The Right Way to Debate Someone on the Internet

The web gives us the possibility of quoting our opponents in their entirety and, failing that, at least linking to their work.

08497v-615.jpg President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter debate during the 1976 presidential race. (Library of Congress)

It's not often that an ill-tempered, excessive response to respectful criticism is good thing -- but I think I've found a case where it is. Not long ago The Oatmeal ran a comic explaining "Why Nikola Tesla Was the Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived", which turned out to be at least as much of an attack on Thomas Edison as a celebration of Tesla. To this Alex Knapp at Forbes retorted, "Nikola Tesla Wasn't God and Thomas Edison Wasn't the Devil", a post which begins with a great deal of praise for The Oatmeal but argues that some of the claims made in the Tesla-vs.-Edison post were wrong.

To this The Oatmeal responded ... well, not exactly graciously. And, to my mind, both inconsistently -- claiming first "I got the facts right, you got them wrong," then "I'm just a comedian, so don't take this so seriously" -- and, for the most part, unconvincingly. Nevertheless, I think The Oatmeal's post sets a great example for online debate. Why?

Because it quotes Knapp's post in full. Every word, right there for everyone to read. So if Knapp's ideas are misrepresented, or taken out of context, or inadequately refuted, we can see that. This kind of thing is rarely done, because most of us when we argue depend on being able to show our readers only what we want them to see of our opponents' words and ideas. We may not do this consciously, or maliciously, but it's rare to find someone not doing it. So it's really refreshing to see that temptation resisted.

Another notable Internet spat that followed a similar path was the Great Jarvis-Morozov Internet War of last year. Evgeny Morozov wrote an eviscerating review of Jeff Jarvis's book Public Parts, to which Jarvis responded, via Google Docs, quoting Morozov'e entire review and responding to it point by point. Now, I'm not sure Jarvis comes off very well either: He often accuses Morozov of "willful mischaracterization," but since he doesn't quote himself there's no real evidence that Morozov got him wrong. It was admirable of Jarvis to quote Morozov in full, but it would have helped his case much more if he could have shown where Morozov got it wrong rather than just asserting it.

Is there any chance that this admirable practice will become standard in online debates? Not much of one, I think. It's perhaps not mere bad luck that neither The Oatmeal nor Jeff Jarvis came up with a strong response to their critics: they put themselves in more danger of losing the argument by being so generous to those who disagreed with them. As long as people want to win arguments more than they want to get things right, we will probably continue to quote very selectively.

But even if so, all this is yet another reminder of the inestimable blessing of the hyperlink. Because even if Jarvis hadn't quoted Morozov's whole review, we could have tracked it down; ditto with The Oatmeal's response to Knapp. And maybe you suspect that I've been unfair to some of the figures I've been quoting here? Well, then, follow the links and find out for yourself. The internet's cool that way.

Presented by

Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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