How To Shut Down Bad-Faith 'Debates' On Social Media

Screenshot: Gracie Films

They don't really want to debate you, those randoms who crawl into the comments of your Facebook posts and your tweets and your blog posts (hi!) asking to "debate" you over crap we should all agree on by now. You can't debate them in any meaningful way, because they are mouths without ears. You can block them or take your account private, but maybe that leaves you feeling frustrated and powerless. How do you leave this situation feeling any type of satisfaction?

Political strategist Aaron Huertas lays out a comprehensive guide to these pseudo-debaters in "A Field Guide to Bad Faith Arguments." He explains the futility of debating with these people on their terms, and instead recommends a strategy for each type of bad-faith debater. For example:

  • The "cartoon strawmanner" presents counter-arguments to something you never actually claimed; they're fought by pointing out that no one claimed it.

  • The "lie detector," an evolved form of the strawmanner, insists you mean what you don't mean, and should be mocked for acting like a psychic.

  • The "purity tester" points out that sometimes, advocates of your view have behaved hypocritically, or in a way that looks hypocritical if you squint, real judgemental-like. They're bullshitting you, they don't really care about ideological purity. Ask them whose authority they believe in.

And so on. Huertas's recommended courses of action aren't foolproof; some of them are basically engaging your debater. You might find it more satisfying to just read this takedown and feel very correct and superior to your commenters. I mean Facebook repliers.

For a deeper analysis of the most ridiculous bad faith arguments, their appeal, and the danger of engaging in good faith, read Fred Clark's essay "False Witnesses." Clark unpacks the 1980s (and 90s) rumour that Procter & Gamble's CEO literally worshipped Satan.

Christians all over America spread this lie, not despite the utter lack of evidence, but because of it. Clark describes the dossier P&G built, full of counter-evidence and religious endorsements. None of it worked, Clark said, because the people spreading the rumour didn't really believe P&G was Satanist, not on a rational, literal level. They believed something bigger.

For the Amway salespeople who encouraged the rumour, the motive was simple greed. But for everyone else, boycotting a Satanist P&G was just a way to prove that you were a true Christian, and no Satan-lover. If someone tried to argue the facts with you, you just got mad, because your commitment to Jesus was at stake.

So P&G kept losing the fight until people found someone new to accuse of Satanic influence. They didn't learn the lesson: do not engage a bad-faith debater on their own terms.

A Field Guide to Bad Faith Arguments [Medium]


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