By Trubble

Plenty of people don't know how to argue. They think every disagreement is a personal attack. It does not have to be so, and in fact, it shouldn't be. If the disagreement is over ideas, or principles, or politics, or anything in the realm of the mind, then disagreement is simply an invitation to debate. Detach your ego from your ideas -- unless you are Aristotle, Hegel or Stephen Hawking, chances are you didn't invent those ideas anyway. So don't take it personally if someone doesn't share your view of the world. Take it, instead, as an opportunity to teach, and to learn, and to have a little fun with words.

A good argument is like a workout for your brain. It stretches your thinking muscles, bulks up your intellect, adds healthy new pathways to your neural network. Arguing is a learning experience. Given that the moment you stop learning, you start dying...well, arguing keeps your brain young.

On the other hand, done the wrong way, arguing can be a toxic, ultimately pointless exercise that only creates bad feelings. The trick is to argue right.

Arguing right means constantly re-evaluating your opinions. If you are a halfway reasonable person, you know that it's possible to be wrong sometimes -- at least, misinformed. It's not enough to say "I believe this to be true," without also explaining why. If you have strong evidence and logic on your side, your beliefs will stand the test. If you don't, you'll never convince anyone else that you're right, and maybe should reflect on why you believe in it yourself. In other words, the other guy might just have a point or two worth considering. Remember that, and it will make you a more effective debater.

Arguing on an internet message board is partly a thinking exercise, but also an exercise in communication. In a way, crafting an effective argument post is like telling a joke. Know your audience, include only the details that are necessary, and focus everything on delivering the punchline.

Rules for effective posts:

  1. Have an objective - Before you post, think about what you want to accomplish. Are you trying to correct a factual error? Add a different perspective to an issue? Make another poster look foolish? Any of these can be legitimate objectives, but each requires a different approach. If you don't keep the objective in mind, you risk taking the wrong approach and failing to make your point. Example: if you want to change someone's opinion, don't insult him in the process; he'll just dig in his heels. In short, mixed messages don't work. Be focused on the end goal.
  2. Know your audience -Are you directing your post at a specific person or are you playing to the wider message board crowd? Either way, you need to have a feel for your audience. Are they (or he/she) receptive to certain approaches, sensitive about certain issues? Is there a past history to consider? Is the audience intellectual, or playful, or easily impressed by macho posturing? If you want to be heard, you have to speak the right language.
  3. Keep it focused - Further to point #1, your entire post should focus on achieving your objective, and nothing else. Don't take side trips, or bring other issues into it (unless, of course, your goal is to confuse or deflect the issue). Keep it as short as you can. Use direct, clear, unambiguous phrasing. The fewer words you use to make a point, the stronger it is.
  4. Back it up with authority - Any argument is stronger if it rests on hard fact, or failing that, is supported by recognized experts. Google is your friend - use it to dig up supporting material. If your argument stems from personal experience, make sure it really is personal experience, not "I heard somewhere" or "A friend told me." Either way, be sure of your facts, and careful of the quality of your sources. Nothing will sink your argument faster than being caught using bad information. If you're not sure your facts are solid, you are better off not using them.
  5. Save your ammo -- You don't need to cram everything you know about a subject into one post. Stick to the "A" material, remember your game plan, and don't lose sight of your objective.
  6. Edit yourself - A quick spelling and grammar check before clicking "send" can save you a lot of embarrassment. While you're at it, delete any excess wordage - remember, shorter posts have more punch.

Next: some rhetorical tricks, including the art of the flame.

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