The Devils of Our Better Nature

I’ve always liked getting into arguments. And I don’t mean debates, I mean arguments. Knock-down, drag-out, no-holds-barred shouting matches. Carefully weighing merits and finding common ground on the important issues of whatever are not things I enjoy. It’s a little juvenile, I admit, but what I like is proving people wrong.

Of course, we all like the feeling of being right. I think it’s pretty well established that the most exciting emotion for most people - way beyond love, lust or hate - is righteous indignation. People don’t mind being aggrieved if they can show other people how right they are and how wrong someone else is.

Don’t believe me? The next time you’re in a conversation, listen for the clues. When describing a picnic, how much do people talk about the potato salad and how much do they talk about the ants? When people tell stories about parties they run through the niceties in five seconds and skip right to what he said about her, what she poured on him and how long they spent cleaning up what they both did to the bathroom.

But if you really enjoy that sort of thing, you can’t just wait around for people to throw up on your bath-mats. You have to get out there and provoke something! In the old days that meant putting out a cigarette in a stranger’s drink or telling the new guy that you don’t like the look on his face. And if you don’t mind getting punched in the face, those are still good starting points, but it’s much safer to stick to politics, religion and text editors.

I’ve always been a fast thinker. Even better, I talk fast. When I’m wrong, I usually have a good - or at least funny - response quickly enough to turn things in my favor. I overwhelm people with words and points and jokes. I admit it: I don’t fight fair. Which means I almost always win.

My Achilles heel is the internet.

Not because it means that everyone has access to some stupid wealth of knowledge or because I have to argue against a higher calibre of opponent. When you’re good at arguing, the facts don’t matter. I blame HTTP.

The web, you see, is a stateless protocol, which means that communication is asynchronous. When you’re visiting a website, the server isn’t doing much of anything while you read - it just waits for the next person to come along and request a page. And in the same way, when you’re discussing something with somebody in a forum or a comments section, they aren’t sitting around watching you type, they’re eating their dinner and putting gas in the car.

That means they have all the time in the world to think about what you’ve said, look up some facts, and prepare their response. You can’t interrupt them halfway through and start tearing their argument to shreds before they can finish a sentence. They get to complete their thoughts! Their terrible, terrible, possibly correct thoughts! My speed advantage goes right out the window.

So I’ve adapted. And, part of what’s helped me the most is, paradoxically, being less of a jerk. Instead of going after people full-bore, hitting them with a blistering, expletive-laden attack, I have to be more subtle. I have to rely on my humor and rhetoric.

One of the people who has been the most helpful in my shift in strategy is Jay Smooth. His good-natured disposition combined with his ability to make a serious point in a fun way gives him a wonderful rhetorical style. But his best quality, the one I’m still trying to get the hang of, is the way he defuses a situation while still making his point. Watch this video on dealing with racists:

Isn’t that fantastic? How do you argue with that guy? He’s like the Mister Rogers of “Take your white privilege and shove it.”

Sadly, I’m not mature enough to do what Jay does. I see people acting like racists, and I can’t help calling them racists. For instance, after reading a bunch of Libertarian nitwits (redundant, I know) on Twitter defending Ron Paul, I was compelled to set up Is Ron Paul A Racist? And I know better!

Then, after seeing those same people make the same stereotypical racist comments over and over, I found myself setting up You Might Be A Racist. Yes, it would be better to talk about what they did instead of what they are. I know.

But this way sure is a lot of fun.

UPDATE: Evidently, it’s also good for traffic:

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