Arguing on the Internet: How Anonymity Dehumanizes Our Opponents


As a millennial, my life is inundated with social media. Whether it's Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, or a myriad of other social sites dedicated to sharing (or oversharing) our lives, I have dozens and dozens of new notifications every day promising to keep me abreast of every little detail of my friends' lives or, conversely, their opinions of my own life. And though social media has made great strides in the connectedness between social movements and their grassroots constituents, there is a dreadful downfall that could render these platforms moot in our own movement; the anonymity that is made possible by screen-names and nondescript profile pictures creates a ripe environment for dehumanization.

I'm sure most of you reading this (especially young people) have experienced it at some point: you're expressing your opinion, or you've shared an educational story on a social media site, and you are lambasted by someone of the opposing opinion. Your ideas might be skewered, or maybe it's your own character that is attacked. Ad hominem attacks go flying, the argument gets tense and heated, and we start flinging our own decorum out the window. Soon it's all we can do to just walk away from the argument with our pride intact.

This problem of dehumanization in our arguments is multiplied by the distance with which we might regard our online adversaries. In person, I would never think of using biting sarcasm with someone who is working through an argument with me. But online, my weariness of a culture that condones violence comes out in a sarcastic comment towards someone whom I've never met. Many times on Twitter, I find myself working tirelessly to help some anonymous screen-name see the truth of science or basic common-sense ethics, and I'll feel the conversation get dragged down (sometimes little by little, sometimes all at once) into epithets, sarcasm, and a total inability to see the humanity of the other side. When we lose sight of the humanity of the other—when we forget empathy and we leave sonder behind—we make our opposition into a bogeyman, someone who we cannot hope to reach and convert, but can only hope to pummel into submission. (1)

The problem with this perspective is that it views winning arguments as the end-all, be-all of our work, when in fact it is changing hearts and minds that will create the massive cultural shift needed to create a culture of life. So, as people who stand for the respect for the life and dignity of each and every human being, how do we elevate the discussion and thereby enable conversion to the cause of life?

We must affect a paradigm shift: our goal is not to win the argument or trample our opponents; our goal is to convert hearts and minds. What we are fighting is an ideology that says that humans are disposable objects, so let us not act in such a way that treads over our online adversaries in the name of a winning argument. Let us, instead, respect them as human beings worthy of dignity. For if we degrade their dignity, do we not then cut ourselves off from the goal of a culture where every human is respected, valued, and protected?

So the next time you get into a heated debate in an online forum, consider a few of these tips to elevate the conversation and remind yourself of the humanity of the person with whom you are conversing. If this person is someone with whom you're already acquainted, try reaching out by personal message. Work on building up a relationship with people who are different from you—not for any utilitarian reason, but because as humans, we are geared toward relationship, and relationship has the power to elevate conversation and remind us of the humanity of the other. But if you aren't friends with the person with whom you are tempted to argue online, there are a few ways forward. First, you could step away from the argument and either befriend them or remain anonymous and private. Second, if you want to continue in the discussion, do your honest utmost to get the opinion, backstory, and full perspective of the person on the other end of the screen-name. Don't make them into straw men, belittle their experience, or engage in biting sarcasm; treat them with the same respect with which you would like to be treated. Sure, educate on the basics and discuss ethics, but first: love and “sonder.”

The next time you get into a debate, whether online or in person, remember that we're all human and we're (presumably) all trying really hard to do right by ourselves and by others. Unless you want a culture full of victims of Stockholm Syndrome, you can't abuse people into a culture of love. Remember, instead, what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

(1) “Sonder” is a word created for the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, by John Koenig. It means “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” You can learn more about sonder and the Consistent Life Ethic in the piece “Sonder: The Key to Peace?” in Life Matters Journal: Volume 3, Issue 2.

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