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Rebutting minus the full frontal assault?
October 16, 2012 10:40 AM   Subscribe

Tips and tricks for writing non-rebuttal "rebuttals" on the web?

The specific thing I am thinking of is a situation where someone says something where they and I fundamentally disagree but they supported their point with links to good information and said something that I found informative, food for thought, etc. I still think something is wrong with their conclusion and I feel inspired to respond but I am not interested in fighting with them.

In some cases, I would like to use it as inspiration for a blog post, so I am not just looking for good debating techniques. More like how do you get mentally and practically (i.e. writing techniques) from "B is wrong and here's why! (zing! -- cue the shitshow)" to "I like this point this person made and I like their data/viewpoint/style but I have a completely different conclusion that I want to enthusiastically and nonconfrontationally talk about!"

I routinely see even very big names on the internet simply quote another blog or article and proceed to rebut it directly and shitshow ensues, so I can't be the only person who struggles with this. But surely I am not the only person who wants to talk about stuff minus the full frontal assault and inevitable shitshow. What are things you do to mentally disengage from that kind of reactive writing and turn it into something more elegant and engaging?

Bonus points for how to reference the source material without making new enemies. (I am thinking of using, say, their supporting links and not referencing them directly at all but that strikes me as kind of disrespectful and I feel like people sometimes can tell if you did that and wind up feeling used and offended anyway. So I am hoping someone has better options than that.)

(Yes, I can sometimes pull this off currently -- on a good day, by the light of a full moon, after throwing salt over my shoulder and dancing a jig. But I would like to be able to do it more frequently and consistently.)

posted by Michele in California to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I would just write the essay you want to write, cite whatever sources you want, and don't quote anyone - and then add, either at the beginning or the end, something like "inspired by this excellent post" and link to the other one. In the various multi-site debates I've seen, that seems to be the way that draws the least ire.

Of course, the second half of that is to decide not to be drawn in when someone, maybe even the original poster, posts a point-for-point rebuttal either in the comments or on your site. That sort of back-and-forth feels a lot more personal, and it's hard to resist, but if you're trying to avoid that dynamic it's better to just let that go and, at most, post a follow-up a few days later clarifying your own points, again without quoting or being too specific about who you're aiming at.

Mefi's Own jscalzi is the master of this, actually, and I commend his blog to you as an example, although you will have to go digging to find some controversy (today's post title notwithstanding.)
posted by restless_nomad at 10:47 AM on October 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

I like how Andrew Sullivan does it. He just quotes an email that someone sent him that disagrees with him, calls it a dissent and offers very little commentary. He'll sometimes add a little disagreement afterwards, but almost never does a point by point rebuttal. If he gets a bunch of people disagreeing with him, he'll usually round them up into one big post and will clarify or modify what he said earlier in response to them.
posted by empath at 11:32 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've also seen this effectively done by taking a we're-all-in-this-together tone, and then writing a response that genuinely tries to move the joint discussion forward- basically proceeding under the good-faith assumption that everybody's honestly trying to figure out the same question, and framing the response in terms that are as constructive and irenic as possible.

Thus, for example, not X is completely misinformed about Factor Z, but I wonder how the argument would go differently with more attention to Z?

Likewise, not X is just using emotion instead of logic here, but While it's certainly an emotional issue, the focus on the affective side of things can tend to obscure what may be some important data points on the opposite side.

Not It's horrifying that X would suggest that A is more important than B, but I think X's argument highlights a really interesting difference in the fundamental premises on both sides of this issue.

And not X is lying about y, but I'm wondering about the status of the evidence on y.

Academic journal articles are (often) great at gracefully expressing friendly disagreement, if you're looking for inspiration. Of course, it helps if you actually believe that your opponents are, like you, fundamentally honest, smart, good-intentioned human beings just trying to figure stuff out as best they can. Because, well, that's probably true.
posted by Bardolph at 12:29 PM on October 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

You might find Michael Gilbert's book Coalescent Argumentation interesting. It treats arguments not as things you "win" by defeating your opponent, but as opportunities to come to a better understanding of different positions.
posted by atropos at 1:43 PM on October 16, 2012

I actually do treat arguments as debates and a chance to exchange information. This works really well with my adult sons, who see the world differently from me but have sincere respect for me (and I for them -- that respect runs both ways). However, I find that it is nigh impossible to replicate that pattern online where the social default tends towards antagonistic and both sides trying to defeat the other rather than share info for everyone's edification.

On the one hand, people are sometimes interested in things I know. On the other, what I know about some things so flies in the face of what they know to be true that I routinely wind up being pressed to "prove it, damn it!" under fairly openly hostile circumstances. I have long wanted to put the desired "proof" or supporting evidence/argument on a website in order to remove it from the adversarial climate of certain forums, but I remain stumped as to how to effectively do that.

Since I can't get anyone to genuinely engage me in serious discussion or debate, I remain stumped as to what points people need me to address. I am also clear that taking an adversarial "you are wrong and here is why" approach is simply not acceptable. So I am trying to work out how to use remarks from critics, especially good remarks, as a starting point in an inspirational manner, knowing that I am facing open hostility and must avoid engaging people in that way if I am to be heard at all.

But thanks much for the responses so far. I was very concerned there would be zero replies. (I have a long track record of asking questions people can't or won't answer.)
posted by Michele in California at 2:36 PM on October 16, 2012

It sounds like what you might actually need is a single-link collection of references, rather like a bibliography, that aggregates links and/or print citations to other sources of info. That would enable you to say "If you want to know more, here's a reading list" without really getting into an argument. (It should go without saying that to be convincing, the references are going to have to be to people who aren't you.)

But the other thing to keep in mind is that, unless you are debating about math, you can't actually "prove" anything. Even peer-reviewed medical studies are only evidence, not proof, and are nearly always the subject of debate. You can frame your opinion carefully, document your own experiences, and provide references to other useful sources, but none of that will actually force anyone to agree with you, ever. So the other half may be just recalibrating your sense of what is possible in online debate.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:11 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

To clarify:

I am not looking to force anyone to agree with me (and I know that detail about "proof", often better than my critics seem to). I am looking for a means to focus on solid information that at times gets presented by people who clearly vehemently disagree with me and somehow disengage from the overwhelming and obvious hostility (disrespect, etc ad nauseum) so that it becomes an opportunity to more effectively share information with those people who are, in fact, interested but do not currently find it useful or approachable.

I am currently at an impasse. Dissenters and critics are the only people giving me any feedback which might solve the underlying problem. But it is delivered in a manner which is extremely unconducive to being all chatty and enthusiastic about sharing. I am trying to figure out how to get there from here, how to disengage from that ugly piece of it mentally and socially so that something constructive can occur.

posted by Michele in California at 3:45 PM on October 16, 2012

I'm not sure it's possible to do alone. Is there any way you can take the conversation to a community where at least some other people have the same mindset as you? Even one other person interested in discussion over scoring points can be enough, I find.
posted by vasi at 5:48 PM on October 16, 2012

Hey, hanks, vasi. So far, I have found it impossible to do alone, so I can't say I disagree. But it is highly unlikely I can find a community or individual any time soon to do this with me in a meaty, meaningful way. I am not real comfortable getting into the whys and wherefores in this discussion at this time. I am still hoping more general suggestions pop up which might help me find a path forward.

I am currently finding myself exposed to good comments of the opposing view which make me want to say "that's a great point. Thank you for that. It is really helpful info. But..." However, I can't literally do that. I am hoping it can somehow be turned into blogging fuel without that somehow turning into a shitshow anyway, in spite of all attempts to avoid it.
posted by Michele in California at 6:01 PM on October 16, 2012

Could you be a bit more specific about (a) what audience you're envisioning for this writing, and (b) what purpose you'd like the writing to serve? That is, are you writing to the fighty people on the forum who disagree with you and dislike you-- or for other less-fighty non-forum people who nonetheless disagree with you-- or for people who agree with you but would find the fighty forumers' information useful? Or for somebody else entirely?

Likewise, given that audience, what are you hoping your writing will accomplish? Are you looking to defend your own views, to show them the flaws in theirs, to get them to leave you alone, to win respect in the community, to take community insights outside to more sympathetic individuals, or what?

I've been in a brawl or two too many of this sort, and I always found it useful to remember that respecting the other side partly means respecting the conversants' wider purpose for having the discussion, as well as the particular ideas being discussed. I read once that political opinions have far more to do with ingroup/outgroup signalling than they do with real ideology or reasoning about the world, and ime this is doubly true in an online environment. If your audience is mostly there for an exercise in identity solidification and community-building, then no amount of logic is going to make them want to collectively switch tracks to engage with outgroup ideas. Sure, "Prove it!" might mean "Please, be so kind as to share more of your evidence and reasoning!"... but it's just as likely to mean "Grrr, begone, Not-Us!" Before putting in a lot of work, it's worth thinking through what people are actually saying, and trying to frame your response accordingly.
posted by Bardolph at 6:26 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I want to write for people who are interested but don't currently find the information very helpful. Those people who are interested are generally too busy fanboi-ing to help me figure out what else I need to say in order to make the information more useful. My critics are often telling me exactly why the info fails, but in such a poison-pill manner that it is challenging to use it as a jumping off point.

Does that help? (I am trying really hard to not get too much into personal info here. I realize that makes it a bit harder to give feedback.)
posted by Michele in California at 6:39 PM on October 16, 2012

Michele in California: "But it is highly unlikely I can find a community or individual any time soon to do this with me in a meaty, meaningful way."

If there's not even a single person you can imagine this working with... well, I don't think it's possible to have a constructive conversation unilaterally. Sorry.
posted by vasi at 7:32 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Phew. So if I'm reading you correctly: you're, say, a baker of cakes, and you're involved in an online forum where most of the participants really love pie. When they write you and are all: DIE CAKE-IST BITCH, ALSO CAKE IS LIKE 500 CALORIES PER SLICE, you deplore their rhetorical excesses, but also think they make some valid nutritional points, which your fellow cake aficionados would do well to take on board.

And you'd like to write some sort of blog for cake lovers (who I guess meanwhile are all Cupcakes! Yummy! :-):-) ) tactfully rebroadcasting some of the pie-lovers' points about fat content and calories?

If that's the case, then you're not really rebutting the pie-lovers' arguments, are you? You're trying to use their info to help pro-cake people take a more informed perspective. If that's accurate, then I'd actually start off by trying to find a pro-cake (i.e., like-minded) post that's naively lacking in the information you want to present, and use that as a jumping-off point to an explanation of how the view could be better-informed. You can reference the pie-ist post in the course of your explanation (be very civil, make at least one compliment, and as someone said upthread, just link vs. quoting if the original post was rude), but the discussion you're having is really with those cake people who don't think enough about what's in their dessert. Thus:

Beth over at Sweet Treats has an interesting post on the virtues of cake as a breakfast food. I totally sympathize with those early-morning frosting cravings, but I wonder whether we cake-ists are always as careful as we should be to get our nutritional facts straight. During my time with the folks over at Pie World (a fantastic group of people, whom I'm honored to have as adversaries on this particular issue), I've been made aware of some interesting facts on that issue. For instance, did you know that apparently cake has 500 calories per slice (thanks PieLuvr1)?... and so forth.

If the pie-ists aren't your main audience for this writing, I'm not sure why it particularly matters what they think of you, but in any case it sounds as though you might be better off abandoning any vain hopes of converting them to cake-ism and just adopting a posture of open but non-argumentative and respectful disagreement-- sure, you're That Cake-Loving Girl in their pie forum, but you still respect and like pie-people, you've learned a lot from their conversations, and you hope they don't mind if you share some of their valid critiques with your fellow cake-ists.
posted by Bardolph at 6:36 AM on October 17, 2012

[Hey folks - this needs to be an "ask question and get answers" situation, not an ongoing chat about this topic. Please hit us up on the contact form if you have questions about this.]
posted by jessamyn at 9:07 AM on October 17, 2012

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