What I've Learned from Arguing Online for a Decade
Or: The folly of war
I’m good at arguing. You may scoff at that as if it’s not a real skill compared to sporting prowess or mathematical ability, but no matter where it ranks on the social scale of approval, a skill is what it is.
A skill and a burden to all those involved.
I have always had a natural ability to debate, to articulate and craft a line of reason, to talk people into corners and round in circles, to easily find new, cocky angles on old, worn arguments.
I can be, in short, an annoying bastard.
Ever since I was young I felt comfortable making a point. I held my own debating with my uncle at 7, much to the amusement and probable disdain of my relatives.
At 11, I talked religion with my friend’s father, a kind and clever man whom I backed into a metaphorical corner when he couldn't explain why there was bad in the world if God was good.
Then at 13, on holiday, where I justified bullfighting as morally sound because it was the highlight of the bull's life. I didn't believe what I was saying, but I said it anyway as I'd come to relish debate and realised I could claim almost anything outlandish and still win.
I'm sure I unbearably obnoxious.
Learning to tame my thirst for debate took years. I grew to realise no one likes to hear other people’s opinions, especially when they’re rammed down their throats during a steak dinner or at a small social gathering.
Arguing as an Upbringing
My father was quiet by nature and didn’t crave the limelight, but get him in the right mood and environment and he too was a man who could spin a yarn and make a point.
In his pre-internet heyday, when Thatcher's rule had divided the nation, his colosseum to rant was the local pub.
He would often arrive home from a drinking session and rant further to my mother, continuing arguments she hadn't even party to, as he stood inebriated and angry demanding her attention.
I would listen, young and naive and hear how he summed up arguments and made his point. My mother smiled and nodded, simply pleased he wasn’t angry at her and hoping it stayed that way.
Those drunken rants soaked into our family life. The television was a constant catalyst. He’d rant about the state of music, what was happening on the news, what bad thing Thatcher had done now, why the Royal family were brainless parasites.
Looking back, he influenced me in ways I couldn’t even begin to understand at the time. It was immersive training in airing one’s opinion, a baptism of fire on how to rant and what to rant about. It was in short, a scary and confusing environment for a child that I have absorbed and then copied as only a child could.
My father was like most of us, flawed and angry at his own life.
His working class frustrations were echoed throughout the lives of thousands of men up and down the country who laboured in the day and drank into the dark evenings, feeling political and social forces knocking them left to right on a daily or weekly basis.
It was this ranting that first planted the seed of defiance in my mind. I grew up feeling there was a phantom enemy, that injustice had been committed against us small folk, and I was meant to be mad about it.
But I realise now, that is all projection. My father was stuck in a manual job, had little money, was battling alcohol addiction and living through a difficult marriage. He was eternally angry, possessing a rage with no home, and the burning desire to express why someone or something was bad and everyone needed to know about it.
In the 21st century, as pubs and the traditional working class lifestyle have given way to smoking bans, luxury flats, health kicks and latte coffee shops, social change has all but eradicated this traditional image of the working – and drinking – man.
Therefore, I am different to my father in a million ways, like all generations differ from their predecessors, but I remain indelibly linked to him through genes, history and my articulate anger that grew from his own.
The Online Colosseum
So, where do people like me go? Where, in the 21st century is our colosseum to exhibit our skills? Where can we quarantine our argumentative nature, and compartmentalise it from our family or social life so it doesn't ruin our lives?
The internet, of course.
Arguing on the internet can seem like a cowardly act, "online" still holds connotations of nerdy keyboard warriors, social rejects in basements and “trolls”.
However, anyone would be well advised to understand the difference in nature of those who debate versus what has commonly become known as “trolling”.
Trolling is abuse. It is bullying and harassment. It is victimisation. An articulate debater would not lower him or herself to trolling.
The genuine master of the tongue, the erudite arguer that has gone online to find his opponents, has no interest in name-calling and ad hominem attacks.
To demoralise your opponent by being abusive or threatening only serves to prove you are defeated, outwitted by the opposition, firing off last gasps of defiance as a face-saving exercise.
No. The online debater is anything but a troll.
We are masters at a craft. We log on and choose our savanna. A message board, a social media page, a Twitter thread. We observe the herd as they mindlessly graze until we spot a weak individual. There’s a wildebeest with a limp, a youngling without a mother, a slow straggler from the herd.
Watch as it gormlessly hops about, vulnerable and clueless, posting news articles about topics it knows nothing about. See it scrambling to grasp the rudimentary basics of political definitions and uses muddled sentences and vague claims that reveals they are easy-pickings, ready to devour.
This is the lion’s den, son. You come here with your belly exposed calling democratically elected Prime Minister’s ‘fascist’ or defending the Royal Family, or maybe lampooning benefit claimants, supporting cancel culture or simply extolling the virtues of a political party I don't like, and you have the temerity think you can get out unscathed?
Yes, you, with your jugular showing, like a small child with a sandwich walking through a room full of hungry tigers, retweeting half-baked truths you haven’t considered or researched, catching our attention.
Yes, you, opposing gun control or using the words “trickle-down economics” or posting something on Facebook about defending the poppy from Islam. Yes you, prepare to be eaten, for we are hungry.
And so it goes. Spotting prey is easy. And this is what you need to understand. I’ve argued for many years on the internet because I enjoy it, I’m good at it and it’s an intellectual workout. But when hunger strikes, the prey can often be whoever is nearest – friends or acquaintances included – and such cannibalism is often served with a side order of guilt and humility.
Yes, I’m the big man, the towering intellect of shouty shouty land, the king debater, but here I offer up a confession: I don’t like arguing.
The heady highs of debating, even when safely boxed into the coliseum's online walls, only serves to upset me. The irresistible high has a very real low, a byproduct that's metaphorically similar to the toxic compounds generated by the liver when breaking down alcohol, I suffer from the consequences of my actions, an emotional hangover always came after an argumentative session.
I have thumped desks and shouted at monitors in rage. I have come home and ranted at my partner about the debacle that unfolded online and ended up shouting about it at her like my father shouted at my mother.
I have lost friends because I couldn’t let certain issues lie. I’ve driven people to defriend me and I’ve defriended others because arguments never went away, they just accumulated over time and reared their ugly heads over and over.
It was toxic.
The pinnacle of this anger was Brexit. I tried to get the frustration out of my system by writing a long political rant about my disgust at the class hate I saw displayed during and after the referendum vote.
I then got sucked into Twitter and spent a whole year arguing with ‘Remainers’. Predictably no one managed to change my stubborn point of view, and in my egotistical opinion, I believed no one got the better of me.
Those 12 months, that deep dive into the argumentative no man’s land of the internet’s angriest corners left me with nothing but unhappiness. I am (at least in recent times) a positive and grateful man but the negativity seeped into my real life like ink being poured into a clean glass of water.
I fell out with a very close friend. I felt persecuted for my views. I carried around in my head facts and figures I could not let go in case I needed to call them to assist me in an argument. I became obsessed with winning.
That year I burnt out. I left the message board I had frequented for over a decade, mainly because it was 100% Remainers apart from me. Each Brexit argument developed into a 30 vs 1 affair; I was the 1. Fine, I could take it intellectually, but not emotionally. I got upset. I also deleted my Twitter account. I defriended two friends on Facebook, one I should have worked harder to keep on side, but pride and anger got in the way.
It was only then I realised I needed to remove this argumentative streak from my life, or it would consume me further.
Ludicrously, I even googled to see if Arguers Anonymous existed as I grew more and more concerned with my need to engage in angry interactions despite knowing they would leave me feeling depressed.
My name is Jamie and I am an online arguer.
Reflection and Rejuvenation
There are a couple of phrases that spring to mind. Phrases that I’ve heard in the last few months that apply to me. The first is this:
“It’s better to be kind than right.”
The second is:
“You don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to.”
Both promote the virtue of letting things go.
So I’ve tried. Arguing was part of my identity but the reality is no one wants to hear it. The reality is for all my aforementioned cocky swagger in a debate, the whole thing upset me.
I invested so much in meaningless arguments that I forgot it didn’t matter.
Another phrase that comes to mind is this:
“Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
I was drinking litres of poison and wondering why I felt so shitty. I saw my father do the same and still, I repeated his mistakes.
So, I did my best to let it go.
Sometimes we need to move closer to things to understand how they work. We’re all stupid people for the most part, and need to make our own mistakes to learn.
I learned that winning arguments and making people look small on message boards and social media produced nothing in me but negative emotion. So I walked away and I’m doing my best to stay away.
As Maya Angelou said:
“Hate has caused a lot of problems in this world, but it has not solved one yet.”