Pros & Cons of Online Debates and Discussions

“Use soft words and hard arguments.”  — English proverb

“Soft words are hard arguments.”  — Thomas Fuller (emphasis mine)

Arguing with Friends, by Paul BullerAmong the various books I have in progress, lately I’ve been reading Arguing with Friends: Keeping your friends and your convictions by Paul Buller. It’s a relatively thin book, but I only read 2 or 3 pages at a time, so it’s slow going. (OK, I admit it; it’s bathroom reading.) It is packed with strategic, tactical, and practical advice on how to have debates & discussions (with friends and co-workers) that are challenging and productive, while remaining friendly and respectful. Buller’s main audience is Christians who want to share their faith with others and/or engage in armchair apologetics, but the principles he lays out work for conversations about politics and socio-cultural issues, too.


At one point, Buller stresses that involved conversations about such important — and often complex — topics really should be done face-to-face, in person. I’ll let him explain.

“Perhaps the only exception to this rule might be Skype or some other such technology. Facebook, email and discussion forums are recipes for disaster, and here are some reasons why:

*  Like it or not, our present generation has lost a LOT of the fine art of writing with clarity. Thus, whatever you wrote will probably not exactly reflect what you were thinking. It is a frequent source of misunderstanding that is best avoided when you talk in person, giving you and your friend the opportunity to clarify things on the fly.

*  Thanks to Postmodernism many people are in the habit of ignoring what an author meant, and finding ‘my own’ meaning to what they read. In other words, even if you worded it perfectly to exactly convey what you were trying to say, it will quite frequently be twisted and re-interpreted according to somebody else’s perspective. It is much harder to do this in person when you can immediately correct them.

*  What exists in electronic form exists FOREVER. Even a single mistake can haunt you for the rest of your life.

*  Electronic communication (excluding video discussion, to some extent) lacks the non-verbal which is often critical in understanding what a person really means. For instance, many people will instinctively use sarcasm and forget that it does not work so well in written text form, even with the polite smiley at the end. 🙂

*  Lastly, and this is perhaps most important, there is this bizarre tendency for the nicest people to take on an alter ego when they are in discussion forums or exchanging emails. Things you would never say to a person’s face are suddenly fair game when you are behind the ‘safety’ of your laptop. I’ve done it. I’ve seen other Christians do it. I most certainly have seen non-Christians do it. It is most easily avoided if you resolve that the most important conversations in life take place in the ‘danger’ of a coffee house.”

These are all GREAT points! And I would add another difficulty:

*  In an online exchange, it is not uncommon to find yourself being challenged by many people at once. You may feel obligated to answer them all, which can be somewhat overwhelming and confusing, especially if they go off on different tangents. On the other hand, in most cases, you can limit your in-person conversations to be truly one-on-one, and it’s (a little?) easier to stay focused.

Still, this is general advice, and Buller clarifies that he is not saying one should absolutely abstain from engaging in important conversations online. In fact, some people have Christian ministries that are internet-centric. Yet, still, Buller urges caution. And I agree.

On the other hand,…

Shy woman - peeking thru fingersFor some (myself included), for whatever reasons (e.g., lack of mobility, small social circle, restrictive or isolated work environment, shyness or general introversion, pronounced speech impediment, etc.), there are many more opportunities to have these conversations — even with friends and associates — online than in person. So, in order to sort of balance out Buller’s points, I decided to counter with a few of my own regarding the benefits of having debates & discussions online:

*  Web-based exchanges allow one to interact with people (family, friends, associates) who live far away or with whom we would otherwise not be able or likely to discuss such matters in person. Plus, sometimes a little distance is a good thing. 😉

*  It is better for those of us who don’t think quickly on our feet or remember relevant facts or articulate thoughts well in person. Even in today’s high-speed, connected world, long-distance conversations often have an implicit time-lag. So, whether over the course of minutes, hours, or days, we have more time to compose & refine responses.

*  Having & taking more time to respond allows for self-editing (thus minimizing knee-jerk reactions and off-the-cuff remarks one may later regret), as well as the opportunity to set one’s response aside for a few hours’ “cooling off” period. I, for one, prefer to walk away and come back to it fresh sometime later — maybe 3 or 4 times. I can then make revisions, everything from minor tweaks to complete re-writes, and I always end up with a more-informed and/or better-phrased response.

*  One of the reasons I can form a “more-informed and/or better-phrased response” is that I am able to access books, articles, podcasts, etc., which I probably would not have at my fingertips or have the time to research them during an in-person conversation. Even in subjects in which I know a thing or two, it is always good to have reference material where I might find additional pertinent facts, another argument I may have forgotten, a better perspective, etc.

*  In a web-based dialogue, where the thread of the conversation is recorded (i.e., email, Facebook, forums, blogs w/ comments turned on, etc.), one can refer back to (and quote when necessary) his/her opponent’s earlier statements. It helps both parties remember exactly what was said and helps to keep them honest.

*  Earlier in his book, Buller recommends taking notes during such a (face-to-face) conversation. However, I think I would find that somewhat awkward — especially trying to take them myself while listening to my companion. (Didn’t always care for it in school, either. Though I did usually take good notes, my fingers would sometimes ache or cramp up.) No awkward, rushed note-taking during a drawn-out, online discussion. Rather, make notes at one’s leisure.

*  In face-to-face talks/debates, it is possible for one party to steamroll over his/her “opponent” — e.g., interrupting and talking over the other, not letting him/her get a word in edgewise; loosing a barrage of purported facts and assertions, which may not always be directly relevant and are sometimes meant simply to overwhelm. This is almost impossible to do in an online exchange where there is time built in, if you will. If one party posts a whole lotta stuff at once, perhaps as part of a long diatribe, the other party can simply take his/her time to determine the real arguments, assess what is most important to address, and ignore the rest.

*  When there is a written record of the discussion, one can review it later to see where one did well and where it could have gone better, either in terms of information, reasoning, or character. “Did I leave out a line of evidence that would have strengthened my case? Did I use any logical fallacies or fall for them when the other guy used them? Was I respectful, gracious, sympathetic, or did I mock, beat up, resort to name-calling?” (Professional Christian apologists often do a similar sort of post-mortem review after debates.)

*  Of course, a final reason that I personally like lengthy online exchanges of substance (particularly on Facebook) is that, some time later, I can reproduce the discussion in part or as a whole for a blog post. 😉 That way, the information and arguments can be shared with a broader group of people, and hopefully my interlocutor and I have modeled civility while challenging each other’s positions.

Those are the few I came up with, anyway. Maybe others occurred to you? If so, feel free to suggest additions to either list below….

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