Photo via U.S. Army/Flickr (CC-BY 2.0)
So, you’ve gotten yourself into an argument on the internet.
First off, I’m sorry—but don’t beat yourself up, it happens to the best of us. The torrent of stupidity we find online has the same appeal of a massive trainwreck. Only instead of just gawking, sometimes we feel compelled to get in there and add to the carnage ourselves.
However, since so many of us wade into this cesspool because of pure reactionary emotion, or some apparently deep and primal need to defend the worthiness of TV shows we like, your first thought after stepping into the ring will not be of true victory or logical soundness, but: how the hell do I get out of this? And not just a simple how do I escape, but how do I escape without in any way admitting that I was wrong/don’t know what I’m talking about?
he good news is that there is a way out, based on the understanding that arguing online is a battle of wills, not minds. Think of these six techniques as a kind of strategic retreat into stupidity, forcing your opponent to abandon their cause out of sheer exhaustion, making you the victor by default. You are the Russian army retreating through the winter, letting Napoleon and his troops freeze to death rather than face him; only in this case your weapon isn’t cold and starvation but ignorance and childish insults, and the dying French soldiers are the other person’s human dignity.
1) The Ad Hominem Attack
First off, we have this basic technique. From the Latin for “being a stupid dick,” the ad hominem attack, or insulting your opponent rather than using reason, is a classic move of Internet arguers. Its popularity comes from its devastating effectiveness, but it’s also a blunt object, leaving no room for nuance. Responding to someone’s point about immigration being essential to growing the economy by calling them a “politically correct cocksucking faggot” is a pretty surefire way to end an argument quick, but it has two major drawbacks: The broadside of hostility can cause such a strong reaction that you draw them in further, entering into an endless feedback loop of comments about each other’s sexually preference, predilection for dick, and similarity to sheep. It can also be too obvious that you have nothing of substance to say. Remember, we want to make it look like you have a lot of deep thoughts on the topic that they’ll never understand.2) Building A Straw Man
Another timeless Internet argument technique, drawn from the real-world nonsense of political arguments. The straw man approach means attacking a target that doesn’t actually exist, or putting words in your opponent’s mouth. This serves the dual purpose of putting them on the defensive, by, say, insinuating that their wish to keep religion out of schools means they want concentration camps for Christians, and completely muddles the actual argument. In this instance, by shifting away from the shaky ground you were on and towards a nonsensical fantasy of Roman-level persecution, your opponent ideally won’t even consider it worth their time to respond.3) Going On An Unrelated Tangent
Here we move to a more advanced strategy. This is the cousin of the straw man argument—you’re shifting the focus—but this holds the potential to completely baffle and discourage everyone involved if pulled off correctly. Rather than making up something nobody said, veer off to seemingly unrelated but equally infuriating talking points. The key is maintaining some distant, vaguely discernible logic in the pivot, clearly strained, but enough for you to claim you have made an excellent point. I witnessed the Holy Grail of tangents during an argument over women being harassed on the street when a man claiming this wasn’t a problem unleashed a four-paragraph aside about how women wanting men to stop harassing them was just an example of entitlement behavior and the nanny state. That women should stand up for themselves and not let the government do everything for them, including, presumably, making it illegal to rape them. It was a majestic tapestry of asinine bullshit, equal to the finest Persian rugs. You could faintly see where he had made the connection, but it was so frustratingly off-base it brought the whole argument to a halt.4) Blatantly Ignoring What They Say
This is a fantastic, easy play, but for some reason less commonly employed. Perhaps because it takes some audacity. But timed correctly, after your opponent has just thrown out a particularly long and thoughtful line of debate, it can be maddening: Post your latest reply using the exact same line of reasoning you were using before, without addressing anything they said at all, as if they’d never even responded to your previous comment. Added bonus if you can get them to start repeating the same thing over and over in a vain attempt to get you to acknowledge their argument. This is the digital equivalent of covering your ears and repeatedly shouting your point, and it works just as well online as it does in real life.5) Saying It’s Just Common Sense
As with the unrelated tangent, there has to be some logic behind this baffling claim. It’s not enough to confuse someone by saying something stupid while claiming it’s common sense. This move is best reserved for hot-button topics where there is a lot of passion both sides, like abortion or universal health care. By taking something with such a huge chasm of disagreement and essentially brushing off millions of people’s legitimate opinions as a mere logical fallacy, you are almost guaranteed to strike a nerve and send your opponent into a frothing rage. This will lead them to either quit, or start insulting you outright, magically making you seen like the grown-up.6) Acting Above It All
This is the beautiful merger of the common sense dismissal and ad hominem attack. The Internet-perfected mix of impenetrable reason, frustrating confidence, and personal insult. Everyone knows how annoying it is to be condescended to, and everyone knows how that annoyance can escalate to murderous anger when the person doing the condescending is a complete idiot. You can’t get on your high horse early on, but you also can’t wait until you are boxed in a corner—or it will look desperate. Instead, wait until emotions are really cresting, and then stop cold, snidely claiming that clearly you are too good for this argument, while the other person is too dense to see the truth and is not worth your attention anymore. Not only will this limit their response to a simple denial of your victory, but it serves as a not-so-subtle hint that your opponent is a worthless festering piece of human garbage who doesn’t even deserve to have a voice in the most shallow of intellectual arenas. Let your arrogance and intransigence consume everything in its path, and bathe in the dim light of your victory.