American the Beautiful: The good and the bad of debating online.

Within the past two weeks, students at Eastern have taken it upon themselves to stand up for what they believe in.  Since the launch of the newest petition on Eastern’s campus, students, both for it and against, have not held back in sharing what they think is the right course of action for the petition.  Some think it should be removed, others applaud the leaders behind the movement.  However, since the Instagram page launched, it has been a host of strong and heated debates. 

Now don’t get me wrong, I love a good debate.  I love how this country allows us to share what we think is right, and how others do not have to agree with us. This is one of those beautiful aspects that makes me think America is beautiful.  However, one thing I have always believed is that the comment section on a users’ Instagram page is not the best place for those discussions.  

When people start debating online, they lose sight of the fact that there is another human on the other side of that username.  It is not a bot, but a person. I have found that it is easier to insult someone online than in-person.  Personal attacks are easy when you cannot see the person’s reaction.  However, this does not make it right.
Debating online is one of those things that you have to be very careful about while doing it.  If you lose sight of your goal, you can end up pushing yourself over the line.  But I want to back track here, what is the goal of debating online? Is it to teach others about your viewpoint? Is it to learn about another’s viewpoint? Is it to completely annihilate another person and make them look small?  The goal of debating online is to learn more about another’s position. 

Whenever I find myself in a debate, whether that is online or in-person, I make it my goal to understand what the other person is saying and try and repeat it back to them. This way, when I bring my counter argument up, I can establish that I understand what they mean, and then I can show them what I mean.  I also find that this eliminates the need to interrupt the other person because they are saying  something that does not fall under what you said.  

I would think this would be really easy to do online, however, it is just the exact opposite.  When people share their argument in-person, the listener is able to clearly hear what they are saying, listen to the way they pronounce each word, and the nonverbals the speaker conveys.  All of these instances help us understand what the other speaker is saying.  However, in an online setting, it is harder to understand the person’s attitude toward the topic and how they feel about conversing with you. 

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are debating online, ask yourself the question, is it possible for me to continue this conversation in-person? If you know this person outside of the social media world, I encourage you to ask them if they want to get coffee to discuss more.  This gives both of you time to think about your position, research it and figure out how to communicate in a respectful manner.  

In addition, our goal should also be to understand how the other individual feels about the topic.  As for my last point, if we truly want to “educate” people, stop trying to win debates. Instead, show up to learn about their experiences that lead them to these feelings, and try to help them see the world through your lens.  Calling people names and ganging up on each other is going to get us nowhere.

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