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Debating online vs. debating in person

By Scott Tibbs, December 19, 2018

I recently attended a workshop that was very helpful in how to have a productive in-person conversation between people of differing viewpoints on issues. That that made me think about is how it is often much easier to have a civil face-to-face discussion than a civil online discussion.

This is ground that has been trampled often, so we have all heard it before. Online, you do not get tone of voice, facial expressions, body language and instant feedback that you get when talking in person. Online, it is very easy to take things in a way not intended and then attack based on that mistaken perception. There is also a natural calming factor that happens in real life, where people are less likely to be nasty in person.

Online, all of that changes. If you're discussing something on Facebook with a family member or a IRL friend, you may want to be more restrained in order to preserve the offline relationship. But when debating a hotly contested issue with strangers, it is much easier to see them as pixels instead of as people. Therefore, it is easier to go on the attack, and there is much less social cost to getting nasty.

Is the state of political discourse worse than it has been in the past? It does seem like things are worse, because those of us who debate online are so often personally attacked. If we have not been attacked ourselves, we almost certainly know someone who has. We see many "regular people" subjected to the Outrage Mob and see their careers and lives destroyed.

But is it actually worse? I do not think so. Remember, we fought an incredibly destructive war in the 1860's and had civil unrest a century later lasting into the 1970's. Decades before the war between North and South, the presidential campaign between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was an incredibly nasty affair, with vicious slurs and personal attacks lobbed back and forth. I do not see evidence we are on that level yet, although things can always deteriorate rapidly. I do not think anyone predicted all-out war in 1850.

Moderators need to play their part, too. This is why I think the rules laid out for Sanityville are wise. (Social media services are a different animal, of course.)

The bottom line is that we can all be better. While we will often fail, we should try to be better. The phrase we should model in our own behavior is this: "Be the change you want to see."