How to Argue Responsibly

After months now of particularly draining online discussions conducted in bad faith I find myself lately ready to give up on the Internet. Though the effects of bad-faith arguments and trolling have been around since long before Gamergate and will remain long after it’s done, the last few months have been exhausting, and I find myself much quicker to block than I used to be.

Since I will now only engage with arguments that are conducted in good faith, it seemed only fair to lay down what exactly that means. Some of the opponents I’ve faced these last few months are clearly inexperienced debaters, so hopefully they’ll find this helpful. Others should know better. But in any case, this guide is designed to augment critical discussions.

Remember that you do not have to engage in arguments if you doubt the sincerity of your opponent, but it’s courteous (and cathartic) to explain that you refuse to engage. Likewise remember that your opponent may not want to engage you. This guide assumes both parties are engaged in a good-faith debate.

Ok, so someone on the Internet has just said something outrageous, something you cannot possibly let stand. Where do you go from here?

1. Acknowledge Similarities

Establish common ground. Most critical discourse gets shut down before it even starts because an outsider starts railing against someone seemingly out of nowhere. Attacks out of the blue are confusing at best and harassing at worst. Think about how you would like someone to point out the flaws in something you said publicly.

This point in the debate is critical for establishing respect. Your opponent will not (and should not) engage with someone they think is attacking them. Always be respectful.

If you’re really arguing in good faith, your opinions depart at a critical point. Acknowledging where you agree with your opponent makes your differences stand in greater contrast. Refusing to acknowledge any similarities at all makes one come off as insecure about their argument or beliefs, as if any points of similarities will pollute your whole argument. If your argument is so easily toppled, ask yourself why you’re arguing.

2. Acknowledge Intent

Once you’ve established similarities, you now have a better understanding of differences. But before you rail against something, consider its intent. Is your opponent trying to express something they think you haven’t considered? Are they actually trying to educate you on a point of view foreign to you? Are they, in fact, trying to help or educate themselves but are going about it wrongly? These people should be treated differently than a troll who just wants attention.

It’s easy to believe our opponents are evil, oppressive monsters, but that’s generally not the case. Differences of opinion are sometimes the result of different ideologies, and sometimes they’re the result of invalid logic, ignorance, or misunderstanding. Be generous and give the benefit of the doubt. Do not presume your opponents to be nefarious unless they prove themselves to be.

If you understand why your opponent is arguing a certain position, you will be better prepared for counter-arguments. But always understand that you might be wrong in your suppositions. Do some research.

3. Argue Thoroughly and Fairly

If you’ve established similarities and differences and done your research, you have as much a right to your opinion as your opponent does to hers. Make your point clearly and thoroughly. Support your claims.

Never, under any circumstance, hoard knowledge in an effort to make your opponent look foolish or smear them for their ignorance.

Do not engage in personal attacks, name-calling, or smearing. These tactics suggest bad faith. This is the behavior of trolls.

4. Listen

Once you put forward your argument, your opponent will respond.


Really listen. If your opponent puts forth evidence, consider it fairly. You might be wrong.

When you respond, go back to point 1 and acknowledge the parts of the rebuttal that you agree with. Always keep empathy and argue in good faith. Repeat steps 1-4 with each rebuttal until the argument concludes.

5. Know When to Finish

Some arguments have a natural conclusion. Some don’t. An argument is over when it is no longer productive. Plan a natural conclusion. Once you get down to ideological differences, you’re probably not going to change anyone’s mind. Exit gracefully with respect for the other person’s belief system, and try not to fall into personal attacks, passive-aggressive parting shots, or baiting tactics on the way out.

Tactics that are never excusable:

  • Name-calling, smearing, and personal attacks are never okay. The person making the argument has no sway on the validity of the argument itself. Engage the argument, not the person.
  • Never incite a mob against someone actually interested in a critical discussion. Nobody should put up with harassment, but disagreement is not the same as harassment. If someone is arguing in good faith, calling in a mob because a person disagrees with you is a horrible abuse of privilege.
  • Never misrepresent someone’s argument by taking it out of context or irresponsibly quoting or paraphrasing, especially as a performance for a third party.
  • Never seek victimhood or inflict it on others. This will probably be its own post at some point in the future, but claiming victimhood, especially to incite a mob has been used to justify many of history’s atrocities in the name of righteousness overthrowing oppression. Someone disagreeing does not make you a victim, and being a victim does not justify bad-faith tactics.
  • Similarly, if you are defending someone, avoid painting them as a victim. Women and other marginalized groups often only make headlines as victims despite hard work and impressive accomplishments. Instead, celebrate the victories and accomplishments of those you admire.

Always remember that you are not entitled to someone else’s attention. Do not sea lion. Do not dogpile. You may be the thousandth person to engage someone, and they may not have the patience to go through it again. Only engage opponents who want to debate, otherwise you’re harassing. If they say the argument is over, it is.

I personally believe writing a long-form post is immensely more effective and productive than arguing on social media, firstly because you have more time for reflection and level-headedness, but also because you can maintain the nuance that platforms like Twitter generally lose. Form your arguments well and engage responsibly.

And stop when the argument is over.