10 Common Mistakes People Make When Arguing Online


1. Starting a sentence with “As a…” 

“As a proctologist, I believe that what you said about the human digestive system is absolute shit.” An argument started this way will only make you seem like a pompous ass, which is just tolerable if you’re a proctologist with a good sense of humor. Most of the times, people who do that are either trying to look like experts on the subject or trying to make their position seem more respectable.

“As a [insert religious inclination here]…” is downright untouchable. “As a hippopotamus, I believe all men are created alike, so we should treat each other in the same way as we’d want to be treated ourselves.” Take the “As a hippopotamus” out. What you said has the exact same value (p.s. did you know it was a hippopotamus who came up with the golden rule?).

2. Assuming there’s a bot on the other side.

It’s easy to forget that you’re talking to actual people on the internet. You see only a thumbnail, sometimes not even that. People say things that they’d never say in real life in a million years:

“You’re disgusting, go wash your greasy hair and grow a brain, you have an IQ smaller then a zygote”

“You may have big boobs but your ugly face ruins it, I’d rather kill myself then lay a hand on you.”

Try to keep in mind that you’re talking to real people. Some of them are callused internet users, who won’t give comments like that a second glance. Others might be 12 year old girls with confidence issues, or grown men, dressed as 12 year olds with confidence issues.

If you ABSOLUTELY have to be mean, at least be funny. On his ex’s rape “Knowing my ex-wife, it probably was not a moving violation.”

-Woody Allen

3. Attacking they’re grammar or spelling.

Yes, it may be funny to see someone write a page long essay, to realize one mistake, and to reply with “*your”. People make mistakes. Bukowski’s grammar and spelling were so poor that, unedited, his work was close to unreadable. Having to cross-out a few “they’re” and put “their” in their place, probably gave his editor a little more work, but it didn’t make him a worse novelist or poet. The same works for that perfectly fine response that you just dismissed. It’s different if the other person’s grammar is really poor. If that’s so, you either shouldn’t have engaged in the first place, or just quietly slipped away from the conversation. Without the proper use of language you can’t convey your arguments, so there’s no point in trying to piece together poorly explained thoughts.

4. Red Herring 

This is one of the most common fallacies you’ll find online. It goes like this:

Subject A is being discussed: “Potatoes!”

Subject B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when subject B is actually not relevant to subject A): “Yeah, I know… But… Carrots!”

Subject A is abandoned in an attempt to forget it: “Yeah, carrots…”

5. Make assumptions.

“This was clearly written by a spunky teenager with no grasp of how and where to use Photomultiplier tubes.”

Answer the questions, illustrate your ideas, and demonstrate your knowledge. Whatever you feel about the person on the other side try keeping it to yourself. You’re right, he’s wrong. Whatever you have to say about him won’t be pleasant. You had a conversation for a few minutes or maybe a few hours. You shouldn’t be comfortable enough to put someone in a box, tag it, and close him there. Just imagine they might wear glasses and say things.

6. All generalizations are bad.

Yes, even that was a bad generalization. Not all feminists have short hair and keep their legs furrier than Chewbacca. Not all Republicans are religious fanatics. Not all anti-abortionists are doctor killers. People might think that because there are a few feminists who don’t shave, a few Republicans crazy about God and a few anti-abortionists who killed doctors. They’re just easier to remember because they stand out, they’re easier to identify.

Before you make a generalization, be sure that’s not simply based on your limited perspective on the subject. Follow this advice, unless you’re Asian. Asian people never follow advice.

7. Exceptions as rule

This one is the opposite. “Well, you say that 90% of Americans like enchiladas, but my cousin Bob absolutely hates them, so you must be wrong.” Again, you’re using your limited view to disprove an argument but, in this case, you’re trying to make the one thing you know about the subject the rule.

8. Straw man.

Another common fallacy. It also happens when you’re starting to lose an argument. It goes like this:

Person A has position X: “Red Potatoes are healthy.”

Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X): “Yeah, but, you know… white potatoes.”

Person B attacks position Y: “White potatoes might kill you.”

Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed: “Potatoes aren’t healthy.”

9. Changing your language

There’s a point where a conversation becomes an argument. You start-off finding some common ground. Both of you are film buffs, you share the same taste, you both love Wes Anderson’s movies. Then all hell breaks loose: you say “Moonrise Kingdom” is his best and he says that “No, ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ is!”

When that happens, don’t try to escalate your language and use 10 syllable words if until then you were having a friendly chat. It just seems desperate to try to appear smarter. A really smart guy once said that “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

10. Arguing online in the first place.

Why would you ever do that to yourself? Sure, on certain forums you can find an educated crowd with whom you can discuss relevant topics of your interest. But be honest. You probably just couldn’t keep quiet and ignore that comment about the earth being flat and 6 thousand years old. You just had to go there and convert him to the thinking people’s realm. What can you possibly profit from arguing with a stranger online? He won’t change your opinion and you won’t change his. Whatever forum you chose will serve solely as a battleground for you to reiterate what you already think. Two things might happen:

1. You’ll be happy with yourselves, for the brilliance with which you stated your case.

2. You’ll convince yourself that you stated your case brilliantly, when you didn’t, and still be happy.