Reason and the Passions, How do I make one control the other?
July 21, 2011 2:51 AM   Subscribe

How do I apply critically reason to my own arguments when I'm emotional and engaged in discussion with others?

The situation is this:

I often find myself getting worked up over Internet arguments (I know I shouldn't, but I do). I jump into the arguments often for emotional reasons. I've noticed that in the days after the argument, not only did I sound irrational, but often the people I'm discussing an issue with tend to have reasoned arguments.

I'd like to stop this.

My goals are to: (1) Stop jumping into discussions on the Internet for emotional reasons. (2) If I do enter a discussion, I want to be able to critical reflect on my own opinions first, before I just fire away on the keyboard like a blathering idiot.

I know the obvious answer to (2) is to just read more critical reasoning and informal logic material, but it's the jump from emotional state to applying critical reasoning that I'm having trouble with.

I'd like advice, strategies, techniques, for reaching these goals. Thanks.
posted by ollyollyoxenfree to Human Relations (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The higher-level parts of the brain involved in reasoning and communication don't work so well if you're whipped into an emotional lather. This is true for everyone. The easiest, most effective solution is to to walk away from the computer until you've calmed down. Argue for points of view you care about, but not while you're actively wound up over them. Find something else to focus on for a while -- preferably exercise.
posted by jon1270 at 3:16 AM on July 21, 2011

Best answer: Walking away for a bit is the normal advice for a reason; it works really well. When I'm writing about a really stressful topic I'll work on what I'm writing for four or five hours in five minute bursts separate by long stretches of anything else. Switch tabs, read the news. Play a few levels of Angry Birds. Do a little actual-work. Physically walk away if it's really tough, take a shower, do a little stretching, get a glass of water, fold some laundry. Whatever gets you away from the environment where you were getting emotional and takes you back to an analytical mindset.
posted by anaelith at 3:41 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Type out your emotional response to get it out of your system but don't post it. Walk away for a few hours and then re-read what you've written, re-read what others have written. If you're still too emotional about it, close the tab and leave it alone.
posted by missmagenta at 4:33 AM on July 21, 2011

Best answer: Before posting, ask yourself the crucial question: "Why would an intelligent person disagree with me?"
posted by John Cohen at 5:11 AM on July 21, 2011

Best answer: listen twice as much as you speak
posted by sparkle55 at 5:15 AM on July 21, 2011

Best answer: Why and How to Debate Charitably
posted by martinrebas at 5:59 AM on July 21, 2011

Best answer: What the people recommending that you walk away are essentially saying is that you should avoid responding while you know you're being emotional. Walking away serves to give you a chance to cool down. They're right of course.

But you might also try to train yourself not to get emotional in the first place. Which sounds impossible, but isn't. This is the reason that so many non-doctors get mad when doctors talk about health care, or mad at lawyers when they talk about the law. Health and justice are two things that people can easily get emotional about, but professionals in those fields have trained themselves to be objective and to avoid personal involvement.

This can sound cold-hearted and impersonal, but it's actually an essential part of their jobs. If you can't deal with kids in pain, you can't be a pediatrician. If you can't deal with injustice, you can't be a lawyer. Especially in the law, emotional involvement on the part of a professional is a signal to other professionals that you're bad at your job. And not without reason. Emotional arguments may play well in front of a jury,* but they can get you slaughtered on motion practice before sensible judges. Similarly, physicians who get too emotionally attached to their patients can't give the best advice about when it's time to let go.

This whole process of essentially building up some emotional barriers to what can be pretty dreadful situations certainly has its uses, but unfortunately, it's a big reason why professional schools take so long. They aren't just about filling your head with a few pertinent facts and turning you loose; they're about turning you into the kind of person that can practice in these fields without being an emotional wreck. The people who can't do that tend not to make it through training.

That being said, there are things that you can do about this just in your personal life, particularly in contexts like arguing on the internet, where there's no real time pressure. Walking away is a great way to start. But as you learn to recognize when it's time to walk away, say to yourself, "Okay, this is something that makes me emotional. Last time this happened, I responded like x after cooling off a bit. I'm going to respond that way this time." With practice, you can habituate yourself to respond that way without needing to leave any time you get your dander up.

*Though even that can be a crap shoot. Not all juries are impressed by a sob story, and they can be downright vindictive if they think your client is being a whiner.
posted by valkyryn at 6:37 AM on July 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: The number one thing I've done for my own mental health in the past 15 years is to quit Facebook. I was getting to be the yelly guy - when friends of friends would post something teabaggy, I would fly into a rage, call them everything in the book, etc.

Finally, another friend responded to something and the episode was referred to as "pulling a [notsnot]" and I realized, the only way to win the game was to not play. This may be what you have to do.
posted by notsnot at 6:46 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In addition to walking away, ask yourself: How important is this argument? Is it worth the time and energy-suck I will put into it? Will it make any difference - am I going to convince this person of my point of view or will it be water off a duck's back?

Most internet arguments are just a bunch of hot air. No-one sees the other person's POV, no-one gets a thoughtful "a-ha" moment; it's just endless, tedious wankery and nitpicking and "so's your old man!" and it is a giant black hole of suck. I've learned to save my breath to cool my porridge, so to speak. I'm glad to give advice in a community like AskMeFi because people come here asking for advice.

But most yellers - whether of the political, religious, environmental or other persuasions - on the internet won't be convinced. They're invested in absolute, black-and-white, good-and-bad points of view, and they like to hear themselves yell. The best course I have found is just not to engage in internet arguments at all - whether it's atheism vs. religious belief or whether Hermione should be with Harry or Ron. It has saved me so much energy and time to just walk away from 99.9% of internet debates.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:39 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Believe me, I do this too! One thing I've found to be helpful when I've worked myself into a lather about something is to type out my response, and then DELETE DELETE DELETE. I couldn't count the number of times I've stretched the limits of a Metafilter comment box with the full knowledge that I was NEVER going to actually post the thing for public consumption!

If you don't trust yourself to actually use the comment box, where the "Post Comment" button shines like a beacon, open a Word document and type it there. Write it out longhand if that's what you prefer.

What I've found is that by the time I'm done with my screed on whatever, that's enough. It's not posting, or sending, or whatever the context may be - it's the expression of my emotional reaction that I'm really looking for in these situations. It's kind of akin to writing the angry, angst-filled letter to an ex that you know you're never going to send - it just helps to vent, and therefore diminish the power of those emotions so that you can put them aside and engage more rationally.
posted by deep thought sunstar at 10:46 AM on July 21, 2011

Best answer: One thing that helped me is to make friends with someone you disagree with, and argue with just that one person. In other words, practice (and practice, and practice) in a controlled, limited environment. I agree that writing without posting helps get the steam out-- but it doesn't help yourself to truly see your own errors. You just calm down, achieving apathy rather than rationality. I would not say that rationality is the default if you're not emotional; simply because you're saying something calmly doesn't make it rational, let alone logical. I'm here to tell you that it's possible for a passionate person to actually use reason as an impassioned offense/defense. It takes practice, though. But I can actually get better at reasoning when I'm upset sometimes, though by nature I'd just run away with my feelings. Why? It's a state of flow; you learn to channel your passion into greater virtuosity. Your emotion becomes a push to think harder, to utilize your whole brain.

One problem is that you think of it as applying reasoning, consciously separating step #1: reaction with step #2: reasoned analysis. This won't work, and even 'walking away' is a crutch, because what do you do when you fail to walk away? You're not actually learning any new strategies that way, just avoiding the internal conflict. So.

Find someone (or multiple someones) to talk/debate with that you generally know well and/or are friends with. That is to say, because you're friends, one presumes there's boundaries you won't cross-- no personal attacks, attacks on their reason/character, sudden false theorizing about their supposed background/views, etc. One major reason for error (I've found) is that it's all too easy to get upset at strangers who believe certain things. Ironically, you take it more personally 'cause you don't know them, so you project all sorts of bogeymen qualities/beliefs onto these people. They may represent everything that's ever annoyed you, and you don't know them well enough to situate any opinion in context. This so-called crazy idea is suddenly them, and that's just so wrong that you want to pound them into the ground, get carried away, etc.

The more you talk about your hot-button subjects to someone you know/like, the more you start to notice the unfounded assumptions you want to make about them, but then stop yourself because in this case you know better. You learn to always reflect to some degree because you have a habitual ease with thinking about these things you care about, and you have practice making that laborious connection, making your feelings translate into reasonable claims. One thing that really helps is an attitude of exploration; this is a friend helps, 'cause they may prod you towards that mind-space. You're more curious, wondering about why something is the way you think it is rather than failing to really consider it at all. Even if you think you know, you have to genuinely ask why, or you'll never say anything worth hearing. Someone who is used to genuinely asking 'why' can continue to ask it even if they're emotionally wound up-- you'd then passionately ask yourself why.

That is really the secret: everything else is gravy. The problem with people's arguments, bottom line, is that they fail to actually follow a train of thought. Somewhere along the line, the thread snaps, the train derails, or it never even gets going. Instead of a train of thought, what you have is an explosion. Why is irrelevant, of course it is, when you're just expressing yourself. The whole motivation of discourse has to change at the root. You're not expressing; you're questioning, and the expression is through the process of questioning: that's when you're rational. Literally any opinion you have-- any belief you have-- any thought you have-- unless it remains a process of question in your mind, you are not rational about it and never will be. Even if you once questioned it-- as soon as it becomes dogma, BOOM! You're wrong.

So yeah. It's hard! Rerouting your brain in some ways. But worth it.
posted by reenka at 1:56 PM on July 21, 2011

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