An aging one-legged judo master once asked me why I wanted to learn judo. Eleven-year-old me answered, “I want to learn to fight.”
The old codger looked at me like I had just said the stupidest thing he had ever heard.
“Everybody knows how to fight, kid. We’re born knowing that. What you want is to win fights. Winning is the tricky part.”
He was right. I did not want to learn how to fight. I wanted to learn how to win fights. The distinction is important. More so when you eventually realize that “winning” is not the same as “defeating the opposition.”
There is something primal and visceral about destroying an opponent. Victory is a tangible reinforcement of our own prowess. It is affirming and self-reinforcing. God it feels good. Nowhere is this more apparent than upon the rhetorical battlefields of social media. Entire armies of mediocre minds take to the field armed with memes and bullet points and the thinly veiled propaganda of their chosen media gods. The fights are hotly contested with the cutting invective of those too lazy to actually sharpen their invective. It is a truly a grand melee. A clumsy battle of wits waged almost entirely by unarmed participants. It is all just a nauseating charade performed at the behest and for the amusement of a few clever agitators. On this field of dishonor, the only goal is to score invisible internet points through meme-worthy quips and reap the resounding applause of your chosen echo chamber.
What a stupid, hollow meaningless thing that kind of victory is. Shakespeare understood it long before the days of the internet.
“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” -Macbeth
It almost always shrivels into a puerile shouting match that solves nothing and is as satisfying as trying to eat a bowl of steam. Shame on us. Winning could mean improving our own understanding and maybe even someone else’s. Winning could make us all better and strengthen our society. Unfortunately, that sort of victory requires both risk (of being wrong), and effort (learning enough to defend our positions).
What Are We Doing Wrong?
So many things. Let’s start with the internet itself.
The internet is a magnificent thing. Never before has the entire sum of human knowledge and experience been so readily available to the populace. This is especially exciting when we consider the fact that for much of human history the real nuts and bolts of knowledge were often hoarded by the powerful elite. It would be locked in private libraries, prohibited by religious dogma, or even declared false by entrenched political powers. A favorite trick was to simply store the information in a format that was inaccessible to anyone without the means to decipher it. Keeping all books on science and philosophy in a dead language is a pretty mean thing to do, but it prevents the riffraff from getting uppity ideas about how the world works and who should be running it. How many medieval peasants had the time to learn Latin?
But now the toothpaste is out of the tube. Complex scientific, sociopolitical, and economic concepts are no longer restricted to the moneyed elite. Anyone can read Keynes or Feynman, Marx or Curie. We have Ted Talks to break the tough stuff into bite-sized pieces, there are infographics and YouTube tutorials to coach our understanding up. There is a website for everything. The playing field is well and truly level, and the world has enjoyed the benefits. Entrenched regimes and antiquated political structures have fallen and continue to fall because knowledge absolutely is power (albeit in a tertiary, abstract way). It has been an exciting three decades for humanity. We can watch in real-time as sociological constructs are questioned, economic models are examined and tested, and the ruling political class struggles to control the increasingly informed masses.
So why does it feel like everything is falling apart? Why does every exchange of ideas on our numerous platforms for discussion dissolve into the shrill braying of angry donkeys? There is no single reason, obviously, but there are a few patterns that seem to show up more often than not.
Heuristics and Archetypes
The human brain has evolved a heavy reliance on heuristics. What the heck is a heuristic? A heuristic is any approach to problem solving that employs a practical method that is not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect, or rational, but is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate, short-term goal or approximation. These are shortcuts, rules-of-thumb, and data-parsing techniques we employ instinctively to make extremely complex situations simple enough to dictate our responses in a reasonable timeframe. Our cavemen ancestors relied on them to survive.
When most people see a snake in the wild, they stay away from it. Only a tiny percentage of snakes are venomous, but we still jump like scared jackrabbits when we find one outside of the zoo or pet store. This is an example of an ingrained heuristic. The snake might be dangerous, and most of us will have neither the time nor herpetological chops to determine the answer before a decision must be made. So we squeak like bad brakes and flee. No snake bite, no risk. Yay evolutionary memory.
It can be much more mundane than survival, though. When someone asks, “what do you want for dinner?” you can carefully examine all the food items you know of individually. This would take hours unto days to complete, though. Why not limit yourself to the first few items that pop into your mind, confident that your brain has already parsed out the things you don’t want to have? That’s a heuristic technique, too.
If your pan of chicken and veggies is on fire because you set the oven to “clean,” you do not need to have an advanced understanding of the stoichiometry of combustion to figure out that taking it to the sink and pouring water on it will fix the problem. If you have oil in that pan you are going to have a bad time, but for the most part, the heuristic works. Heuristics are not perfect. By definition they are fast and “good enough.” This is critical for their existence. A good heuristic must satisfy two main functions. It needs to require very little cognitive effort, and it must result in a positive outcome most of the time.
Over the course of your life you have acquired and refined thousands upon thousands of these cognitive shortcuts. It’s the only way to get through the day without going insane. The successful ones get reinforced, and the unsuccessful ones (hopefully) get discarded in an ongoing process we like to call “learning to manage stuff so your life doesn’t suck.”
One of the most pervasive of our collective heuristics involves parsing lots of complex data points into overlapping categories called archetypes. You do not have to understand the ingredients list in every food if you already know you don’t like slimy foods. You can immediately parse all foods that might be slimy into that archetype and move on. There might be foods that are slimy yet also delicious to you, and employing this heuristic means you may never learn that. But for the most part, avoiding the “slimy” archetype works.
This technique used to be especially effective when considering how to interact with new people. Humans are incredibly complex organisms. No two people are exactly alike, and this makes it very hard to quickly model the potential behavior of a human being with any accuracy. Since humans can be dangerous our brain is going to try and do it anyway, because evolution favors survivability over most anything else. Much to the detriment of our heuristic proclivities, times have changed quite a bit since the bronze age. The overwhelming efficiency of parsing complex individuals into archetypes may have been good for determining if a person is a threat a long time ago, but it’s garbage for sorting out individual motivations in the modern world.
I’ll start with an easy example of how quickly this can go wrong.
Pro-Trump vs Libtard
I dare you not to have a clear image in your mind right now about this section title. No matter who you are or how enlightened you think you are, we all know what a “Pro-Trump” person and a “libtard” are supposed to look and act like. Even if we don’t accept those definitions, the image is there. The archetype is well-defined.
Maybe you are too smart to fall for it. Bully for you. But let’s not pretend that when you find yourself in a discussion with someone who is clearly and obviously pro-Trump, that your brain is not parsing that person in with a larger, more easily defined group of people. Conversely, if your rhetorical sparring partner is clearly left leaning, then there is no way to not begin extrapolating some of the views and biases they might espouse.
You cannot avoid this because there are too any people and too many variables for the human brain to calculate in any reasonable timeframe. The conversation cannot exist in a place of pure objective logic because as the meme tells us: “ain’t nobody got time for that sh*t.”
The lack of cognitive resources necessary for considering every potential combination of motives and biases in someone we have never met leads to the following extremely efficient heuristic:
“If the person I am arguing with is (archetype), and all examples of (this archetype) possess (reprehensible trait), then I can disregard anything they say. Ergo, I have won by default and do not have to entertain any points or ideas that conflict with my own positions.”
What a relief! You can ignore everything your opponent says because you parsed them into a category you are allowed to ignore! Let’s look at some of the most common real-life examples:
- All Trump supporters are racist. Anything they have to say about race in America can be disregarded, because, racism.
- All BLM protestors are rioters. Their complaints about the state of American law-enforcement are irrelevant because they support rioting, which is illegal.
- People who support the second amendment are all bible-thumping rednecks, and therefore any valid points they make about the role of firearms in a modern society can be ignored.
- Democrats want socialism, and therefore I do not have to acknowledge the abysmal state of the American healthcare system as all other options are socialist by default.
It looks like this when you see it in the wild:
Person A: CDC excess death rate indicates that COVID-19 has killed 200,000 Americans in the last four months.
Person B: Typical libtard socialist lies. Wake up. This is all just a push for total government control.
Person A: The numbers have been confirmed by multiple sources…
Person B: Scamdemic. You probably believe anything the liberal media tells you.
Person B has not addressed the assertion presented by Person A. Person A is a “Libtard” who only consumes liberal media and has a socialist/communist agenda. Therefore, any assertion made by this person can be disregarded as false without rebuttal.
Person A: America’s violent crime rate is one-sixth that of the UK, and our overall crime rate is better than any country in the G20 except Japan.
Person B: That’s just NRA talking points. America is the murder capital of the world.
Person A: That is provably false. America’s murder rate is not even in the top half.
Person B: Stupid ammosexuals and their little dicks. Why do you want schools to become warzones?
Person B has decided that Person A falls into the “gun owner” archetype and therefore must be an NRA member who fetishizes guns and has issues with masculinity. This means that their points can be ignored.
For the record, both of these seemingly fictional conversations are not remotely fictional. Go to Tumblr, Reddit, Facebook, or Twitter and dig around. You’ll find versions of both pretty quickly. In both cases, no meaningful exchange of ideas will occur. Unfortunately for online discourse and the productive exchange of ideas, there is no preventing this phenomenon. We are all going to do it to some extent. The brain is not capable of comprehending every variable in every scenario, nor has anyone’s education and experience made them expert enough to debate every topic with absolute authority. It’s just not possible.
It gets worse. Heuristics don’t just enable lazy debate; they also protect the ego of the combatants by strengthening personal biases. This is the real reason we love them. The ability to disregard another person’s assertions means you never have to examine your own positions on anything. When all participants are thus limited, victory will be determined by the reaction of the crowd and not the merits of either argument. The delivery becomes more important than the message. Add an echo chamber like Tumblr or a Facebook group to the mix and the heuristic becomes self-reinforcing and real progress screeches to a halt.
Modern problems rarely have attractive solutions. By their very nature, social and political conflicts defy heuristics through sheer uniqueness and complexity. It takes a lot of study and reflection to figure out the most productive outcomes and this is not conducive to cognitive shortcuts. It is so much easier to take an unsophisticated position and refuse to examine it than it is to become better educated on something both difficult and boring like economics. As long as an overly simplistic meme is getting more “likes” than a reasoned analysis, you will never need to improve your understanding. Congratulations on being part of the problem.
There are really only two reasons for this:
A: All you want is the internet points/validation from your echo chamber.
B: Your comprehension of the issue is so shallow you are incapable of holding any position that someone else did not feed you.
Okay, possibly a third…
C: You are a jerk.
I concede that some opponents are really begging for the destruction. In that case of category C, there is no harm in bringing the righteous hammer of logic down upon their heads in as humiliating a fashion as you care to. I’m pretty sure that’s all Twitter is these days. Just remember what real victory looks like when you do, or you risk becoming the thing you are trying to defeat.
What Can I Do?
Stop taking cognitive shortcuts.
Resist the urge to employ easy solutions to complex mental challenges. Embrace the risk that you might be wrong about something. Commit to learning more than you think you need to about a topic. This is the “winning is tricky” part that my old judo teacher was talking about.
By the way, that old judo teacher did not teach me to win rhetorical battles. My father did. He told me that the best way to win an argument is to make sure you are right before you ever get involved. My old man is the poster child for over-preparation in a field where everything is complicated. He can rattle formulas, statistics, dates, and references from memory on demand. If he does not know an answer, he will not bluff or guess. He acknowledges the expertise and experiences of others when they contradict his own. When my father makes an assertion you don’t agree with, be ready for a war because he never speaks before doing a lot homework. He is the master of his field and everybody knows it. You could be too, but you must put a lot more work in to get there.
At the very least, the next time you find yourself sucked into an online argument ask yourself if you are trying to win, or if you just want to defeat the opponent. If you want to win you need to take a good hard look at how you are viewing the conversation and its participants. You need to make sure you are adequately prepared to defend your positions without dismissing the opposition with a handy archetype or pithy label.
If you are not ready, then take the high ground and bow out. There is no shame in saying, “I’m not sure I know enough of the details to speak on this right now.” Quite the opposite. Declining to participate in a fight you are not prepared for is an enlightened act all by itself. It sets an example more people need to follow. It separates your ego from the argument and challenges the opponent to do the same. The message is clear: When you do choose to engage, you will bring a sophisticated argument built on reason and logic. Woe unto he who does not do the same.
On the other hand, if your goal ends with the destruction of your opponent for your own gratification then you are not helping.