How to Argue (on the Internet)

Interesting little diagram on levels of argumentation – aimed at internet social-media commenters and tweeters who rarely have time to think of how their arguments are framed.

(Post Note – This builds on an earlier draft post – published more recently.
Now Fully consolidated in this “Rules of Engagement” page.)

Like all such things – this is good in parts, basic advice, so far as it goes, as it were – it’s really a kind of idealised picture of how things might be in some objectively ideal world without real human interaction.


The important things it misses are two-fold. One is that it focusses on disagreement – unhealthy in itself – and the second is that it ignores rhetorical tricks that affect all argumentation, disagreement or otherwise.

The bottom three are what I call the degenerate zone, but the degeneration starts right from the second level, even the top level, with rhetoric. Often the initial disagreement involves a straw-man, explicit or implicit, deliberate or accidental (and all shades of guilt & innocence in-between), misunderstanding or mis-statement of the point apparently being disagreed with. At level two even presuming it’s “a mistake” by the other party being disagreed with is a massive ego-driven lack of respect by the first party. After that rhetorical games compound the situation, even if the initial “trick” was a innocent error, ironic wit becomes sarcasm very quickly – and not everyone can be court-jester at the same time – unless the sole point of the thread is amusement, which is OK, but it’s not an argument any more.

Another source of “accidental” rhetorical tricks – accidental but usually less than entirely honest – is in the very top level. The idea of “the central point”. It’s rare that any debate has only one point when it comes down to understanding an argument – even if it’s stated to look like a simple closed objective yes or no. The central point is often surrounded by implied starting positions and implied or explicit subsidiary points and asides that may not even change the actual point, just connect to some wider context for later. Very easy to “attack” the most vulnerable point, even if it wasn’t a central point, and as I say that’s quite “natural” way to approach an argument if your aim is to attack (and win) as opposed to construct (and win-win). A common way for innocent looking straw-men to slip in by picking up an incidental point rather than the point actually intended originally. You know the kind of thing …. “Ah, but you’re assuming ….” – “Well, no I’m not, but even if I were, what about what I actually said ….” etc, at which point in a fast-paced thread several third-parties are already running with the straw-man, real or imaginary.

Basically then, the two things missing from this hierarchy are:

Respect and

Once an inadequately moderated (inc self-moderated) thread involves people with no existing respect for each other’s positions – whether as strangers or as previously-failed-to-agree “opponents” – then in the “rush to judgement” it is only ever a matter of how long it takes to reach rock-bottom.

These are discussion forum rules I’ve touted before:

Rules of Engagement

?” Understand & Question before Disagree & Criticize.
Critical debate is essential to our agenda and anyone voicing direct disagreement with or criticism of the arguments of another must be seen to have understood, or sincerely attempted to understand, the others’ argument and to have related their counter argument to it.

?” No “Ad Hominem” attacks on the Individual.
Absolute no-no. Anyone having trouble with an individual should resolve with that individual, and involve moderator(s) in absolute confidence if mediation or moderation is considered necessary.

?” Duty of Care when using Rhetoric or Irony.
OK, but life (mine and yours) would be boring and sterile if we politely agreed with each other. So lively, critical, robust, intelligent debate is positively encouraged. What will not be tolerated is any perceived intent to circumvent Rules #1 & #2 under cover of rhetoric or irony.


Beyond the rules above, here are a few guidelines. The forum covers a large range of possible subjects which are undoubtedly interconnected in complex, dynamic and subtle ways, so:

In each sub-forum post we should try to “stick to the point” – that is our own point as well as any existing point to which it is a response ?” select, snip, quote and refer as necessary. If you are linking several points in one post, please try to identify them and their relationships. If your argument requires a longer piece of writing, such contributions are more than welcome, but should be offered as links and attachments if possible.

If the forum has a small (140 char) text limit, then state very simple points and link to external arguments.
Anyone posting over 200 words in a single post should stop and think of these rules.
Anyone posting 600 words or more will be asked to re-frame as a linked essay or article.

Applying the Rules

The style of this forum moderation will be …. etc ….

[Post Note : Adding the Dennett links to Rappaport’s rules for criticism and “disagreement”. Last posted here. And a final consolidation as “Rules of Engagement” here.]

3 thoughts on “How to Argue (on the Internet)”

  1. Thanks. I’ve been stuck in your degeneration zone at responding to tone. I claim I don’t want to debate, but rather discuss, but my idea of discussion is much like your constructive debate. If people would first demonstrate they understand and question someone else’s contribution I would be happy as a lark and get a lot more out of reading a debate. Thank you again for helping to clarify what has been banging around in my head for quite some time.

  2. You’re welcome Sarah. If you have any ideas of a simple way to capture these behavioural issues without making the picture too complicated, I’d be very interested.

  3. Pingback: Psybertron Asks

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.