Sound and Fury: More Arguing On The Internet

So you might have seen me recently arguing with people on the internet. What a futile endeavour, right? As they say, arguing with an idiot is like trying to play chess with a pigeon - all it does is knock pieces over, shits on the board, and then it flies back to its flock to regale them with its victory.

They also coup a lot.

So, should you play chess with the pigeon. Is it futile?

Well..maybe. Actually, no. It’s not futile. Not entirely. In fact, there’s a very good reason to do it, just not the reason you might be thinking of.

Firstly, and least importantly, you might actually change someone’s mind. I’s possible. Just not terribly likely.

In psychology there is something known as the Backfire Effect. When shown evidence in contradiction to a strongly held conviction, the brain will reject the evidence rather than the belief. Instead of eradicating the ignorance, evidence will instead compound it.

The capacity for the human brain to operate in a rational state is vastly overestimated.

The mating cry of the right is “facts don’t care about feelings” when in actuality the opposite is true. The human brain cares very little for facts.

Your opinion is crucial to your sense of self. It’s a core component of your identity.

You believe that you reached your opinion organically through measured reason and that this view of the world is the only correct one, and this provides the bedrock for your self-actualisation. You looked out over the world, determined what was what, and styled yourself accordingly. That’s who you are, that’s how the world made you.

The person and the belief become one and the same. It’s how the brain works.

You do it, I do it, we all do it. I try to base my self-identity on the data, but it takes constant conscious effort. Whenever I’m presented with contrary evidence I can feel the pull. The stubborn desire to find examples to the contrary in order to keep my previous assumptions intact. An urge not to change in order to be right, but to discredit that which suggests that I was not always right.

I don’t always catch it. It’s powerful. And I’m aware that it’s happening. What hope does the proverbial layman have?

When you try to argue against someone’s opinion, you’re provoking them with something that is, to their brain, indistinguishable from an existential threat. On a subconscious level they’re fighting for their lives, which is why it’s such a tough argument to win.

You might get through to them, but you probably won’t. So why try?

Because this isn’t a tango. There are not merely two parties involved. We’re trying to have a goddamn society here. There are people who would like to take that away from us, and this is where it starts. Not when the halls of justice are closed, not when the parliament is dissolved or the Reichstag is burned down or the communists are purged or when a mob marches on the centre of government with malice aforethought. That all comes later, usually when it’s too late.

It all starts when somebody has a toxic view on life which they’re willing to belligerently defend and nobody says anything. That’s where it starts. That’s the grain of dirt and every subsequent time they go unchallenged is another layer of nacreous agitprop that will eventually become a Nazi pearl.

There needs to be pushback. There needs to be a counter-argument, an attempt to get through to these people. And failing that, there needs to be someone to point out when they’re wrong and call them out for being fuckwits.

They’ll fight you, but there needs to be a fight.

Because all of this bullshit in the world right now, it didn’t happen in a vacuum. We didn’t wake up one day and the world was on fire. It happened gradually and it happened because we gave ground.

When you say “no, actually, these are the facts”, it doesn’t matter if they listen or not. What matters is you’re providing resistance. You’re providing a barrier that must be overcome, even if it is so minuscule that you think it doesn’t matter. You’re forcing them to expend just a little bit of effort to maintain their facade, and that adds up.

Such and such shouldn’t be political” is one of the things you’ll hear a lot. “Footy shouldn’t be political” or “video games shouldn’t be political.” Insert the medium of your choice.

You know what this phrase means? It means that the friction is working.

Because nobody ever says this when their own political views are the ones on the promotional jersey.

When someone wants to keep politics out of something they like, it’s because on some level they know that the views they hold are either incorrect, immoral, or otherwise suspect, and they don’t want to be forced to acknowledge that they’re on the wrong side. It makes them uncomfortable.

So they tell you to stop. Stop, because you’re spoiling the thing I like by forcing me to think about why I feel ashamed.

Do you begin to see why it’s important there be some resistance? What if these people never felt that discomfort?

You see the result of this absence in what happened recently in the United States.

An armed mob descended on the seat of government, during a rare joint sitting of both Houses, with the intent of violently overthrowing the government and establishing a dictatorship.

Let there be no ambiguity about any of that.

It was an attempted coup.

It wasn’t a protest or a riot, but a fascist coup to overthrow a democratically elected government and install a dictator. It’s that serious.

Those people, by their own admission, formed an armed militia and stormed the seat of government with the intent of overthrowing the government, assassinating members of the opposition, instituting martial law, and installing Donald Trump as Dictator of the American Empire. This is not hyperbole, this is what happened.

If anyone is ticking off the parallels to Nazi Germany, this is the “Reichstag fire” part.

I hate it when people say “this is how fascism starts.” It isn’t. This is about 22 steps in. Shit is starting to get real. (And for my countrymen - we have off-shore gulags where we detain people based on their nationality and it doesn’t even make the news any more. Peter Dutton recently introduced a bill which would allow the AFP to covertly assume control of all your devices and accounts if you are suspected of any crime serious enough to warrant three years in prison. How many of you knew that?)

This coup - coup, not riot, not protest, not difference of opinion but a violent attempt to overthrow a government - only failed because of the relatively low number of insurrectionists and the staggering stupidity and incompetence of those involved.

It will happen again.

And it happened because of a lack of resistance. All of those people, all of those fundamentalist hardliners, all of those terrorists - and they are terrorists (terrorism is defined as using violence, or the threat of violence, to leverage a political agenda) - they were there because they didn’t face enough resistance.

Their families stopped talking to them, their friends circle closed, they were blocked on Facebook, they made their own rooms where they banned anyone with a contrary opinion. They encountered no barrier. And look what happened. When you stop questioning their bullshit, they start taking that bullshit for granted and it snowballs. Quickly.

This is all encapsulated in what happened to Ashli Babbitt.

She was the terrorist who was shot to death as she stormed the barricade to reach the government safe room.

There was a door hastily barricaded with furniture, behind which were armed security, and behind them was nearly the entire United States government. Literally. Nearly every federal elected representative was in that one location.

And on the other side of this tiny door was the thousands-strong mob who had declared their intention to hang the Vice President of the “United” States, among others. And he’s ostensibly in their own party.

So there’s a mob and a barricade and a small group of security with weapons drawn. It’s all looking very...revolutionary.

The security, a mix of Capitol Police and Secret Service, have their guns levelled and pointed at the mob. They will protect their charges with lethal force if anyone comes closer. That’s what they do. That’s their only job. There is absolutely no ambiguity to the situation.

There’s a broken window next to the barricade. Ashli Babbitt very casually saunters over to this window and lazily begins to climb over it. She’s halfway through the window when she is shot in the neck by a Capitol Police officer - who had warned her multiple times that they were going to shoot her if she continued. And she kept going. Until she was stopped.

And let us be clear, Babbitt had tweeted the previous day about how “the storm was here” and that traitors should be executed by firing squad. There is a very clear mens rea, Babbitt had murderous intent.

I’ve seen the footage and the most striking thing is how shocked everyone is at her death. Not shock at the death itself, but that it actually happened. The entire mob was absolutely stunned because it was the first time any of them had encountered any real resistance. Any blowback. Any consequences. And now one of them was dead.

(I’ve been asked by some people why the police used lethal force. Why shoot to kill? Why not mace her or tase her or shoot her in the leg or something like the movies? It’s a fair question that can be answered a number of way, but the top of the tree is this: what if she was wearing a bomb? She was meters away from a coup d’etat, this is a nation that has experience with people flying planes into buildings to facilitate their cause, how close can someone get with mace in their eyes or a slug in their knee?)

In hindsight it’s farcical. What did they think was going to happen? But they encountered no resistance before, why would they now. People had long ago stopped arguing with them, it wasn’t worth the effort. You won’t get through to them after all.

So they formed a mob of like minds and again met no resistance. They were allowed past the first line of barricades. No resistance. They entered the building itself and again met no resistance. They broke further into the building. No resistance. Every time a potential barrier wasn’t enforced they became more emboldened. More brazen.

This snowballed until literal barriers no longer presented any sort of challenge.

They encountered Capitol Police and forced them to retreat. They broke down doors and were not tased or gassed or shot. So why would they start questioning their actions now? And when Ashli Babbitt, a 14-year veteran in the Air Force who knew more than most about the rules of engagement, escalation of force, and clear and present danger, when she was presented with a makeshift rampart manned by armed security, why should this one matter when none of the others did?

The shot sent her flying back into the mob and they were stunned. They halted. Nobody knew what to do. This was the first real pushback they encountered. It was the last real pushback Ashli Babbitt encountered.

Do you see why we should all do our part to stop this madness before it acquires any kind of impetus? Sure, individually we might not accomplish much, but just like this emboldening of terrorists, it’s about the cumulative effect.

I heard a story once about a bar in England. The person telling the story was sitting there enjoying a drink when someone sat next to him. The bartender immediately tells the newcomer to get out.

This man claims he’s doing nothing wrong, he’s a paying customer, he’s entitled to be there.

The bartender pulls out a cricket bat and says he won’t ask again. The man leaves.

The guy telling the story, the one just sitting there, he asks what the deal was? What did that guy do wrong? And the bartender says that the guy had swastika tattoos.

So what? He wasn’t causing trouble. He might be a nazi but freedom of speech or whatever, and he was a paying customer.

And the bartender says “you have to nip it in the bud immediately”.

Because that Nazi might have been a pretty chill guy. Maybe he was a lot of fun to hang around with, maybe he read to sick children at the hospital, maybe he donated to charity, maybe he was the world’s greatest person except for his political views about certain ethnic and political groups.

But you have to kick him out immediately.

Because this Nazi, he was alright. He wasn’t causing trouble. So you let him stay. And then next week he brings his buddy to his new pub for a pint. And he’s also a Nazi, but he’s also a cool guy. So they can stay. Because you don’t want to cause a scene.

And then next week they both bring a couple of friends, who bring a couple of friends. And these friends, they aren’t cool anymore.

These are the less polite Nazis, the loud Nazis. And suddenly you realise, you aren’t a pub with a Nazi in it, you’re the Nazi pub. And because it’s a Nazi pub, more Nazis come. And because there are more Nazis, normal people don’t come any more and your pub isn’t your pub anymore - it’s the Nazi pub. And if you try to kick them out now, how’s that going to work?

It’s the same with proto-fascists everywhere. Even on Facebook. You need to nip it in the bud immediately.

“But their ideas are so stupid, why should I bother arguing against them? A paedophile ring in the basement of a pizza shop with no basement? Bill Gates wants to put a microchip in your vaccine? Donald Trump is actually smart? Who’s going to listen to that nonsense?”

This is stupid, why fight against stupidity? Well, I’ll let Jean-Paul Satre explain:

"Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past."

So it’s all pointless, right?

Well, there’s one good reason for arguing with dickheads on the internet.

It’s because of the audience.

It’s the internet. You two aren’t seated in a closed room yelling at each other. You’re in public. When one dickhead is allowed to spout shit unchecked, his dickhead mates feel emboldened to do the same.

But when someone pushes back, these dickheads see that there is pushback. And maybe they’re less inclined to be dickheads.

And maybe a dickhead like him sees the point you’re making and, since he’s not directly threatened by the argument, maybe he sees the validity of your point and he changes his mind.

And people see that someone is taking a stand against dickheads and they feel emboldened to also take a stand against dickheads.

Taking a stand makes all the difference, for a number of reasons.

And one final reason I argue with dipshits online - I want to show people how to do it. How to argue with these dickheads. I’m not only demonstrating the value of pushing back, but I’m showing people the methods of doing so, because not everyone knows. It should be a mandatory part of primary school syllabus, but it isn’t and the world is worse for it. So I do my best to show people how it’s done.

By engaging in this futile endeavour, this chess with a pigeon, I know I’m not going to beat the pigeon. At least not in the pigeon’s brain. But I am going to demonstrate how the pieces move for anyone out there watching who might want to play chess.

These fuckwits, their arguments are shite. They can’t stand any sort of scrutiny. If they could, they wouldn’t be shite arguments. They wouldn’t have to argue them, because you don’t feel the need to defend a good idea.

Which is why these people argue in bad faith, as we say.

They know that any attempt to debate on the actual merit of their ideas will go very poorly for them, so they do their best to keep the debate from ever being legitimate. They know that going toe-to-toe is going to be a quick knockout, so they cheat.

They use tricks that the ancient Greeks nailed three thousand years ago to look like they’re debating when they’re actually doing everything they can to avoid it. This is known as sophistry and it’s very, very effective. Which is why so many people fall into the trap.

And I’d like all of you to stop falling into the trap. To show these people that their tricks won’t work any more. That if they can’t argue their ideas legitimately and coherently then their ideas are not worth arguing - you lose, stiff shit, goodbye, au revoir.

Then we might see less proliferation of these bad faith arguments. We might see a return to rational discourse.

But what do I know?

Well, I did win my high school’s medal for debating, so there’s that.

Which isn’t as trivial as you might think. It means that I’m familiar with rhetoric, which is a huge advantage against those who aren’t.

I’m also a writer and a comedian. Which means that for the last 15 years, my profession has been using these very same tricks against you. You just never noticed. When I make you laugh, I used a rhetorical device to do it.

When I write an article about “the top 7 roles that proved Matthew McConaughey is a serious actor now” you probably didn’t correlate that to your recent purchase of Woodstock Bourbon.

This shit is powerful.

(And if you’re particularly clued in you’ll have spotted that I just established ethos - well done you!)

So the number one thing you need to remember is this. If you take nothing else away, if you follow only one principle, it is this:


Stay on point. Stay on message. Do not get distracted.

Don’t let them pivot into another line of debate. Don’t get distracted by defending an unrelated position of your own. Don’t chase them down the rabbit hole.

Stay on point. Stay on message.

Because that’s the total of it all. Their point is worthless. It’s bullshit. You know it. They know it.

They can’t argue that point. It will not stand. You’ll shred it with logic and evidence.

So they’re going to try and run to a battlefield of their own choosing. Do not let them. Stay on point. Stay on message.

You say “we’re not talking about that, we’re talking about this. I’ll be happy to discuss that after we’ve resolved this, but you’re yet to defend your position.

Lay down the law. Put up or shut up. And when they bait you, because they will, stand your ground.

“The core principle we’re discussing is this, you’re trying to change the topic because you can’t defend your opinion. You’re wrong, you know you’re wrong and you’re trying to run away.”

And you win. Just like that.

Nobody will tell you that you won. The other person will claim victory and mock you for your defeat. They’ll call you names, some like-minded rubes will join in with some ad hominem bon mots. But it doesn’t matter.

You won. Not just for yourself, but for everyone. For society. For humanity.

So that’s the overriding principle. Stay on point. Stay on message.

If you take nothing else away from this, let it be that. Stay on point, stay on message.

But as I said, they’re going to lay traps for you. It’s very easy to be caught in them. It’s easy to be caught by them if you know what they are, it’s almost impossible to dodge them if you don’t.

So you see the trap, you defuse it, and then you express your disappointment that they had to resort to such nefarious methods in place of having actual merit.

It’s just like high school debating all over again - when you spot them, call them out for using them, lament that the opposition has such a weak case, and bonus points if you do it in Latin.

So here are some of the more common ones you’ll run into:

Ignoratio Elenchi

Also known as missing the point, or irrelevant conclusion, but always style points for Latin.

Aristotle called this “the foundation for all fallacious arguments.” I’ll cede to Aristotle on this one.

This is where you respond to an argument with something that sounds like you’re responding to that argument, but you’re actually pivoting to something else entirely.

So if we go back to the attempted coup in the US, I’ve seen the argument made that “those people were expressing their First Amendment rights (free speech - which really doesn’t mean what these people think it means) and they were entitled to protest.”

On the surface this might appear to be a reasonable defence - was this an insurrection? People are allowed to protest the government, it’s in the Constitution.

But take a look at this argument. Are these concepts actually linked? An accusation was made - violent insurrection took place. The counter argument was that people are allowed to protest.

The second does not address the first.

People are certainly allowed to gather outside the Capitol and peacefully register their umbrage. And they did just that. Thousands of people gathered outside in a perfectly legal protest. Good for them.

Then a large number of them violently stormed the building and beat a police officer to death with a fire extinguisher, which is what we’re actually discussing. Is that legal? Answer the question.

Stay on point. Stay on message.

“Black Lives Matter!”

“All Lives Matter!”

Well, yes. That’s very technically true, but again, the second doesn’t address the first.

What if we’re all sitting around at a restaurant? Everyone’s food comes out except yours. They all start eating, but you’re still hungry.

“I’m hungry, I need to eat!”

Yes, everyone needs to eat. You starve if you don’t eat.” says everyone else at the table.

Was the problem solved? Was the point addressed? No. Be wary of this one, because an answer can look like an answer without ever actually being one.

Burden of Proof

This is a big one. The person making the claim is the one who needs to back it up.

If you can’t demonstrate and validate your argument, then it’s not even worth debating.

Remember, it isn’t up to you to disprove bullshit, it’s enough to say “prove it”. And if they can’t, then it’s over.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell summed this up with a concept that is now known as Russell’s Teapot.

If I claim that in space, at the exact middle point between Earth and Mars, in orbit around the sun, there is a teapot. Now this teapot is naturally too small to see with a telescope or any sort of instrument, and if you had a spaceship and could fly around and look it would take forever because space is huge, but trust me - there’s a teapot out there.

Does anyone feel the need to disprove that claim? Of course not, so why do accept “studies have shown X”? Show us the studies.

This is also known as Hitchen’s Razor - “that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

The Earth is flat. Prove me wrong.” No, this is on you. I’m not doing your work for you.

Tu quoque

(Pronounced two-kwo-kway)

This is the most common logical fallacy you’ll encounter after actually engaging with someone.

Tu quoque is Latin for “you also.

We’ll call it by its more common name “whataboutism.

(Technically these are slightly different things, but it’s like how a banana is actually a herb, how semantic are we feeling?)

This is when you respond to an accusation with an accusation of your own, without actually arguing the original point.

So you’ll see something like “Robodebt was a massive failure and a demonstrative example of incompetent governance” and someone defending the LNP would respond with “what about Labor’s Pink Batt scandal?”

Well, what about it? That’s not what we’re talking about. Answer the question.

Stay on point, stay on message.

This kind of misdirection is so potent because you’ll often feel compelled to answer.

They’ve turned the spotlight back on you, and you know you have the argument to back that up, so you deploy it. You respond.

And now the other party is safely away from the unsteady ground they just found themselves on, relieved they won’t have to fight a losing battle.

Do not fall for it. Do not engage. This is the holy grail of bad faith arguments, the lure is so tempting, you can fall for it subconsciously and by the time you’ve realised it the battle is long over.

Stay on point, stay on message.

(So, technically speaking, a true tu quoque is to divert the argument by pointing out some behaviour in the past which is contrary to the current argument. A recent example is NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard instituting a mask mandate to stem coronavirus in Sydney.

Hazzard’s famous bungling of the Ruby Princess fiasco was one of the primary vectors of the initial outbreak. So one might say “you want us to wear masks to stop the virus? What about that time you let in a plague ship?” Both are worth arguing, but only one is happening right now.

It’s important to always point out when a public figure, especially a politician, is being a hypocrite, but know that it doesn’t necessarily invalidate their point.)

Reductio ad Mysterium

Argument from the unknown. So this is when someone makes a claim and their evidence for said claim is some hidden knowledge or secret wisdom that only they or a select few possess.

This knowledge is not easy to come by, it requires you to go looking for it. But because it is so difficult to attain, it is more valuable than regular knowledge and thus supersedes it - you might have facts, but I have superfacts.

This crops up whenever someone says something like “do your own research and then you’ll know.” Well, what is this research? Where do I find it? What credentials does it have? If what you know is so crucial then surely it’s available for me to “educate myself”. Right? Right?

A Priori

Starting with a conclusion and then collecting evidence to support that conclusion, instead of forming a conclusion based on the evidence. (Confirmation Bias is way too big to get into here)

“Since global warming isn’t real, we need to look at what these so-called experts have to gain by continuing the hoax.” Well, you’ve not proven that global warming isn’t a thing, you just said that and assumed I’d agree, let’s get that out of the way first.

Anonymous Authority

This was a favourite of Donny’s. “People are saying.” “Everyone always says.” “The experts tell me.” Who are these people? Will they stand by these assertions? Until they exist as tangible beings who will stand by their assertions then they have the rhetorical conviction of a fart.

Modus Tollendo Ponens

Latin for “mode which affirms by denying.” We call it a disjunctive syllogism.

It’s not necessarily wrong on its own, but it can be used for devious means.

A disjunctive syllogism happens when one thing being true makes another thing false. So if it’s A, then it can’t be B. If a coin lands on heads it can’t be tails. One or the other, if you follow me.

Where this becomes murky is if you were acting in bad faith and used this logic to create something out of nothing. “Well this obviously isn’t A, so it’s got to be B”. Well hang on, what if there’s a C you didn’t mention?

“There are light beers and there are dark beers. This obviously isn’t a dark beer, so it must be a light beer” you say as you take a sip of cider.

A recent example is the doubt over the US election. “There are more Trump supporters than there are Biden supporters, so there must have been electoral tampering.”

There may well be more Trump supporters than there are Biden supporters, but you’re not factoring in the number of people who might not be Biden supporters, but voted for whoever wasn’t Trump. There was A, there was B, but there was a third option - I don’t give a fuck what B is, as long as it’s not A.

This is also an example of a false dichotomy - you’re either with us or against us. George W Bush was a big fan of this one, you’re either with us or the terrorists. Let us never forget just how much damage he did to the world, just because a bigger knob enters the fray it doesn’t diminish the girth of the previous record holder.

Personal Incredulity

Just because you don’t believe something is true doesn’t make it false. I’ve personally encountered “the moon landing was faked because it’s impossible for humans to survive the radiation of the Van Allen Belt.”

I don’t want to question your PhD in YouTube, but as Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski would say “that’s just, like, your opinion man.”

I can’t speak Spanish, but it doesn’t mean that I can deny that the language exists.