It’s a familiar feeling: I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed. I see that a friend has linked to a great article about social justice. I’m feeling good about it, and then crashing into the comments comes someone making a string of ignorant and hurtful remarks.
At one point in my life, I’d have jumped right in with my rebuttal.
More often than not, they’d respond with a whole new batch of awfulness, and suddenly I’m pouring out paragraphs and paragraphs trying to make them see how completely wrong-headed their points are, while they’re writing equally long responses that just make me angrier and more frustrated.
Sometimes, I’d feel like I was just fresh off a fight with one person online when I’d come across another terrible statement. Too exhausted to get into it, I’d look away, but be unable to stop stewing over both statements.
I’d end up feeling surrounded by hatred and ignorance – and powerless to fight it all.
Eventually, I realized what a harmful pattern this was for me, and instead, I stopped arguing with people online at all. It was a relief not to be spending hours arguing with people, but the downside was that I often felt helpless and a little guilty.
I do believe that online activism is important, and I’ve seen good things come out of these arguments. By avoiding arguments altogether, I felt like I was admitting I wasn’t tough enough to fight the good fight. I still felt surrounded by hatred and ignorance: The only difference was I wasn’t trying any more.
What I’m trying to do now is think more critically about how and when I engage with people online.
Instead of being driven by my impulses – to dive in or to avoid – I’m asking myself what I’m trying to gain, what my needs are in the situation, and what’s the best way to have a positive impact while taking my own and others’ needs into account.
When I do this, I feel like I’m in control, rather than having my whole day hijacked because someone happened to say something awful in a place where I could see it.
I feel like I’m using my resources well, whether that means saying one thing and then bowing out, sticking with the conversation for a while, or focusing on something else entirely.
Following these principles has helped me feel like my online life can be healthy again. And since online life is such an important part of life in general, I thought I’d share them!
So here are five questions I ask myself to help me decide if an online debate is a smart move – or a terrible one.
1. What Am I Trying to Accomplish?
When you see someone saying something awful online, it’s easy to get so caught up in your outrage that you don’t think about what you’re trying to accomplish in your answer.
There are a lot of reasons to respond to ignorant, prejudiced, and harmful statements, including:
- Convincing the person who said it that they’re wrong
- Convincing other people reading it that it was wrong
- Giving people (both the person who said it and bystanders) a different perspective to think about
- Showing support for any marginalized people who feel alienated by the statement
- Relieving your own feelings so that you can move on with your day
Any of these can be good reasons – but knowing which ones are most important to you should impact your approach, and also give you a good stopping point (more on that in a minute).
It’s important to remember that heated arguments are often polarizing, leaving each side more convinced that they’re right and the other person is wrong and terrible. This doesn’t mean you should never respond heatedly. If your goal is to show support to others, or relieve your feelings, a heated response may be what gets the job done.
But if your goal is to persuade or educate, you will usually make more progress by showing empathy and respect as you explain why the thing they said was so wrong.
You also want to be realistic about your goals.
If the only way to feel like you’ve succeeded is to have the person who made the statement admit they were wrong, or to have all the other people in the conversation end up agreeing with you, you’ll usually end up feeling frustrated and defeated. Changing minds usually takes many, many conversations, and time for ideas to sink in.
If you can set a goal that is realistic for the situation, like “Make sure my perspective is thoroughly laid out for others to read” or “Let our mutual friends/other readers see that I disagree strongly with this person,” then you can leave feeling like you have accomplished something.
2. What Will This Cost Me?
Online arguments can be sneaky.
Because you have the ability to reply right at your fingertips, and because it’s so fast, it’s easy to completely lose sight of how much it’s costing you.
I know I’m not the only one who’s started in with the intention of just responding briefly, and ended up losing an entire afternoon to the argument.
Even though I was supposedly working or socializing in between replies, most of my attention and focus, for hours on end, were caught up in the argument – thinking of what to say next, stewing in my anger, checking and refreshing to make sure I didn’t miss a response.
There’s a physical and emotional cost as well. I usually leave these arguments exhausted by rage and frustration, and that’s not awesome for my body, my heart, or my relationships.
Working for justice is worth a fair amount of time and stress, but I do want to be deliberate about how I spend those resources.
Using the same amount of time and emotional energy, I could have probably made three or four calls to political representatives, written some activists I admire to express my support, written my own blog post explaining my views, or researched a local injustice that I need to learn more about.
Given how a lot of my online arguments ended, any of those things would have been a more effective use of my time and energy.
When you find yourself getting sucked into an argument, ask yourself what it’s costing you, and whether that’s worth it for the goal you’re trying to accomplish.
Sometimes the answer might be yes! But often you’ll realize that you’re expending a huge amount of time and energy for a tiny possible benefit.
3. Where Am I Coming From Emotionally?
Most of us get into online arguments because we’re feeling pretty strong feelings. That’s not a problem – but it’s pretty essential to take stock of your feelings and needs before diving in.
Are you feeling directly hurt by what was said? Is it bringing up traumatic experiences and abusive messages from your past? Is it making you feel less safe and at home in the world? Those feelings are valid. Take a moment and acknowledge them as feelings, before deciding how to act.
Sometimes speaking up is a way to take back power or a feeling of safety – it’s a way of affirming that you matter in the world, too, even if the other person won’t hear that.
Other times, jumping into the conversation will just invite more attacks on that vulnerable spot, and you would be taking better care of yourself to step away.
If you’re coming at this as an ally, and share a privileged identity with the person who made the statement, you might be feeling some shame as well as anger. I’ve heard a lot of men express this when another man says something sexist, and as a white person, I feel this when other white people say something racist.
It’s fine to feel that shame – it’s not the most helpful or logical, but it’s a very natural feeling. The problem comes when that shame gets in the way of my actually helping in the conversation.
If my driving need in the conversation is to prove that I’m different, I’m far more likely to be hurting than helping.
4. Whose Space Is This?
If you’re in a space that “belongs” to somebody else, like a person’s Facebook wall, take a moment to consider whether that person would appreciate your stepping in.
For example, many of us who have a public activist presence are deliberate about keeping our personal social media spaces free of the arguments we’re having all the time elsewhere.
When somebody says something misguided or bigoted on our walls, we may prefer to shut it down quickly, rather than have a full-scale argument break out.
For this and many other reasons, it’s worth taking a minute to consider whether the person whose space it is would want you to engage.
If they’ve asked people not to get into these arguments in the past, you may want to reach out privately first.
Another time to be careful is when you’re arguing on behalf of a marginalized identity you don’t share.
It’s great for men to challenge other men on their sexism, for white people to challenge other white people on their racism, and so on, but you want to make sure you’re not doing it in a way that creates harm or discomfort for the group that you’re supposed to be supporting.
Make sure you spend a lot of time reading and listening to voices from the marginalized group when they talk about what kinds of support are and aren’t helpful.
5. Where Is My Stopping Point?
Online arguments tend to get less productive and more damaging the longer they continue.
The great thing is you don’t have to keep responding until the other person gives up or goes away – you can stop and leave as soon as you feel like you’ve accomplished your goals, or realize that the argument is costing you more than it’s worth.
If the argument has remained fairly respectful on both sides, you can say something like, “I still disagree for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above, but I need to leave this discussion now.” Optionally, you can say that you’re open to talking again later – but you don’t have to if you don’t want to!
If the person you’ve been arguing with has been hostile or trollish, you can stop responding, with or without an “I’m out of here” message. They’re very likely to try to keep engaging you, taunting that they must have won because you’re out of responses, or that you aren’t tough enough to stay in the argument.
Someone who says those things cares much more about making you feel awful than about having any kind of productive exchange.
I’m not saying never to keep arguing with people like that, but it’s good to check in with yourself periodically to make sure you’re doing it for your own reasons, and not just letting them goad you into continuing at your own expense.
Being an activist doesn’t mean doing everything. Nobody can.
It’s okay to look at a fight and say, “Nope, this one’s not for me.” It’s also okay to jump into an argument, even if others are telling you that it’s useless.
The most important thing is to be deliberate about the choice you’re making. You get to decide how to use the resources you have to work for justice.
Ginny Brown is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism, as well as a speaker and educator specializing in sexuality and relationships. She writes for various publications and has her own blog here. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her poly family and three cats. Follow her on Twitter @lirelyn. Read her articles here.