I spend quite a lot of time arguing with people on the Internet. You could say that this is a waste of time, though whether it’s more or less of a waste of time than playing 30 consecutive games of Freecell (which was how I used to avoid working before the Internet came along) is debatable.
1. Not understanding the difference between an article and a blog post. Despite the fact that blogs have now been around for at least 10 years, some people still seem unable to grasp the distinction between a newspaper article, on the one hand, usually well-researched (or at least researched) and with some attempt at balance and a blog post, usually a few hundred words long, designed to provoke comment, and dashed off in the lunch-break. “This is a terrible article,” people will write on a newspaper blog site. “It is just one person’s opinion.” [Yes, that’s the point of a blog.] “I never thought I would see the day when The Times published this kind of rubbish.” And so on.
If you spend vast amounts of time engaged in discussion online, one of the things that becomes all too apparent is that rather a lot of people have no idea how to argue. They’re irrational, they’re angry and, above all, they miss the point. Over the years, I’ve come to realise that there are lots of different ways of missing the point on the Internet, so I’ve compiled a handy guide to the main ones:
2. Arguing that the writer should have written about something else. This is a category error similar to the above. People on The Guardian’s Comment is Free blog site often get very angry about light-hearted articles. Why isn’t The Guardian publishing serious articles? they ask indignantly. Well, they are…but here they’re publishing a light-hearted one. Any article about a typically women’s issue, such as domestic violence, will invariably draw responses castigating the writer for writing about women and failing to realise that bad things happen to men too.
3. Not understanding the limitations of wordcount. Some commenters think that an 800-word column or blog should say everything there is to say about a subject. “Why haven’t you included x, y or z?” they ask. This is usually followed by “You clearly have no knowledge of the subject at all.”
4. Using ad hominem attacks. This is the most common debating tactic on the Internet, if you can describe it as such. The less clever someone is, the more aggressive they tend to be, and the more unaware of their own intellectual limitations. The distinguished academic AC Grayling, professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, regularly attracts comments on the Guardian site such as “Your an idiot” and is frequently scolded for not knowing anything about philosophy. Some commenters are even kind enough to suggest reading material to him – because, obviously, as a professor of philosophy, he isn’t at all well-read.
5. Blaming the government for everything. If I had a pound for every time a commenter on the Daily Mail wrote, “It’s the result of 12 years of brainwashing from the NuLab PC brigade” I’d be, well, several hundred pounds better off. It’s not just the Daily Mail, of course – all the papers seem to attract this kind of comment. It’s extraordinary that, given the number of detractors the government has, and the near-certainty that it will lose the next election, it has been apparently so successful in brainwashing people into “political correctness”. “Political correctness,” incidentally, is used to cover a multitude of sins, but that’s a whole other blog post.
6. Missing the joke. If you’re a witty, nuanced writer, you must rue the day people were allowed to comment on articles. Can there be anything more dispiriting than discovering that the vast majority of your readers don’t get your jokes? It’s not just irony – which, it goes without saying, hardly anyone gets – it’s any kind of humour at all. The Times’s Daniel Finkelstein recently wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece on the Jan Moir/Stephen Gateley debacle. Finkelstein took Moir to task for her article’s “extraordinary statistical flaws”, such as generalising from a sample of two and failing to use a control group. One of the many comments to miss the point entirely was one that read: “I am surprised you gave the article some sort of gravitas by arguing there were statistical flaws.” I was tempted for a moment to explain the joke – that Finkelstein was poking fun at the article’s silliness by pretending to treat it as if it was a serious academic work – but decided against it. If you spent all your times explaining jokes to people on the Internet, you’d never have time for anything else.
7. Confusing a newspaper’s editorial line with the articles or blog posts on its website. Commenters on Comment is Free often seem to get very angry or confused when the site publishes an article with a right-wing perspective. Oddly, this is true as much of the right-wing commenters as the left-wing ones - they seem offended that The Guardian isn’t conforming to stereotype, even though the paper has always published articles by people from across the political spectrum, and Comment is Free has a particularly diverse range of writers. On the Guardian site, some commenters assume that everyone else who posts must be a loyal Guardian reader, and so use the sneering ad hominem “guardianista” to attack anyone who disagrees with them – or, even, sometimes anyone who agrees with them, as in “Who’d have thought the guardianistas would take such a tough line on crime?” When you’re reduced to attacking people who agree with you, then you probably need to go back to secondary school.
8. Generalising on the basis of one’s own experience. Particularly prevalent in education debates, where people will write, “I went to a grammar/comprehensive/private/faith school and it was excellent/rubbish, therefore all grammar/comprehensive/private/faith schools are excellent/rubbish.”
9. Using “middle-class” as an insult. This is really a subset of point 4, but common enough to deserve a separate point. Accusing someone of being “middle-class” or claiming that they only hold their particular views because they are “middle-class” is the worst thing you can say to anyone on the Internet.
10. Insulting everyone else who has posted on an article. So, in the middle of an animated debate, someone will come along and say, “YOU GUYS ARE A BUNCH OF LOSERS. YOU HAVE NOTHING BETTER TO DO THAN CARRY ON WITH YOUR STUPID POINTLESS ARGUMENTS. GET A LIFE, LOSERS.” This is a curiously self-defeating argument since, if you think that commenting on this post is pointless, then why are you commenting on it? Quite often, this is a tactic deployed by American posters on British blogs: “Jeez, things are so bad in England now, you guys have a bunch of weird obsessions, so glad I don’t live over there.” This will usually be followed by an attack on Britain’s “socialist” health system, its policy of killing babies, its refusal to allow people to defend themselves by carrying weapons, and its utter capitulation to Muslim dominance.
11. Insulting everyone on the entire forum, not just this particular blog post. This is amusingly parodied by Nick Hornby in Juliet, Naked, in which an Internet forum dedicated to the music of (fictional) singer-songwriter Tucker Crowe is plagued by a commenter who keeps popping up to tell everyone that Tucker Crowe is rubbish and they should all listen to Morissey. I notice it most on The Times’s Alpha Mummy and SchoolGate blogs, where it’s surprisingly common for someone to turn up and say, “I’m so glad I’ve decided not to have children. I’d hate to end up like you lot.” Presumably they spend the rest of their day going onto chess blogs to insult chess players, golfing blogs to insult golfers, and so on.
So, that’s my 11 ways of missing the point. Have I forgotten anything?