Effective discourse can only be achieved offline

Illustration by Olivia McCabe

Adelaide Verdugo-Thomson, Contributing Writer

Those of us who are active on Twitter can bitterly remember the times we accidentally got ourselves into an online argument.

We can also fondly remember the times we watched a Twitter argument between popular figures go down. It’s more enjoyable to scoff at the silly retorts of strangers you don’t know or care to know when you’re not the one fighting in the ring. It’s like a reality TV show, without the flashy lights or forgettable intros.

The all-encompassing nature of the digital world makes it difficult to peel away from. According to the Ministry of Human Resource Development, young adults have a screen time of almost nine hours per day.

With so much time being spent online, we begin to build up social bonds with other users by talking to one another with unique slang and sharing common interests.

When you have your digital in-group, a group of individuals with shared beliefs, you’ll also have an opposing out-group, anybody who is not a part of your clique. Perhaps this out-group has the opposite of your in-group’s beliefs. In fact, you may often bump heads with them, quote tweeting their tweets or leaving an angry reply. They might even respond. Maybe you hope they respond, so you can eloquently tear them to shreds. Finally, you get an online argument, or debate — whatever works for optics.

The American Debate League defines debates as “an organized argument” where two groups challenge each other’s beliefs, typically to convince the opposing side. In the digital age, however, the focus is no longer on convincing or mediating, but rather on gaining social status. It becomes a spectator sport of frustration and intentional hurt. Some users don’t mind throwing threats out or personal attacks. If your opponent is a profile picture of a dog and they live thousands of miles from you, what does it matter to be civil?

We enjoy online debates because it floods our blood with prickly adrenaline that makes our skin hot. We enjoy online debates for the risk and the reward of social capital. This is evident when online influencers and celebrities clapback at politicians with a smug retort. People adore them for getting dirty by throwing a few verbal punches. People hate them for stepping out of their place and causing a scene. Either way, that celebrity’s tweet will garner more attention, and all publicity is good publicity.

While people have been taught to debate in a stern and stoic manner, the internet doesn’t care much for this. It’s simply uninteresting. The audience enjoys seeing blood be spilled because it’s entertaining.

On April 10, Emma Watson was trending on Twitter for her comments during an interview that defended trans women’s rights to use women’s bathrooms. 

“Are we talking about the same Emma Watson who brought an undercover bodyguard to her college graduation? In what imaginary world does an aristocrat like her use a public restroom?” one Twitter user tweeted.

“Hey @EmmaWatson, are you going to defend the woman who made you rich and famous against the doxxing and death threats? Or are you going to stay quiet in order to protect your “brand”? Just how much of a coward are you?” another user tweeted.

What was once a heated attack on trans women’s rights became attacks on Emma Watson, rather than her argument. More tweets began to flood in, degrading her intelligence, arguing that her support is to further her career and outright insulting her

Twitter prioritizes short responses, only 280 characters. The platform itself acts as a brilliant formula to create explosive dialogue. Nuance is almost impossible to capture in such tight conditions and people give up trying. There’s no point in trying to argue against a concept in multiple tweets when you could make a mockery of the person instead.

The focus on debate has shifted from the art of convincing to the art of insult. There is less risk than before when it comes to insults because people are anonymous. It’s a lot harder to be rude when you see your opponent furrow their brows and crinkle their nose right in front of you.

We must critically reflect on why we want to participate in fleeting online debates and arguments. What good does it bring us? Twitter users have often joked about the purposeful misunderstanding of tweets in hopes to start an argument. Positive change rarely comes from online debates because there are no incentives to truly listen. In fact, you can just mute the tweet and never see it again. 

Real debates take time and energy. They are face-to-face. You can hear the emotion and passion coming deep from within the debaters’ guts. You can feel when they are arguing from humility rather than a grab to raise their social status. Perhaps that’s why Twitter debates are so explosive. It’s hard to tell the good-faith actors from the actors.

Debates allow us to strengthen our ability to express our opinions while also acknowledging times when we may be wrong. If you don’t learn to critically defend your belief, you may lose sight of why you really believe in it. 

For a debate to work, all parties must be willing to facilitate healthy communication: listening, waiting for your turn and keeping a polite tone. Healthy communication is nearly impossible to create in an online realm because you aren’t able to read body language or hear one’s tone. It is important for us to take a step towards establishing and protecting spaces for debate in offline spaces.

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