Thursday, 8 August 2013
Arguing on the Internet
There's been quite a bit of controversy around our little corner of the internet regarding, amongst other things, sexism in Monte Cook's new game, "concern trolling", moderation on rpg.net, and offensiveness in art. If you have no clue what I'm talking about, take it from me that it is all so utterly stupid that you will not be able to stand it, and be glad that you are aloof from the whole affair.
Anyway, Roger the GS writes an interesting and thoughtful piece about arguing on the internet in general. I'm somebody who engages in that idiotic pastime rather a lot (although I like to think I've toned it down a little bit); being an academic, I also find myself arguing with people face-to-face on nearly a daily basis, and will even argue about things I absolutely care nothing about (I once had a very long, heated argument with a colleague about the morality of vegetarian sausages at about 1am at a pub; by the time we'd finished we'd well and truly painted ourselves as nutjobs in front of the entire department, but I was right about the stupid sausages.)
I used to have a high-minded view about discussion and debate. I used to think it was a matter of changing minds, and in my particularly self-congratulatory moments I would look on myself as somebody reasonable and sensible who would change his own views through debate. I now think that neither of those things happen very much, if at all. I do occasionally refine and evaluate my views through argument. But you are never going to convince me that, for example, Catharine MacKinnon is right about pornography, to pull an example off the top of my head as something I have argued about at the pub recently. And I don't think I have ever witnessed anybody change their mind through an argument; the best that can usually be hoped for is an agreement to disagree.
A good friend and regular sparring partner down the years, J, was unfortunate enough to share an office with me for a long stretch. Coming from near opposite ends of the political spectrum, as we did, we usually found ourselves arguing, on a more-or-less daily basis. He often used to say that arguing was a sport, rather than an actual exchange of views. I agree with this more and more. Arguing, for some people, is fun. It is like exercise for the mind. You get a little endorphine rush when you think you are right, just as you get an adrenaline rush when you score a goal. But you rarely have any intention of even entertaining the possibility you could be wrong, even if you will not admit that to yourself.
I'm also of the view that arguing and putting forth your views eloquently and passionately is a form of preening. It's showing off: "Look at me and how big my brain is". It is a manifestation of the human (particularly straight male) urge to say to prospective mates: "I am worth a good shag, so what are you waiting for?". I don't believe that this is at all a conscious impulse, but I think it is there at its roots, deep down inside that ancient reptilian part of us. As I said in the comments to Roger's post (and I'll repeat it because I like it): its ironic that this manifestation appears on nerd forums on the internet, where it is the least likely platform for attracting mates imaginable. What isn't ironic is that, as we all know, sexual chemistry and arguing are inextricably linked.
I imagine that there are people out there reading this who are thinking to themselves no, when I argue I do it because I am passionate about my world-view and want to convince others of its fundamental truth. There are others who will be thinking no, when I argue I do it because I am genuinely interested in exchanging opposing opinions and thus broadening my mind. To that, I'd say yes, I often think that is what I am doing as well, at the time. But if I look deep down inside I have to admit that much of the impulse to argue is simply to stroke my monstrous ego and remind myself how right I am. I'm not proud of that. But I am right about it.