Over the years, I’ve changed a number of minds arguing politics with readers over email. That number is zero.
Not that I’m a lousy debater or am usually wrong — far from it! But that, in my experience, no one ever admits defeat at the conclusion of email squabbles.
Cultural psychologists could tell us why it’s so rare for anyone to back down and confess ideological error. Altering your views can look and even feel like weakness. The wrong sorts of people take advantage of it.
But that’s beside the point today.
The point today is that it’s worse than a waste of time to argue with aggressive, angry people online. Not only does it get you nowhere, but it also risks throwing more kerosene on the raging partisan fires certain to burn hotter than ever in 2020. It can make you part of the problem.
Presidential election years understandably bring out the worst in us. As the stakes increase, so does the vehemence of our rhetoric. In the last few cycles, social media and email have made our exchanges louder, more rapid and more toxic.
And adding extra sulfur to the mix this year is the potential re-election of Donald Trump, the most polarizing president in history, according to the American Political Science Association and Gallup polling data.
So here’s my three-word prescription, adapted from my own New Year’s resolution to reduce the number of hours I spend on fruitless online wrangles to zero, the same number as above:
— Ignore. The rhetorical bomb throwers with their pejoratives and profanities crave attention more than anything else. Your response — reasonable or rash, it doesn’t matter — validates them. Deny them that and ruin their day.
I had fun for a time last year responding to pure hate mail with a form letter that began, “Well, it doesn’t happen often, but I have to admit that your letter changed my mind on this issue. I hadn’t given enough weight to your argument and, in thinking it through, I can see where you make an excellent point.”
But sarcasm is wasted on the dimwitted. Too many recipients mistook my jab for actual encouragement, so I stopped.
— Delete. It’s not strictly necessary to consign unpleasant messages to the trash folder — archiving them serves the same practical purpose — but quick deletion is a cleansing ritual, a symbolic spitting out of the poison that makes it difficult for you to give in to the undeniable temptation to counterpunch.
When attacks appear in your social media feeds, delete them from the thread and then …
— Block. Build that wall. Unfriend, mute or otherwise erect an electronic barrier against snide provocateurs who are trying to yank your chain. Autodirect all further correspondence from them to your spam folder. Use the “mute” feature on Twitter if you’d like the additional satisfaction of imagining them continuing to holler at you into a void. One strike and they’re out.
Ignore. Delete. Block.
Make these your watchwords of the year ahead.
But at the same time, don’t stop listening. Don’t mistake all expressions of disagreement with trollery and retreat into a comforting silo where only like-minded people cluster in orgies of self-congratulation.
When those with other views offer reasonable disagreements, engage them on the field of ideas. It’s a long shot, but maybe you’re not absolutely right about absolutely everything. Maybe there are arguments you haven’t fully considered, data you haven’t seen, lessons from history that somehow eluded you.
For your own sanity if nothing else, think discussion, not debate in the months ahead.
Hope to understand, not to persuade.
Listen more and react less.
And when worse comes to worst, as you know it will, ignore, delete and block.
Repeat as necessary.
Eric Zorn is an OpEd columnist for the Chicago Tribune.