the sole arbiter of what is charitable and what is not.

        • TheAbaum

          Unfortunately, Austin’s articles are usually greeted by prairie dogs with spray paint.

  • bosco49

    One problem I encounter time after time in respect of weighing opinion and argument put forth in the various ‘com-boxes’ is that one never knows what authority and expertise the ‘commenter’ possesses short of the commenter prefacing his/her remarks by divulging their identity and curriculum vitae, i.e. résumé

    • DD

      I am not much interested in resumes or CVs. I am interested in what logic and evidence someone can show. If a peasant woman from the 11 century could post here showing that homosexual acts are unnatural that would be more authentic than a 21 century “academic” who claims some study tells us the acts are normal.

      • bosco49

        I am ordinarily not over-impressed by a CV but competing opinions ought be weighed and tested even if they seem to sound all the rights notes at first blush.

        • DD

          That depends on the subject matter.

    • TheAbaum

      Actually you never know, because people can lie about their background, or present impressive but peripheral or irrelevant qualifications.

      • bosco49

        So true so true, but in the aggregate, i.e. evaluating the comment, the manner of expressing oneself, and the putative CV, one may intuit much.
        Sorry to seem so pernickety. I had been a judge for 25 years and old habits die hard.

      • DD

        True, and the world is full of para experts. There is no shortage of folks credentialed in every manner of absurdity all claiming to be the authority even while contradicting common sense and logic.

  • poetcomic1

    St. Bonaventura said, “It is not the part of religious men to be news-bearers.”

    • TheAbaum

      That needs some context.

  • tamsin

    At times in the past there has been a conception of honor that demanded a certain standard of honesty and good faith in public discussion. Those who violated it were discredited and ignored. In today’s marketplace of ideas that’s disappeared, and cheating pays off as long as it supports the answers people want. Rhetoric as sport, as a means to an end other than truth… cheating to win… is all very old, but perhaps more alarming in this internet age where we have less information than ever before about our interlocutors and their intentions, i.e. what do they intend to win?

  • Tom

    The internet/combox phenomenon only exposed human nature. The idea that all our opinions come from rational thinking is an illusion of our brains. The fact is that we are tribal by nature. A lot of our thinking is outsourced, what we say we hold true is in fact decided for us, by our group’s authorities, or prevailing wisdom. As the author points out, true original individual thinking is hard, requires discipline and training. What people say is their opinion, is in fact most often just the prevaling opionion of their group, that one accepts with little critical thought. It allways was the way, the internet just exposes this trick of our minds. This is increasingly made clear by well designed studies, where same opinions are either accepted or refuted, depending if they are said by politicians of a same or opposing parties. Also false memories, using photo shopped pictures, are more likely to be accepted as true if they support one’s point of view. This is why combox/blogs devolve into partisan echo chambers, where any voice that is not of the prevailing point of view is automatically labeled as enemy (“troll”), where as those that support the prevailing view, what ever it is, are “liked”. People that are into making money know this trick.

    • TheAbaum

      “As the author points out, true original individual thinking is hard, requires discipline and training.”

      The most important attribute would be courage.

      The Emperor’s New Clothes captures a lot of these dynamics in a simple childen’s allegory.

      • Tom

        Yes, agree! It takes guts to speak out. Even if things are obvious, prevailing “wisdom” is extremely hard to move. Just look at abortion…

        • TheAbaum

          I’d say the honeymoon is soon to be over. The Pope is talking about the evils of unemployment, and in response to a Congressional Budget Office report on Obamacare reducing employment by a couple million full-time-equivalents, the American left is telling us how it’s good if you can be without a job.

          • Tom

            True, but abortion is the defining evil. If there was a way
            not to get discouraged…btw, both sides get $$$ from the gambling industry. Those that run gambling know how the odds work, they bet on both sides. Often these “passionate” debates on blogs are just manufactured to distract away from the real dirt that is going…

            • TheAbaum

              Abortion is a sacrament to Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the CINOs.

              • Tom

                That’s the point, how to convert? Its not easy, but it needs to be done, it will take guts. How to make abortion non partisan. I can sit and invent a lot of liberal like arguments why abortion is bad. Using things like animal rights (a baby seal, or a kitten, has more rights than a baby of equal gestational age); or “social justice” (do you fight poverty by killing the most vulnerable poor?); race (right now, NYC is undergoing ethnic cleansing, its a fact, the only group of students that is decreasing are AA kids, as 60% of pregnancies end in abortion, as promoted by Cuomo, Hilary et al, and their corrupting money); or gender issues (so its ok that 100 million girls were executed, often just before birth in China, just for being girls), etc. etc..

                • TheAbaum


                  Whenever I hear a politician using the term “fight poverty”, I know that they are approaching it wrong. It’s not a battle to be won with martial analogies, it’s dirt and disorder to be cleaned up. Of course custodians don’t get nearly enough honor for the work they do, or impressive uniforms with ribbons and epaulets.

    • Slainte

      “…this is why combox/blogs devolve into partisan echo chambers, where any voice that is not of the prevailing point of view is automatically labeled as enemy (troll), where as [sic] those that support the prevailing view , whatever it is are “liked”…”
      We are in agreement Tom.

  • katie

    Thank you for articulating so well my increasing frustration with discussions on social media. As a frequent “Twitterer”, I’ve seen and (unfortunately) participated in the back and forth, and often find it exasperating. Truth is, many people are incapable of deeper intellectual discussion; it’s easier for them to follow the masses and repeat the “acceptable” message that’s been drummed into them.

    This can be the case even when in general agreement with another’s overall position on an issue. If questioned about the logic on something they’ve posted, some tend to automatically get defensive, and with the 140 character limit per message limit, it’s futile, PARTICULARLY when multiple users chime in. It then becomes a case of conform with the herd, or be subject to ridicule, accusations of being a (horrors) “troll”, etc.

    So, I’ve learned that unless you are a Twitter “rock star”, it’s best to keep comments to a minimum, indicate agreement by “favoriting”, and maybe an occasional 1-2 word acknowledgement, such as ” agree!” or hoowa!” In the mean time, I’ll probably continue on, as I have issues/concerns I’m passionate about, and Twitter does provide me with a platform from which to express them

    (But it will still be exasperating at times) 🙂 Thank you!

    • John200

      Twitter is exasperating if you are looking for good arguments. In 140 characters, about all you can do is a snappy one-liner, or a quick quote from Scripture/Obama/Chesterton/… (you pick), along with an inadequate explanation. Twitter has nothing to do with arguments and argumentation. Who could expect results other than what we see?

      The combox is much better, although imperfect as our author indicates.

      • katie

        Thank you! I’ve not been on combox yet, I’ll make it a point to try it out.

        And I agree with you about Twitter; not a platform for argumentation. I tried it on a whim, and liked it; at once I was able to express my opinion(s) on a “public” platform. Also enjoyed the creativity in writing an effective message within 140 characters. Incentives (you know) for quality messages yielded larger following, so more people potentiality read my posts.

        Although not seeking lengthy argumentation, I enjoy spirited debate. The quality of Twitter has obviously declined; it’s overcrowded, and with that, the quality of posts. I’ll need to taper off (like a drug!) because it has given me an unhealthy gratification based on the following I’ve established.

        Maybe if I try out combox and like it, I’ll bring some loyal followers with me! (no worries, just kidding about the second part) Take care.

        • katie

          I would just add that, IMO, argumentation be it right here in the ” combox ” on this page, or on any social media platform is futile, without access to facial expression, voice inflection, etc. I long for the days of real newspapers where these matters played out in the editorial pages.

          Without seeing and hearing, much is lost in translation, misunderstandings follow, people are anonymous, let the attempts at intellectual one upmanship begin, nobody is the better for having played. I’ve seen it over and over, in comments sections on different publications, platforms, etc.

          All due respect, it’s so completely obvious right here, as a person comments, complementing the author, sharing their experience , only for another commenter to chime in, saying basically that experience doesn’t pertain to the article. Wasn’t looking for recommendations for argumentation, simply responded honestly pertaining to my experience. “EVERBODYS AN EXPERT”, except that they are not.

          Let the games begin!

  • Prof_Override

    Great abstraction of a culturally new process. I can see myself in both the highlighted reactionary components and in the refinement of thought and temper over time. With that comes the knowledge that there is still a ways to go (that’s being nice to myself). In many ways I see some direct parallels to one’s spiritual journey. One of your best articles – kudos.

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  • Luke

    Brilliant. If I may, without getting flamed, add a point: how many of you found it genuinely hard to read that whole article? There have been many studies on reading on the internet. Almost everyone reads in an “E” shape. You read the start of an article, scan the middle, and then read the conclusion. That’s how we read internet comments, too. The internet is proven by scientific study to promote shallow reading. (If you want to know more, read “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr.)

    My worst experiences on the net have been when I’ve made a well considered, well researched argument that is against public opinion. The better researched, the worst the response. I have found the only way to avoid outright hatred, not just by some commenters, but by the inherently bullying “like/dislike” system, is to read the comments section and only speak if people generally agree with me. My worst experience was actually at The Guardian, easily Britain’s most prestigious newspaper. They did an article on a creative writing teacher at Kingston University who called 99.9% of his students talentless hacks. I studied Creative Writing at Kingston, and am now a published author, so I thought I might join the discussion, especially since I’ve met Hanif Kureshi and believe he’s a horrible teacher, and an egotistical, mean-spirited person. Actually when I made the comment I hadn’t remembered meeting him. He wasn’t particularly memorable. My fiancé reminded me of the encounter.

    But here’s the kicker: I don’t believe talent has much of anything to do with success. This received hate. You can actually see how tame my initial comment was by clicking on my Disqus profile.
    Once the argument got going, I supported my view with neurological studies, psychological studies, and in my own capacity as a sociologist. Moreover, I have met many successful people in my life, and I’ve yet to meet a single person who has followed and achieved a dream who does not agree with my point of view. I am, for instance, a martial artist. I’m 6’3″, muscular, and I’ve had my butt kicked by more scrawny short people than I can count. I listed some of the successful athletes and authors I’ve known. Here’s the other kicker: that COULD be construed as name-dropping. Of course it could. My intention was to supply anecdotal evidence to personalise my argument and not let it feel like an academic essay, but name-dropping was a legitimate interpretation. Either careful reading of my comments, or speaking to me in person would have clarified matters.

    I was attacked personally and professionally, mostly because I don’t believe in the magic of talent. (I believe in conditioning and genetics, and that if a person studies something at post-graduate level, they’re probably already conditioned with a fascination for that subject, and are reasonably smart. I believe Einstein was, as he said, “just passionately curious”.) Not believing in talent means I have a shallow understanding of human beings, apparently, and thus couldn’t possibly write good characters. That genuinely hurt. I’m at the start of my career. I have an agent, but I’m still hoping to get my first book deal and my first real fan base. I don’t have an ego to fall back on

    Here’s the final kicker. The guy at the Guardian was very articulate. I was met by the exact same shallow interpretation, petty abuse and bullying that I would have received dissing Justin Bieber on Youtube, yet it was by an intellectual, or at least a pseudo-intellectual, and either way he/she was educated and articulate. Not only did this make the words more scathing, but the experience taught me that the social diseases that seem to activate when most people argue on the net are present in all walks of life. Even a person who is obviously capable of a deeper understanding and more neutral argument allows their social sensibilities to fly out the window when dealing with someone on the net. And guess what? I commented on Hanif Kureshi on my website, where people are already my fans and public opinion sways in my favour, and I received nothing but affection.

    This is a disgusting state of affairs. I still mentally debate whether the problem is with the internet or with humanity. If the latter, then everyone I meet could, in truth, be a horrible human being, and the only reason they aren’t showing it in person is because they’re a coward. I like to think the problem is to do with shallow reading, and if we all became aware of that, we can change the way we react. We’re conditioned to behave like shallow pricks on the internet, but we’re hopefully capable of more.

    I hope that provides food for thought. I am indeed aware that the middle digresses slightly into complaining about a time I was abused. No need to comment upon that. Again my intention was to provide a personal, anecdotal account. I’m also aware that I’m perhaps taking it too hard, and too far. Touche. That’s a personality trait of mine. It goes along with being passionate about human beings.

    The person’s last “piece of humble advice”, to use his/her words, was to never use my real name on the internet. I’m going out on a limb here and doing it anyway. The way I see it, if I have something to say, it would be cowardly not to associate it with myself. Only a coward shouts in a crowd without standing tall.
    Wm. Luke Everest