Online Debate


There's quite a bit stirring in my Facebook feed these days. I mean, I've always seen people debate online, but it seems the topics du jour include nearly any divisive topic you might imagine. Homosexual marriage vs. freedom of religion. Defunding Planned Parenthood and/or ending abortion vs. female reproductive rights. Gun control vs. second amendment rights vs. tyrannical governments.

I got my degree in Philosophy and I competed in debate in high school (and a little in college). These are all topics I've thought about and argued both sides of. And I used to really enjoy discourse about the topics. So, part of me wants to jump in. But, for the most part, I avoid it. And while online debates are worse than most face-to-face ones, even in person, I tend to avoid trying to give an argument and, if I get involved, will try to talk about various sides of the debate itself and which ones I think seem interesting.

But, actually engaging never seems worth it. Sometimes it just doesn't seem fair, like I could bully the other person into whatever I wanted just because they can't form a cogent argument. Sometimes it's a waste because people stay tied to what they believe over and above any individual argument -- usually because of some psychological reason. But, more often than not, no one's converging on any real kind of truth.

The most honest thing we could say might be that there are a lot of things we don't know. Some people have developed expert-level knowledge in particular areas and can speak intelligently and authoritatively on those subjects, but most of us haven't. We tend to be cognitive misers. Most of us regurgitate something we heard once that sounded good without really understanding how far others have progressed in that debate.

And, really, the same is true for me. I have ideas on topics I haven't heard others talking about, but, that probably just means I'm not talking about these things in the right circles. So, beyond adding something someone else has actually probably already considered and rejected (likely for good cause), my only real contribution to uninformed debate would be to give the counter-arguments I already know that the others don't seem to know about. But that doesn't make the counter-argument right and it doesn't move the debate.

So, instead of responding to a series of terrible arguments for and against abortion on Facebook this morning, I turned my phone off and wondered about whether there were a quick way to summarize and visualize discourse about a topic. Could you, at some point, present a topic, give arguments for a myriad number of sides, show where they lead, and fill in the details of the arguments for anyone interested in diving a little deeper? Instead of a 30-page comment trail for a Facebook post, could you just drop a link in as a response to the argument and walk away? And, could you give people who do know what they're talking about on a subject a platform to be able to fill in that debate a bit further? If so, what would that look like and would it accomplish much?

I think it'd be interesting if it can be done well. It's definitely something I want to think more about.