A Little New Year's Advice

From longtime commenter Rob Lyman:

How to win an argument--or at least, help the other guy lose.

'Tis the season of goodwill towards men, loving our enemies, forgiving those who did us wrong, and calls for unity, civility, and an elevation of our public discourse to new heights of seriousness.

Yeah, well, Bah Humbug to all that.

Instead, I thought I'd offer my guide to effective blog commenting: one serious tip and a bunch of fun and manipulative tricks. My Christmas wish to you is that you should all find it in you to become as much of a sneaky bastard as me.

So first, the serious tip: Commenting is a performance, not a conversation.. Most people who read your work will never respond. Sure, when you get into a reply string, you should always address the comment above yours, because it's kind of rude to be mugging for the spectators in a reply ("Look at this idiot! He doesn't know anything!"). But the fact is, your interlocutor is not your audience, so your goal is not to persuade that person, it's to persuade (or perhaps merely entertain) the silent majority, or what we in the business call "the jury."
Now for the fun stuff! If you read through my comments, you'll see me doing these kinds of thing all the time:

Make allusions you decline to explain. Any idiot can deploy a stupid simile: The Republicans are just like the Nazis! Because they, um, favor, um, counterfeiting the GBP to destroy the British economy! Or something! But an unexplained allusion gives anybody who understands it a nice little insider's smile--and causes them to feel a certain affinity for you, as a fellow insider. An outsider who has to go to Wikipedia to figure out what you're talking about will recognize your superior knowledge. Plus, the guy who doesn't get it and huffily responds can be mocked for not getting it. So all around, you've just gained a bit of credibility merely by omitting something. This works best, of course, if you have some kind of clue what you're talking about: the Kursk Bulge does not refer to a submarine structural failure, and if you suggest it does, you look like an idiot.

Use fake imprecision to imply greater knowledge. Another thing any idiot can do is look up dates online. Nobody is impressed that you know that in the first three weeks of July, 1944, 730 delegates from all 44 Allied nations gathered at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, United States, for the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference. After all, I cut and pasted the majority of that sentence from Wikipedia. On the other hand, if you can toss off references to Bretton Woods and the gold standard, you can make it appear that you really do know what you're talking about and can just call up the information from memory at will--even if you've only just looked it up on Wikipedia! As with allusions, however, you should be careful only to refer to things you do have some understanding of, lest you look like an idiot.

Treat stupid questions as if they were serious. Has anyone ever asked you "What are YOU looking at?" in a bar or other public place? That person was, of course, looking to do the Monkey Dance, work his way up to chest-poking or hat-knocking-off, and perhaps eventually a sucker punch. Blogging works much the same way--monkey dancing is the dominant mode of commenting. But on the other hand, if you actually try to answer that drunken idiot's question--act as though you don't detect the challenge, point at something and call the questioner's attention to it--you can get inside his OODA loop (unexplained allusion! Look it up, people!) and diffuse a bad situation. In blogging, treating a stupid question seriously can accomplish one of two goals: it can highlight the stupidity (because the answer is stupid, or obvious), or it might (and sometimes has, for me) elevate the discourse by pulling your interlocutor off of his stupid position and into a real discussion. Either way, you win, because you aren't the one being a jerk.

Treat serious questions as if they were stupid. This isn't something I would do all the time. It can make you look like a jerk, and nobody likes jerks. But sometimes an earnest question can present the perfect opportunity for mockery, especially of your opponents. So for instance, when somebody asked recently what can't be regulated by Congress as "interstate commerce," a couple of us replied "abortion and sodomy," or words to that effect. Now, that's not a serious or thoughtful response, nor is it a fair representation of the "liberal" position--which Alsadius later pointed out should have included marijuana--but it was a good opportunity to score a cheap point and maybe get a laugh or two. And frankly, it wasn't so far off; in the course of that discussion at least two commenters said to me that they thought the commerce clause power was restrained only by the affirmative prohibitions of the bill of rights--one went so far as to say that Congress could, consistent with the Constitution, implement Communism under the commerce power. So it's hard for people who disagreed to complain about unfairness, and people who were inclined to agree got a chuckle. Overall, a win.

Admit to any and all faults you are accused of. Is there any point to getting huffy when somebody calls you a drunken, ignorant slut with a preference for buggering puppies? Is anybody going to take your agreement with that statement seriously? Of course not. So either admit it wholesale or deny some part of it ("I only bugger full grown dogs. Do you think I'm a pervert?") and move on. They won't repeat an insult if they know it won't bother you, and you can either move on to their substantive points (if any), or continue with your campaign to make them look like jerks. For more serious commenters who have gotten off the rails a bit (and it happens to the best of us), such an admission is an admonishment to correct their behavior that doesn't permit them to be defensive; they may even admit they were wrong. You win again! And of course people who are disposed to like you will come to your defense, if not in comments then at least in their heads. Win win win! (For you, not the other guy).

Eagerly claim adherence to loathsome opinions. My favorite in this genre is a bit from Mark Steyn ca. 2004 that I can't find at the moment. But it runs something like this:

Liberal British Columnist: Bush voters chose him because they believe God gave America the biggest dick in the world so it could piss on the rest of us.

Mark Steyn: I know that's why I voted for him, but I'm not sure it accounts for the other 50 million or so votes.

The purpose of this sort of admission is to highlight the stupidity of the original statement. Nobody could actually believe what that columnist wrote. Now, you could get huffy about strawmen, or engage in a bit of armchair psychologizing about projection and the columnist's insecurities about his own manhood, but then you're being just as big of a jerk, in reverse. And nobody likes a jerk, remember? So just jump on board with it and let the stupidity shine through without any commentary from you.

A related technique is to "out" yourself as an adherent of a not-actually-loathsome opinion, but which is treated as loathsome by some commenters. I once wrote a Facebook comment "Speaking as a right-wing nutjob myself..." and thereby forced my friend to backpeddle and admit that maybe some people on the right--maybe just me, but at any rate not zero--aren't actually ignorant nutjobs.

Ask earnest questions instead of making arguments. This is one of my favorites. Do you remember creative writing in 7th grade, when you were asked to "show, not tell" the story? Well, this is the same thing. It's easy to say "That's wrong." But it's much, much more convincing to ask a good question and get a lame answer. Your audience much prefers to draw its own conclusions rather than have you tell them what to think--it makes them feel smarter, and they're more convinced by their own arguments than by yours, and they'll be harder to budge off of those conclusions. So instead of declarative sentences about the wrong wrong wrongness of somebody else, how about a little well-placed cross examination? And here, I don't recommend snippy rhetorical questions with lots of bombastic flourish. In this case, your goals are better served by real questions, earnest questions--questions that are hard to answer but impossible to dismiss. With luck, you can get some other people on board with your question and really hound someone, like, um, a pack of hounds.

Never, ever attempt to pull rank. It can be tempting, when arguing with an idiot, to start ranting about what a genius you are, and all your years of education and experience, and whatnot. But take it from a guy who argues for a living: if you're such a genius, you don't need to pull rank, you can demolish him on the merits. There's nothing wrong with bringing your profession or education up where it may be relevant, but it must be done with modesty. Remember, the other guy has years of experience, too. I once had someone argue with me over whether my law school education had been relevant in my career. I don't care if you're the bastard child of John Marshall and Clarence Darrow, you're going to be losing that argument. When you start telling everyone you know better than them even if it's true, you look like a jerk. And--this is becoming a bit of a theme--people will believe a moron they like over a genius they don't.

Let surrogates make some arguments for you. I think I'm going to let Alsadius take care of this one.

Set up ludicrous a strawman--and then admit it's a strawman. Strawmen are fun, and much easier to defeat that actual arguments. So you want to use them when you can, but you don't want to have people dismiss you as just peddling strawmen. But if you admit in advance that's what they are, how can anyone accuse you of anything? Yet look what you've done: you planted some strawmen in the minds of your readers, but without anyone being able to effectively combat your doing so! The argument will seep in, but the fundamental invalidity has a good chance of getting filtered out. Truly worth the effort!

Shamelessly copy from writers better than you. Are you a Wodehouse fan? If so, you may notice that I sprinkle my writing with locutions and one-liners I take from his books. Because it sounds just as good when I say it and I couldn't have thought of something that good myself. Makes me look like a prose stylist instead of a patent lawyer--and that makes me look smarter than I really am. Plus, it counts as an unexplained allusion, for double points!

Finally: Be brief. One chuckle-worthy one-liner is worth 10 lengthy policy discourses. It's not rational and it's not fair, but who cares? If you want to be fair, use more sunscreen.

Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her middle school. Then Humans of New York told her story to the Internet—and everything changed.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.


'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.


What Fifty Shades Left Out

A straightforward guide to BDSM

Just In