I love debate, and so I hate debating.
In theory, the idea of debate is beautiful. Fencing for people who are weak, uncoordinated pansies. Carefully dancing around defenses, looking for openings. Occasionally goading your opponent into making a poorly considered attack. Emotions come into play, but the point is not to get infuriated. Winning isn’t the point. The form is the point. Debate is a whetstone for your beliefs. You may not change the other person’s mind, but both of you will have honed your opinions.
In practice, people suck at debating. I think this is largely because people think the point of a debate is to win it, or to convince the other person they are wrong. And so as soon as an attack comes in that challenges one of their preciously held beliefs, they start responding with a mixture of stupidity and maliciousness that ruins the fun for everyone.
The Internet has codified poor debate strategy in the minds of millions. The first real forum of conversation online was Usenet, and a cursory glance through any long thread will show you what I’m talking about. They start with a half dozen interesting, reasoned posts that go back and forth on a subject. And then someone comes in and kicks the damn table over and lights it on fire.
I’m discounting the truly odious trolls here, the ones who say insulting things about your mother’s anus or the lack of limits in your relationship with your dog. It’s simple to ignore the violently abusive posters, since their only desire is to get some attention. People like this are why all modern social networks come with a “block” button. Use them.
No, the people of which I speak are the ones who wade into the center of a debate and derail the proceedings out of sheer obstinace. They begin with slightly logical sounding points that are in direct contention with whatever the most popular view is, but mix in a few poison pills in the process.
It might be taking someone’s argument and expanding it well beyond the point they intended to make. If someone says they disagree with the idea of using DRM in media, the stealth troll will respond as if you had said there is never, ever a point for DRM and those who wish to use it are cretins. If you suggest you prefer OS X over Linux, they will paint it as if you are saying Linux is a bug ridden, trash heap of an operating system and then take you to task for your lack of knowledge.
They might “correct” you endlessly, nitpicking minute details of what you said to force you into a position of defending things sentence by sentence instead of addressing the larger point. This is a tactic perfected online, made simple by allowing people to quote you verbatim while editing out pieces that don’t support their point. All it takes is a “>” followed by some of your text and they’re off to the races. Once this starts, it’s almost impossible to stop. Your first desire is to correct them, because you loath to see your words taken out of context. But even if you don’t take the bait, you’ll never get things back on track again.
Or perhaps they’ll demonstrate their knowledge of Latin words describing logical fallacies. Not of the actual fallacies, mind you. Just the words. Sometimes they won’t even know the words themselves, but they’ll have a grasp on a handful of the words that make up the definition. Instead of addressing the topic at hand, they simply start crying foul, citing poorly understood rules that sound important. You could call this the “plea for sanity” defense, used when an argument has gone outside of their ability to easily control. You could also call this “whining.”
They may also use half-truths, or simply lie. Often, they’ll mix the two to confuse you. This tactic has unfortunately become very common of late due, I think, to the fact that this form of discourse is now accepted on national television. If you can stomach it, watch a television news talk show. See if anyone is ever challenged on any data they provide, even when you and everyone involved know it’s not true. This makes debate impossible.
The very nature of debate relies on there being some kind of standard for factual information. Debate is, in my mind, about the rhetorical manipulation of facts to make some kind of point. Once you start mixing in untruth to make your case, and when challenged simply cite more imaginary facts, you’ve done your job. You’ve killed it.
Not that formal debate is any better at this point. Yikes.