Oh no! Someone’s wrong on the Internet!

Wise words from David Cain at Raptitude, in a post titled, “Why most internet activists don’t change any minds”. I’ll have more to say about it below. Cain writes:

On Facebook I quietly unsubscribe from friends who regularly make angry issue-related posts, even if they’re right. I don’t want to be pummeled by “truth,” no matter how true it is.

I understand why they do it. I’ve done it. Ignorance — of overfishing, of puppy mills, of normalized sexism, of what vaccines can and can’t do — can be genuinely dangerous, and wanting to reduce this ignorance is understandable.

Some are able to do it carefully and diplomatically, and I have learned a lot from these people.

But most internet activists let contempt seep into the message. It becomes about making others wrong instead of trying to help them be right. Just visit virtually any issue-related message board. It’s adversarial. It’s normal to blame people for their ignorance.

Ignorance, if that’s what it really is, isn’t something people can fairly be blamed for. We don’t choose what not to grasp, what not to have been taught, what not to have understood the significance of.

Ignorance is blind to itself. When you’re trying to rectify ignorance in someone else, it’s easy to forget that you’re ignorant too, in ways you can’t know. Read full post at Raptitude.

I’ve gotten into my share of Internet squabbles (though not on this blog), and to this day I still sometimes can’t resist the temptation to shoot down some Facebook blowhard. Do I ever convince anyone? I don’t know.

I learned long ago that I won’t convince someone who’s willfully and aggressively ignorant. David Cain says we can’t blame someone for what they don’t know, but we all know people who don’t want to know. And when somebody like that spouts off with misinformation about an important topic (climate change, human rights… take your pick), it can worthwhile to briefly make a reasonable case for the benefit of bystanders. So you point out some major factual error, some glaring logical flaw, and you do it as nicely as you can, and if you do it right the other guy comes back at you hard, amping up the rhetoric and making a more extreme statement calculated to piss you off. But you ignore it, staking out the reasonable ground… and then you walk away. Most bystanders now think the other guy’s position sound extreme and intemperate, while yours sounds reasonable and fair.

But the other guy is convinced that he won and you lost. And that bugs you.

And that’s where we get in trouble. Not only do we want to be right, but we want the other guy to know that we were right and he was wrong, and we want him to admit it, or at least to reduce him to sputtering silence. So the temptation is to come back swinging.

Worse, what happens if your opponent doesn’t charge off the rhetorical cliff? What happens if he comes back with something you hadn’t considered… if he turns out to be possibly, in a very limited and tentative sense… right? That’s what David Cain is talking about–how defining things in adversarial terms keeps us from learning from each other.

One thing I hate about TV news are those ridiculous pundits and political spokespeople, arguing blindly and predictably for their party’s positions. They live in a world of spin, in which all the conclusions are pre-determined. Easy enough to see that when you’re sitting on the couch looking at the talking heads… not so easy to see the same behaviors in oneself.



2 thoughts on “Oh no! Someone’s wrong on the Internet!

  1. sarijj

    I have to admit, I usually end up saying something to someone who I think should know better. The people who surround themselves with ignorance are hard to reach so I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut.
    As much as we would like to think our wise words will enlighten others, they usually just fall on deaf ears. Better to keep silent than let some idiot think he/she has won.

    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      Yes it’s hard to do. That bad argument or factual misstatement is dangling in front of you, just begging you to take a swing at it. My point was that I try not to argue with a person I consider willfully ignorant unless there’s an impressionable audience present, and then my goal is mainly to let the others know (as briefly as possible) that there’s another way of looking at things, and that it’s possible to make a point without being a jerk about it. The idiot is going to think they’ve won no matter what, either because they didn’t listen to what was said or because no one contradicted them in the first place. But most of the time, I suppose most people are happiest with the person in the room who’s developed the skill of deftly changing the subject.


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