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How to Avoiding Arguing in Bad Faith in 13 Steps


It is easy to assume the worst in people when discussing politics, philosophy, religion, or any other heated topic in person or online. This type of blatant cynicism leads to hostile interactions that needlessly interfere with the quest for truth. So, in an attempt to shift the narrative in online and personal communication, a couple members of the Reddit community put together a great list on “how to avoid arguing in bad faith.” Read it and let us know in the comment section what you think. Certain points were edited for clarity.

Thus begins the list of things to avoid:

Number 1: Asserting with certainty things that are open to question. For instance, “I know Jesus is god and any claim against that is untrue,” or the contrary “I know Jesus is not god and any claim against that is untrue.

Another instance would be, “Government officials always have our best interest in mind,” or the contrary “Government officials are all evil.”

Number 2: Responding to objections to these assertions with mere repetitions and/or restatements without giving consideration to the objections. For instance, saying “I have considered your claims and don’t think they have any merit,” without providing why they are without merit, is not arguing in good faith).

Number 3: Outright dismissal of provided evidence. Demands for more evidence that fits whatever magical conditions they have in mind that’s ‘good enough’ for their hyperskepticism.

Number 4: A refusal to explicitly state what you would deem acceptable evidence.

Number 5: Demanding that others spend time educating you when a half hour on Wikipedia will do the job just as well.

[Ed Note: If you're going to tell someone to go away and do some reading before coming back, it's probably best if you actually tell them what to read. Unless they're trolling, linking them to a source would be considerate. This also helps to decrease the likelihood that they'll spend the next half hour reading a straw man of the concept you want them to understand. (And remember the burden of proof!)]

Number 6: Any variation on “You’re wrong because I’m right!” or “My way or the highway.” Note that “You’re wrong because of x, y, and z” is not prohibited. You can call someone wrong, but you have to back yourself up with why they’re wrong.

Number 6a: Refusing to even entertain the possibility that other people’s take on a situation may be valid and that there is not necessarily ONLY ONE valid way to tackle a problem/view an issue.

Number 7: When multiple people are saying that there is something seriously wrong with your point (or even just how you’re presenting your point), you don’t assume that EVERYONE ELSE is wrong or not understanding your Super Intelligent And Reasonable Point. In these cases it is most likely that: 1) You are lacking critical evidence/using bad evidence to form your “reasonable” argument, or 2) Failing to understand a critical perspective (or perspectives) that either contradict your evidence or show that there are more valid options than just your argument. In other words: You need to be able to demonstrate that you are willing to consider yourself wrong and entertain the possibility that, even IF you’re right, others CAN ALSO be right. Not everything is a binary 1 or 0/yes or no/right or wrong type situation.

Just as a personal aside, something I have learned through the various fights I’ve had on the internet: It is often better to be fair than to be “right”. What this means is that, even if you think the person you’re arguing with is WRONGITY-WRONG-WRONG, it is often less productive to double down on your point (because I’m RIGHT and they’re WRONG!) and instead to do things like ask questions and try to understand why they’re taking the position they do. Not only does this allow you to better tailor your arguments to them (instead of just doing the equivalent of shouting I’M RIGHT YOU’RE WRONG I’M RIGHT YOU’RE WRONG WRONG WRONG), but it also leaves open the possibility to find out that there were things that they were “right” about.

Obviously “fair” doesn’t mean “must listen to anyone who spouts any kind of bullshit no matter what”. When it’s an argument you’ve heard over and over and over and over and over again, the next person who makes it is 99% of the time already coming from a perspective you understand. Like, when gamers use gendered slurs in games (or on gaming blogs) I don’t need to ask them why they think that it’s ok to do that (although, depending on the person/situation, it can be useful), because I’ve heard every argument under the sun. So if/when I decide to engage, it’s not a “right or fair” deal, but rather a “do I want to make a point for the lurkers or try and get this person to understand where I’m coming from?” decision.

Number 8: Do not assume that your argument is “objective”. Recognize that you are a human being who brings your own biases into a conversation and even when your argument is supported by facts that does not mean that it is objective. Facts can be objective; the conclusions that we draw for them can’t be.

Number 8a: “Objective” is not another way of saying “correct” and “subjective” is not another way of saying “incorrect”. It is probably most helpful to look at “objective” as observations that are value neutral (“water is wet”) and “subjective” as the conclusions we draw from our observations (“water should be a basic right because people will die without it”).

Number 9: Don’t use claims of “logic” or “reason” to shield yourself from criticism. Just because YOU think that your argument is “logical” or “reasonable” (or, conversely that another person or persons’ argument is “illogical” or “unreasonable”) does not mean that your assessment of the situation is correct.

Number 10: Coming to a thread with the attitude (stated or implied) that you will be attacked by the mean forum goers is toxic to productive discussion. It is also a pretty common trolling tactic, where the troll “predicts” that they will get shit for daring to disagree with the community, proceeds to engage in several bad faith tactics, and then jumps in with “SEE, JUST LIKE I PREDICTED!” when they are called out by the community and/or banned. They use this to justify their original position on the community, and will sometimes point to the thread as “evidence” while commiserating with their buddies about how horribly they were treated.

Number 11: Communication involves two people. This means that what you intend to say is not always what you end up actually saying to the person or people listening to you. When you’re told that you’re coming across in a certain way, DO NOT assume that the listener(s) are the ones having the communication fail (this is especially true if multiple people are saying that they heard “x” when you thought you said “y”). In this case it is best for you to try and figure out where the disconnect happened (rereading arguments and asking for clarification–understanding that no one is obligated to give it to you– are good ways of doing this) and then figure out how you can communicate in a mutually understandable way.

Number 12: Do not hide behind vague, all-encompassing ideologies. [Ed note: Do not defend or condemn ideologies if you are not certain what those ideologies are.]

I have seen two cases of this, one from a self-identified conservative and another from someone who claimed not to be a conservative but was still defending it. In the former case, there wasn’t even a discussion, just bloviating about how there’s so many liberals here and will the poor conservative be accepted. In the latter case, the defender of conservatism was forced to create a fairy-tale construction of history just to defend the basic conservative ideology, and paid absolutely no mind to how conservative politicians have always been against any form of social justice where specific issues are concerned; they’ve just “moderated” their language as their privileges have been eroded.

Number 13: You are more likely to have positive interactions with people if you learn the standards and conventions of the community before posting, especially if it’s on a thread where hostilities have already occurred. Lurking is a great way to do this, but learning the “flavor” of the community is not enough. When watching people communicate with each other, try to see what kinds of words/phrases get positive responses versus which ones get negative responses.

The basic idea is: Think of your internet conversations and forums you like as a dinner party. When you go to a dinner party it’s with the expectation that you will be respectful to your host(s) and their guests. Coming to the party with a bad attitude, being rude to the guests, insulting the host, or shitting all over the house (even if you’re being perfectly polite to everyone!) are all things that will get you thrown out of a party. If you wouldn’t do them there, don’t do them here.