We know all too well how easy it is to write something to someone online that we would never say face to face, and conversely how much more effort it takes to write online with the general kindness we employ in our real life interactions. It is tempting to let fly with that zinger, press “enter”, and make a quick escape; or to grind on and on trading insult with insult, madly googling for easy factoids with which to bludgeon our opponent. But that sort of toxic online activity never makes us feel better – or at least I hope it doesn’t. I hope that in all of us there remains some human decency that steadily disapproves of being a jerk. Once that fails us, we’re sunk.
So it is worth bearing in mind what attitudes we should adopt for the sake of discussion. There is of course the general rule that we should act online as if we were acting face to face, or do unto others online as you would have them do unto you F2F, or other web-directed reformulations of the golden rule (call it “the silicon rule”, I guess). But I don’t find that rule easy to keep in mind, probably because every time it is employed I have to work through an unlikely counterfactual scenario that takes too much effort to process (“If I were standing in line at Walmart, talking to my neighbor about how widespread esoteric beliefs were in the middle ages, would I say this to them?”). I would instead suggest adopting a frame of mind when engaging online, one that you remind yourself to adopt before you type anything to anyone.
So suppose I’m flitting around the internet and some story or article or post grabs my attention and I feel like participating. I need to first take a breath and ask myself, “Is this likely to be a serious engagement of ideas?” If not, it’s better to just move on. If that’s too hard, then type the zinger you really want to express, take a moment to revel in its sting – and then delete it, and move on. You will feel a burst of pride for having acted like an adult.
If it is – if there is a chance for a real conversation – then you need to adopt an “input” attitude governing what you read, and an “output” attitude governing what you type.
As you read others’ comments, the attitude should be that the person you are reading might be right, or half right, or a little bit right. Focus on what’s right. Ask yourself whether you really know that the other parts of what they are saying that seem wrong really are wrong. Don’t reflexively google up refutations. Take a moment to consider what they are saying, and whether it might be true, for all you know. Try to see the main point they are making, and give them a free pass if they make mistakes about tangential points, or if they misspell words or names. As in a real conversation, focus on the real substance of what’s being said. The general attitude is this: put yourself in the frame of learning.
Once you feel you have a solid and fair grip on what another person has written, if you feel you have something to say in return (and if you don’t, move on), your attitude should be one of engaged friendliness. Point out what you think the other person is right about. Then move the conversation further – by raising a difficulty with what they have said, or pointing out a relevant counterexample, or suggesting a different way of looking at things. Or you might simply point out a further complication that you yourself are not sure what to think of. Be clear in what you say, but sprinkle in a few qualifiers like “it seems to me” or “maybe” or “I think” – not in a sarcastic tone as you go on to point out something blazingly obvious, but in a truthful tone, since whatever you are writing is in indeed qualified by it seeming so to you. You in fact might be wrong. You, like the other person, are steering by your best available sense of the world. The general attitude is this: put yourself in the frame of furthering the discussion, not finishing it.
Putting the two together, your frame of mind should be: I am here to learn and to further the discussion.
Now obviously this advice does not guarantee success. Your conversational partner might be affected by the civil tone you have adopted, and adopt a similar one, which is great. But they might not, and they might go on to behave like a jerk. If that happens, move on. Not with a parting shot. Not even with an innocent “I was hoping for a civil discussion, but alas, my friend, you have disappointed me.” Just move on. Let them have their last word. If your partner thinks about the exchange at all, waiting for your response that never comes, they might reflect on the difference in tone between your notes and theirs, and perhaps will recognize that they have been a jerk. Either that, or they will believe that their final zinger really got you, and you’ve gone off to lick your wounds. It doesn’t really matter. You will have done your part to make online conversations better. Sometimes even your best efforts will fail, but it will still be important that you have made them.
Adopting this attitude is a two marshmallow effort. You lose out on an immediate thrill coming from virtual confrontation, but you are rewarded over a longer term by knowing that you have tried to be a decent person.