[I asked prizewinning debaters Brett and Alex Harris to write an entry about the rules of debate as they should apply to blog commenters. The following is their response. I think they've done a beautiful job, and I've learned some things from it myself—especially Principle #8. Also, please note that this post is cross-posted (with better formatting and fewer typos) at Conscientious Contemplation.— Dawn]
You Have Entered "The Comment Zone"
It is crucial to a vibrant and healthy comment section for participants to understand the purpose of discussion, and to possess a proper respect for their fellow contributors. Whether you maintain your own blog, comment on other blogger's posts, or both, you have most likely been frustrated by the lack of proper argumentation and the seeming epidemic of disrespect, primarily among your opponents (Insight #1: They feel the same way towards you).
The truth is that we all can use a helpful reminder every so often as to how we should conduct ourselves in the high-intensity role of "the commentator's commenter."
For that reason we present "Commenting For 'Newbies' (A 'Reminder' For The Rest of Us)" as an invaluable resource for bloggers and their readers; an aide-mémoire, if you will. Yes, logic, evidence, and respect still exist and can be realized—even in your comment section.
The Purpose of Argumentation
Critical to proper argumentation is an understanding of why we argue; we argue in hopes of persuading dissenting opinions to conform to our own. If we disagree, it is because we think we are right and others are wrong. We take the time to discuss our disagreements in hopes of proving the validity of our views. It is frustrating, therefore, when we find ourselves perpetually clashing with our opponents, while making seemingly no headway towards our goal of changing their minds.
In fact, at times it can feel as if, were we to publicly claim that rabbits exist, our opponents would deny it; even if one hopped up, said, "What's up, Doc?" and starting burrowing into their heads. How do we get past these confounding doldrums and arrive at a place from which the discussion can progress in an intelligent manner?
Here are three steps to improve your skills of argumentation:
Step One: Remember that your opponents have come to their conclusions using more or less the same rational process you have. The difference is not necessarily their intellect, but rather the information they had at their disposal and the values they hold.
Step Two: Understand that this means your opponent feels just as confident about the accuracy of his or her position as you do about yours, and will only be persuaded otherwise if you prove that their information or values are out of line.
Step Three: Realize that successful argumentation will only take place when you make it your goal to inform and persuade, by supplying additional bits (or chunks) of information and by addressing the values behind your opponent's conclusions.
Eight Principles For Logical & Respectful Discussion
The key to respectful, profitable argumentation is to respect others and to be respected. You respect others by acting civilly and arguing reasonably. You cause others to respect you by not acting like a fool in your manner or in your argumentation. Here are eight principles that allow you to do both:
NUMBER ONE: Understand the "classical" view of tolerance.
The classical view of tolerance lends itself much more readily to intelligent argumentation than does the modern view. It teaches that, while we may strongly disagree with their opinions, we still treat the person behind them with respect.
- DO feel free to disagree, even strongly, with other people, and say so!
- DO feel free to permanently demolish opposing viewpoints. (Good luck!)
- DO NOT attempt to demolish opposing "people."
Nothing more quickly degenerates a discussion than when people start attacking those making the arguments rather than refuting the arguments themselves. Remember that the character, circumstances, or political ideology of the person has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the proposition being defended.
- DO NOT stoop to name-calling (moron, idiot, etc.)
- DO NOT imply negative monikers onto people simply because they disagree. (i.e. "Anyone who's even slightly intelligent will believe that cows are people too.")
The use of inappropriate language and shocking statements is a sure sign that the author lacks the ability to communicate their position in a calm and reasonable manner. It shows tremendous disdain for others and will not be allowed on respectable blogs.
- DO NOT be upset when your comment is deleted for inappropriate language.
- DO NOT be upset when you IP address is banned for multiple offenses.
This is one of the most critical aspects of proper argumentation and requires that you carefully guard yourself from making groundless statements. Every proposition should be supported by either logic or evidence.
Logic includes everything from complex syllogisms to plain ol' cause-and-effect. Evidence can take the form of examples, statistics, and/or quotations from authorities in the field. Supported arguments stand until refuted. Unsupported arguments do not deserve a response and might as well not exist.
- DO feel free to confirm other people's points without providing additional support.
- DO NOT make additional arguments or publicize your
disagreement with someone else's position without providing adequate
There is no surer sign of inadequacy on the part of a debater than when they take issue with some small "error" on the part of their opponent, while ignoring the main point/s their adversary is trying to make.
If you are unable to refute your opponent's position, don't insult his or her spelling, grammar, or insignificant deviations from fact. Your opponent is most likely correct, and their small errors have nothing to do with the overall truth or falsity of the proposition they defend. Don't make a fool of yourself by being a sore loser.
- DO feel free to point out significant errors that impact the validity of a claim.
- DO NOT point out errors solely for the purpose of embarrassing your opponent.
A common tactic adopted by inexperienced debaters is to ask a long series of questions that place an enormous burden on their opposition, without actually making any particular point. Such an approach is not only unfair to your opponent, but it really isn't argumentation at all. These kinds of "question avalanches" can hardly be responded to in the confines of a comment section, but will often foster animosity.
The same is true of those with too much time on their hands (or a gift for speed writing) who present far too many arguments at one time in hopes of "burying" their opponent under the supposed "empirical" weight. Both of these abuses inhibit true argumentation and inevitably degrade the quality of a discussion. Respect yourself and your opponents at all times by using moderation in your argumentation and questioning.
- DO feel free to ask pertinent and probing questions about your opponent's position.
- DO NOT expect answers for loaded questions.
- DO NOT ask loaded questions.
- DO feel free to make powerful and relevant arguments
against your opponent's position.
- DO NOT expect answers to your 5 page tome.
- DO NOT write 5 page tomes.
Remember that your opponents are busy people who are taking time out of their day to discuss relevant issues with you. Do not place an excessive burden on them by requiring them to go "off-site" to read lengthy articles or study ancient philosophers, scientists, etc. If Aristotle makes "your" point then "you" should be able to make the argument. Your opponent certainly will not (and shouldn't have to) make it for you.
- DO feel free to provide links to outside sources for your opponent's consideration.
- DO NOT expect your opponent to read them unless you make them want to. (i.e. "If you go read Maxwell's five-foot bookshelf, then you'd agree with me!" never works)
- DO feel free to support your arguments with outside resources. Just make sure you summarize what the resource says. Otherwise your opponents will consider your argument unsupported until they go read/see the support. They most likely never will.
When the majority of participants in a discussion hold your position, it is common to starting acting as if the last seven principles no longer apply to you. You feel you can destroy the dissenter, along with their position, since you have so many like-minded chums. However, the majority has no more right to silence the opinion of a minority through disrespectful, improper argumentation, than the minority would have, if it was able, to silence the opinion of the majority using the same methods. Victory by means of respectful, logical argumentation is true victory. Victory by any other means is no victory at all.
- DO feel free to destroy dissenting opinions using
respectful, logical argumentation.
- DO NOT silence dissenting opinions by majority "piranha attacks."
About the Authors: Brett and Alex Harris have competed for four years in high-school speech and debate, including policy and value debate, persuasive platform speaking, limited preparation categories, and even interpretative events. Over the past two years they have combined for six national titles, making it into the final rounds over 18 times. They have been contributing authors to several debate sourcebooks and have coached high-school speech and debate clubs in Oregon, Washington, and Maryland. They currently author the blogs The Rebelution (Brett) and Conscientious Contemplation (Alex).