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Can we disagree better online?

For the last two days, I have been accumulating material towards a post reflecting on Trump’s executive orders and how much of the response to them fails to explore the facts. It seems odd to me that we can accuse someone of disregard for the facts—and then fall into the same trap ourselves in our critique. But I have given up on that, not least because my Facebook feed has been overwhelmed with point and counter-point on this subject. So I realised that this raises the general point of how we engage online—and when I saw Jon Kuhrt’s great post on this, asked if I could repost it. Here it is, and worth taking note of in relation to this and other current issues.


I am facebook friends with people with a very wide range of views: rabid right-wingers and loony lefties and everything in-between. Raving charismatics, fluffy liberals and hard-bitten atheists.  Millie Tants, Chardonnay Socialists and Gary Lagers. Our on-line followers represent to some extent the worlds we move in. And for many of us, these worlds vary greatly.

Unprecedented times

And we live in momentous times.  The election of Donald Trump and the series of executive orders he has issued are genuinely unprecedented.  For the record, I am strongly opposed to him and what he stands for. I believe its essential that people are engaged in what is happening in the world and that we raise our voice for what we believe.  It is one of the reasons why I bother to blog.

But as my dad said to me when I was 16 after an argument I got into: ‘Son, sometimes its better to lose an argument and keep a friend’. (Note: I added the word ‘son’ to make it sound deeper).

Seven ways to disagree better

So, whilst online disagreement is both inevitable and important, I think it is something that we can do better. So here is my top tips:

1. Recognise that disagreement is a good thing. Having a wide range of friends with different views (even just Facebook friends) is a good thing. Sure I get nervous when one of my hardcore ‘prayer-warrior’ type evangelical friends gets into a tussle with a die-hard atheist – but at least they are in contact. One of the shocks from the Brexit vote for many was that too many people did not know anyone who disagreed with them.

2. Try and be as specific as possible about actual events. The most powerful thing I read this week about Trump’s travel ban was from a local friend who posted about the impact it had on a work colleague whose trip to the US was suddenly cancelled. It brought it home and made it real.  Labels like ‘bigot’ and ‘fascist’ don’t help anyone to change their mind and statistics are rarely effective. But genuine stories about real people do move people.

3. Try not to pass on dodgy information. It is so tempting to share a funny meme with a fake quote or a graph that purports to show something shocking.  I posted something this week which quickly proved to not be quite accurate. I have learnt my lesson – we need to spend a few more seconds to verify that something we share is reliable. We cannot combat post truth culture by sharing things that are not actually true.

4. Recognise when its time to bail out. Online debates which get aggressive are generally dysfunctional and pointless.   Recently, two friends of mine got into a heated exchange about Trump with accusation and counter-accusation about whether one was calling the other ‘a Nazi’. Ironically both are deeply committed Christians who both do loads to help others. Neither is remotely a Nazi so it was a shame to see things descend like this. In debate, you have to know when its time to fish or cut bait – and its best to bail out before things get this pear-shaped (there was a lot of metaphors in that last sentence).

5. Unfollow but don’t de-friend.  The fact that facebook have appropriated the word ‘friend’ means that we have to think carefully about how we manage the arguments we can get into.  So if someone you know is winding you up, it is far better to ‘unfollow’ them so you don’t see their feed and so don’t get wound up anymore. I am sure lots of people have done this to me especially with all the blogs I post. Think carefully before ‘unfriending’ because it is a bit terminal.

6. Try and inject a bit of humour.  Liberal lefties like me will always be in danger of sounding a bit pious and we have to admit it is hard to be right-wing on social media.  A bit of humour, self-depreciation and humility (not to mention the odd emoji) often oils the machinery of a healthy argument. ;]

7. Remember how inconsequential arguments on social media are.  As I have experienced sometimes social media can change the world a bit but mainly it doesn’t. Online debates can easily take up a whole evening that could be spent far more productively. Talking, debating, protesting (and praying) in real, live situations will always more worthwhile.

Feel free to disagree – but please do it nicely!


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21 Responses to Can we disagree better online?

  1. David Runcorn February 1, 2017 at 2:18 pm #

    Really helpful. Thanks. I would add to the list – avoid using labels. Take care before calling someone, for example – a ‘fundamentalist’, ‘liberal’, ‘revisionist’, ‘activist’ etc. They are labels and labels come loaded with associations and assumptions. When describing someone call them by the names they would recognise and use of themselves.

  2. David Baker February 1, 2017 at 2:20 pm #

    Really good stuff, thanks Jon and Ian. I’ve almost (if not quite) concluded that it is impossible to discuss theology or politics online – people just make point and counter-point endlessly.
    One suggestion to add might be “empathy” – the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes and see why they are saying what they are saying.
    There’s also a temperament factor here – I have a hunch different temperaments (choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, sanguine, or however one wishes to broadly categorise different felt approaches to life) both relate to and experience social media in different ways.
    Blessings.

    • Philip Almond February 2, 2017 at 4:22 pm #

      I believe that debate of theological issues on the internet is by far the best way of arriving at the strongest arguments from all sides on disputed vital truths e.g. justification, original sin, how to understand Romans 7, the wrath of God, supralapsarianism etc. and I look forward to the time when, instead of writing books and articles for journals, scholars and theologians contribute to discussion/disagreement forums which are open to all. This will have a negative effect on publishers which needs to be carefully managed but (I predict) it will surely come. So it would have been much better if the recent behind-closed-doors Bishops’ Meeting had been open to all on the internet.
      But to be effective, good moderation is essential. This would be very difficult because the moderator would have a strong opinion on the disputed point. But the moderator would have to challenge the participants when they avoided an important challenge from someone who disagreed: ‘What about post such-and-such – you have not answered their point!’ And this would have to be done regardless of the moderator’s conviction on the point at issue.
      Ian Paul’s forum is very good and seems to have taken over from Fulcrum. One weakness, however, is that threads seem to die. There has to be a convention that if people are challenged/invited to respond, they should do so.

      Phil Almond

  3. Christopher Shell February 1, 2017 at 2:21 pm #

    It does seem to me that our world is already focussed on style; whereas we have become so unfocussed on substance that the very idea that debates can be won and lost (but they are certainly a waste of time if they can’t) is unpopular.

    Good disagreement is something that has been coming for a very long time – through the whole ‘no winners’ culture in schools etc.; the cliche ‘there are no right answers’ (no argument is ever provided to support that ideology);

    In a debate people don’t seem to disagree only because they genuinely hold disparate provisional-conclusions. It will be agreed on all sides that there are at least 2 other quite common scenarii:

    (a) they disagree because some understand the issues better than others (the whole idea that everyone must have a precisely equal degree of understanding is obviously impossible, not truthful). If my understanding of a fridge-light is that a little luminous man gets his act together every time someone opens the door, I don’t expect my uninformed ‘theory’ to get equal air-time, nor does it deserve it.

    (b) the two positions apparently held are chalk and cheese, not of the same nature: one is a research conclusion (provisional conclusion pending new developments and evidence); one is an ideology (a preferred scenario that suits one’s needs and those of one’s peer-group). These two are not only not the same thing: they are not only poles apart: they are actually enemies. Ideology is the enemy of scholarship.

    So we see with the shared conversations, good disagreement etc.. It is probably being agreed to be polite to value everyone’s contribution (as one a radio phone-in where one cannot actually say someone is wrong or misinformed; or on a TV debate where the conclusion is inevitably ‘this one will run and run’). That is the first mistake: people who have spent their lives researching are downgraded to being equal with those who are simply providing a demands list. If we are honest, we know that that is not right – but if we are not honest, it is a serious matter not to be honest.

    There has been no requirement in the C of E discussions for people to be aware of the exegetical discussions of two millennia (who is equal to such a thing?) nor even of the critical commentaries’ consensus (which should be a bare minimum). There is not requirement to be aware of the main statistics on the average homosexual lifestyle and its fruits, utterly striking and centrally relevant though they are. An honest person will say that until they have researched these things they are not in a position to discuss at all, only to listen to those (speakers or authors) who have researched them. That is what I always say myself when it comes to the vast majority of topics which I have not researched.

    The central issue is research/evidence vs ideology. Until that perspective is understood and adopted, we are comparing apples and oranges. And (more seriously) bidding farewell to the entire evidence-based project of institutions of study – as though we have the right to do so, to suit our own needs and preferences (as though those were worthy of special privilege). And also submitting to the Zeitgeist where it doesn’t matter how much or little one understands a topic – we can all be taken to be on a level apart from those who mess things up by caring enough to stand and fight against bad or dishonest arguments which can end up harming people, internal contradictions which can end up harming people, and ideologies born of selfishness at truth’s expense. Those, that is, who see the whole ‘good disagreement’ thing as a Zeitgeist-related abandonment of truth, so that even the least-evidenced ‘stances’ can gain undeserved status, and respectability. Relativism. Agree to disagree. No comment. Nothing can ever be actually wrong. That is a heaven-sent perspective for ideological positions that cannot be defended in debate.

    So, my questions:
    (a) Do people think people usually claim to hold a stance only on issues that they have tried to understand?

    (b) Do people think that ideology (having a ‘stance’ that is needs-based rather than evidence-based) is not a problem?

    (c) Do people think that needs-based and evidence-based ‘stances’ should be treated as equivalents?

    • James Cary February 1, 2017 at 4:54 pm #

      It’s quite a common view now to think that facts are immutable – and the end of the discussion. But we know that the facts are merely a decent place to start. Just because someone knows more facts, that doesn’t mean they have a sound argument.

      Arguments and ideas are interpretations of facts. Intelligent people can agree on the facts and still differ in opinion because they see the facts differently. Hence, you have people in the pub arguing with one set of facts, and university professors essentially having the same argument, but on a more well-informed basis.

      Facts have meaning. And they mean different things – because of philosophy or morality or theology. If you’re a utilitarian you will we reach one conclusion. if you’re a communist you might reach another and so on. There questions are all bound up in what kind of world we all want. That is not a fact-based discussion.

      So when you say, Christopher: “(b) Do people think that ideology (having a ‘stance’ that is needs-based rather than evidence-based) is not a problem?” I’m a little confused because a stance is not necessarily need based.

      I have certain needs – eg. healthcare – but there are multiple ways of providing healthcare ie. free at the point of use; insurance; free market etc. One of those might suit my needs best (probably the first) but it doesn’t mean I think that’s the way healthcare should be run, because I may deem taxing people to be immoral, or I may think the free market is evil, or whatever. It’s just the one that meets my needs, that suits my stance, is not necessarily what I think should be.

      I hope I’m not misrepresenting your position, but I think this is quite a common issue now that people assume that having more facts means you have a more valid viewpoint, when that isn’t quite true. It does in the case of tiny men hiding in your fridge. But not when it comes to facts that have moral consequences that need to be interpreted.

      • Christopher Shell February 2, 2017 at 9:23 pm #

        Hi James

        I think I should have been clearer about what I mean by ‘needs-based’. This is what I mean by it.

        There are some people who, when asked question A ‘What truth do you think the evidence points to?’ and question B ‘What would you like the truth to be?’ will regularly give the same answer to A as to B.

        However, it is a logical impossibility that A will have the same answer as B except very occasionally.

        So they are 80-90% of the time conflating the two very different questions, when the two will not share the same answer more than 10% of the time at most.

        That means they are wrong most of the time, but wrong in a particular way – in the way that says ‘truth is what we (selfishly) want it to be: never mind the research or the stats’.

        Such people are ideologues.

        While this perspective is not understood, stances that cannot even remotely be defended will be debated and regarded as respectable.

        ‘Safe spaces’ in universities would have been impossible till recently, since universities have always been meant to be places where maximally objective research takes place, and the whole idea that research conclusions can only be the ones that make me feel comfortable is laughable. But now they are advocated by some, even by people who are that ‘educated’. Safe spaces and good disagreement are practically the same thing, and have the same truth-doesn’t-matter progenitor.

        You see why this is a centrally important issue.

    • Philip Almond February 4, 2017 at 1:56 pm #

      Christopher
      I believe the right approach, which I try, however unsuccessfully, to follow is for each of us to confront ourselves with all that the Bible says, with the presupposition that it is all true, allowing it to challenge our deepest and most dearly held convictions and confronting ourselves with the strongest arguments from all sides, being prepared to alter our convictions when honesty and conscience compel us to do so (how traumatic that is!), and being prepared to recognise that there may be truths which seem contradictory to us but are both true to God – how they can both be true is one of God’s secrets.

      But, apologies if I have misunderstood you, possibly you would describe this as ‘ideology’. Am I right?

      • Christopher Shell February 4, 2017 at 3:21 pm #

        ‘Presupposition that it is true’ – yes, that is ideology, and also circular. Part of becoming a Christian is to oppose dishonesty and fight for truth. Truth will sometimes be what we’d want it to be, but only a certain percentage of the time, and there is no special reason why that percentage should be high.

        • Philip Almond February 4, 2017 at 3:33 pm #

          Yes. I thought we would radically part company at this point. Perhaps my use of the word ‘presupposition’ is not the best way of describing my conviction. It would be better to say that I am convinced that the Bible is all trustworthy. On what does that conviction rest? Well, I have to say that I have that conviction. You seem not to allow the possibility that the conviction comes from God. If so, it is not circular.

          Phil Almond

          • Christopher Shell February 4, 2017 at 8:45 pm #

            It takes researchers an appreciable time to reach conclusions about a single sentence or paragraph; consequently to reach a single concluding position about 66 entire texts almost before detailed examination has begun has got to be less impressive and more questionable.

  4. Alastair Roberts February 1, 2017 at 2:56 pm #

    Helpful thoughts, Jon.

    I’ve been a fascinated observer of the dynamics of online discourse for some time. In some ways, I think that the Internet may often be like a car that is designed to be as fast as possible, to have an accelerator so responsive that the car shoots off the moment you brush your foot on it, a brake so strong that you barely need to touch the pedal for it to bring you to a standing stop, a steering system that responds to the slightest twitch, and a frame that is as large as the law allows. While exhibiting the most incredible technology, such a car would be ridiculously dangerous to drive. A well-designed car needs to be designed around the limits, weakness, fallibility, and inexpertise of the typical driver.

    Likewise with the Internet: it needs to be rebuilt around the natural limits of the average user. We were not created to function in the sort of environments with which the Internet presents us and it tends to cause real problems for us. To read well, for instance, we need few distractions. We often also need silence and solitude. To enjoy healthy relationships, we need more obscurity, clearer boundaries between communities and groups, a great diversity of contexts of sociality, thicker belonging, more differentiation (for instance between people of different generations), etc. To think and communicate clearly, we need a robust sense of context, time to reflect and deliberate, a humanizing perspective of the other, restrictions upon participation, a slower temporal pace, and generally less pressure to react. In such cases, as with the car, more limits and less potential can be both safer and more effective. Unfortunately, the Internet and social media really aren’t designed very carefully around natural or healthy modes of human attention, relation, community, deliberation, discourse, or communication. Even smart people will struggle to use such a technology well.

    A well-designed Internet and social media wouldn’t force us to use it in a particular way. Like a car, it would give people the freedom to use it in unorthodox and surprising ways. However, it would offer a healthy measure of ‘friction’, like a well-designed car does, privileging a more neutral and natural state (being stationary or moving at a stable speed, moving in a straight line, travelling at a relatively safe speed, etc.).

    Developing virtues as individuals is important. However, the primary problems are structural and systemic and individual virtues cannot ultimately compensate for those. I’ve explored the way that the Internet and social media shape the executive order and other debates in considerable detail here and here.

    • Philip Almond February 5, 2017 at 9:29 am #

      Christopher
      You are not addressing my point about the work of God in the soul and its connection with our conviction about the truth of the Bible.
      Phil Almond

      • Christopher Shell February 5, 2017 at 11:42 am #

        First, how does that work? You are speaking in verry general terms about subject-matter that is detailed.

        Second, it is a claim/assertion (where truthful people prefer evidence), and similar assertions are made by Muslims and by Mormons.

        Third, (and this is the point I always make,) the Holy Spirit can convict and convince of spiritual and life truths. The Spirit’s connection with the discovery of historical and cosmological truth is far more tangential. Otherwise, no-one would need to research – they would just need to pray, and they would get the answers. Is that how research answers in cosmology or history (or probability/maths, as in the case of the synoptic problem or documentary hypothesis) are normally arrived at? I’m interested in your answer here.
        The Bible’s claims and assertions are not just on spiritual/life matters. They include claims on history, cosmology etc.. Thes are all completely different from each other, yet you are conflating them into one.

        • Philip Almond February 6, 2017 at 8:38 am #

          Christopher
          Lets just stick with history for a moment. Do you agree that history includes what God and Jesus said and did and includes truths about the very existence of God and Jesus and who they are and what they are like? The Bible makes assertions about what they said and did and about their existence and who they are and what they are like. And what they said and did, who they are and what they are like are is intimately associated with ‘spiritual and life truths’. Are you saying that ‘the Spirit’s connection’ with these Biblical assertions about history is ‘far more tangential’?

          Phil Almond

        • Philip Almond February 6, 2017 at 9:38 am #

          Christopher

          I note your

          ‘The Spirit’s connection with the discovery of historical and cosmological truth is far more tangential. Otherwise, no-one would need to research – they would just need to pray, and they would get the answers. Is that how research answers in cosmology or history (or probability/maths, as in the case of the synoptic problem or documentary hypothesis) are normally arrived at? I’m interested in your answer here’

          My answer is: presumably the ‘answers’ in ‘get the answers’are the answers to things like ‘the synoptic problem or documentary hypothesis’and whether Genesis is literally true or figuratively true. The research you mention has its place but my focus is on confronting myself with the Bible and seeking to heed all its warnings, embrace all its promises, understand and believe all its teaching (especially about salvation), worship and thank and fear and glorify the God and Christ it gives me and obey all its commands. Is that how you, as a Christian, approach the Bible?

          Phil Almond

          • Christopher Shell February 6, 2017 at 12:54 pm #

            Hi Philip, the things you list are life/spiritual issues, to do with God and Christ and how they confront us. As I mentioned earlier, the Spirit is highly active in convincing and convicting us on these particular fronts. The Spirit gives us the correct perspective that makes other things fall into place.

            You suggest there is only one way of approaching the Bible as a Christian, That is far from being the case, because it depends on which dimension of the Bible we are referring to. There are as many approaches as there are dimensions. They are not all of equal fundamental importance – far from it. Several different dimensions (and approaches) are all of high importance. The present-reality dimension, if we may so call it, is the one most beloved of you, and I also estimate that it is by far the most important – but attention to various other dimensions helps us to be considerably more accurate when it comes to the present-reality dimension.

            Your model just seems to screen out historical issues, on which a great deal hangs, as a dimension that ‘has its place but…’. Like anything in life, the more attention that is given to this dimension, the better things will be. You are not actively recommending attention being given to them, which approach makes things not better but worse. We are quite off topic, of course.

  5. Christopher Shell February 4, 2017 at 3:22 pm #

    If the point is that we should be polite and courteous that is certainly true and agreed-upon.

  6. Philip Almond February 6, 2017 at 1:43 pm #

    Ian
    As Christopher points out, my disagreement with him on this vital issue is quite off topic. Are you happy for us to continue in this thread or if not is there another thread where we could continue please?

    Phil Almond

  7. Philip Almond February 8, 2017 at 10:40 am #

    Christopher

    I emailed Ian Paul as follows:
    Hi Ian You may have noticed that I am exchanging views (disagreeing) about the Bible with Christopher Shell on ‘Can we disagree better online?’. This, as Christopher points out, is off topic. Are you OK if we continue on that thread or should we continue on another thread, please? If so which. Many thanks Phil Almond
    He replied:
    Do carry on!

    So:
    In your Feb 5 post you wrote, ‘The Bible’s claims and assertions are not just on spiritual/life matters. They include claims on history, cosmology etc. These are all completely different from each other, yet you are conflating them into one.’ And in your Feb 6 post you wrote, ‘Hi Philip, the things you list are life/spiritual issues, to do with God and Christ and how they confront us. As I mentioned earlier, the Spirit is highly active in convincing and convicting us on these particular fronts. The Spirit gives us the correct perspective that makes other things fall into place.’

    When you say ‘…the things you list…’ you are referring presumably to my ‘but my focus is on confronting myself with the Bible and seeking to heed all its warnings, embrace all its promises, understand and believe all its teaching (especially about salvation), worship and thank and fear and glorify the God and Christ it gives me and obey all its commands’.

    I agree that these are vital life/spiritual issues. I have two comments/questions:

    Firstly, when you say ‘As I mentioned earlier, the Spirit is highly active in convincing and convicting us on these particular fronts. The Spirit gives us the correct perspective that makes other things fall into place’ I am not clear what, in your view, the Spirit convinces and convicts us of (perhaps you could give some examples) and I am not clear whether they are from the Bible or not.

    Secondly, the Bible’s ‘warnings’, ‘promises’ and ‘teaching’, which I am seeking to heed, embrace, understand and believe, and the ‘commands’ which I am seeking to obey are communications from God and Christ and their Prophets and Apostles, from the Bible, communications which were given at a certain time in history and which are presented in the Bible as historical facts. And the ‘God and Christ’ the Bible gives me, which I seek to worship and thank and fear and glorify are the God and Christ who, according to the Bible, have acted in history and whose deeds are historical facts – like the death of Christ and His resurrection leaving behind the empty tomb. So the ‘life/spiritual issues’ which you agree the Holy Spirit convinces and convicts us on, (if in your view they are from the Bible – see my first question/comment) are inseparable from the historical communications and deeds of God and Christ and their Prophets and Apostles. But your ‘ Third, (and this is the point I always make,) the Holy Spirit can convict and convince of spiritual and life truths. The Spirit’s connection with the discovery of historical and cosmological truth is far more tangential’ does seem to separate them. I am struggling to understand how in your view the Holy Spirit can do His convincing and convicting work on ‘life/spiritual’ things (again, if in your view they are from the Bible – see my first question) without also convincing and convicting us of the truth of the historical facts, recorded in the Bible, of what God and Christ and their Prophets and Apostles said and did.
    Phil Almond

  8. Christopher Shell February 9, 2017 at 1:51 pm #

    Well, the Spirit is a real person not just (although also) a character in a text. So his presence enables a correct perspective on life which makes us newly understand all sorts of different things.

    You make no mention of the checking that needs to be done when any text makes an assertion. If something is asserted historically, it is either true or false. Of course, you can just assume truth or falsity, but that removes one’s right to speak in teh company of researchers who are asking and not illegitimately bypassing the question.

    People will not be convinced if the Bible’s trustworthiness is flagged up when in fact the truth is it has simply been *assumed* all the time. It will scarcely fail to be asserted if it is simply assumed without argument, so the said assertions and claims on the Bible’s behalf are seen to be massively unimpressive, inevitable, and unexciting.The fruits of rsearch are obviously miles better than the fruits of ideology here.

    It also doesn’t help to speak of the Bible in the singular. Biblia is a plural word. And the Bible is a collection of different books in different genres by different authors from different eras. Unified by culture and by the God of whom they speak.

  9. Philip Almond February 9, 2017 at 3:27 pm #

    Christopher
    My last post included, ‘I am not clear what, in your view, the Spirit convinces and convicts us of (perhaps you could give some examples) and I am not clear whether they are from the Bible or not’.

    I apologise if I am missing something but your post does not give me greater clarity. I don’t know whether it will help but I will use a specific example.

    Early in the book of the prophet Jeremiah we read:

    The word of the Lord came to me, saying,
    “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
    before you were born I set you apart;
    I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

    I don’t know Hebrew, but if we can agree that this English quote is a reasonably accurate translation of the Hebrew, then can we agree that this is an assertion that God ‘said’ (if we can also agree that it was a real communication without getting hung up on the mode of communication) these words to Jeremiah. As you rightly say, this assertion is either true or false. If we can agree on this, then what I am asking is whether the Holy Spirit, in your view, convinces and convicts us that it is true that God did ‘say’ these words to Jeremiah. And if your answer is ‘yes’, then I go on to ask, ‘How, in your view, does the Holy Spirit convince and convict us?’

    Phil Almond

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