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Fighting on Twitter Doesn’t Have to Make You a Loser

Twitter has made me a better person.

I’ve long been a reluctant soldier in the unwinnable battle between the left and the right, with my views entrenching me firmly in Camp Liberal. That has not changed. I still believe in social safety nets, civil rights, and all those other politically correct ideals that make Ann Coulter call me a “libtard”. While I have never believed that snark and derision belong in civil discourse, I have admittedly been stubbornly self-assured that my beliefs are 100%, totally, irrefutably correct, and my opponents close-minded, or misguided at best.

Mostly, I still am. But I am growing, and I owe it to Twitter.

I have had a Twitter account since 2009. Until about six months ago, I rarely used it, and then only to follow my college’s sports teams. I knew a lot of celebrities used it, but that did not draw me. I had no idea that Twitter was such a thriving, vibrant, and diverse medium of political ideas and debate. At the urging of a friend, I followed a few journalists, pundits, politicians, and regular folks with lots of opinions. That same friend gave me great advice: don’t let your Twitter feed be an echo chamber.  Follow those with whom you disagree. And I did.

I am a lawyer, which means I argue for a living. I adore a good debate, and I will see it through doggedly to the sometimes bitter end. Twitter presented a new arena, a cornucopia of opportunities to debate important issues with people equally up to the task. I expected my interactions with them would require me to elevate both my debate and writing game; it is no easy task to craft a cogent and persuasive argument in 280 characters. What I did not expect was to be swayed in my allegedly steadfast beliefs.

In analyzing the ideas tweeted by my conservative follows, I found myself rethinking my own positions. Not necessarily the ultimate conclusions, but at least the basis for them. I learned, for example, that conservatives want to reduce the money spent on social welfare programs because they favor smaller government and more localized or private solutions, not because they are greedy or heartless (not all of them, anyway). They don’t “hate poor people”; they just want to incentivize them to succeed. I do not necessarily agree with their premises, but understanding has gone far in changing my mind about “the other side”.

debate photo

I have earned some follow-backs from my ideological counterparts, a fact of which I am quite proud. In such a polarized environment, it is a feat of strength to make your adversaries want to hear what you have to say. I suspect my success in that regard is owed to certain rules of engagement to which I generally adhere in debate:

  1. Stick to what you know, and never argue from a place of ignorance.
  2. Don’t guess at statistics or cite dubious or partisan sources.
  3. Avoid sarcasm and personal insults.
  4. Concede points when warranted.

These practices have enabled me to carefully ponder and actually learn from the points made by my debate opponent, rather than just dismissively volleying back my counterpoint. Following these rules can be difficult when the other side doesn’t — especially those last two. It is easier once you realize that it is not “losing” to admit that the other person has a point you had not considered, or even that you are wrong.

I have gotten better at this on Twitter, in part because I want to keep things friendly in order to maintain my Twitter friendships with people who disagree with me. The side effect of that has been a new understanding, new perspectives and in a few rare instances, a new opinion.

This does not apply across the board. Some folks are simply not interested in civil discourse.  Some who usually practice civility are unable to on certain issues. Indeed, there are some areas of debate into which I will not enter, because I know the outcome is not going to be favorable, no matter what. I know when I’m likely to end up with my emotions inflamed or inflame someone else’s. I avoid those topics. And that’s fine; it is not necessary to fight every battle.

Make new friends (on Twitter), but keep the old (on Facebook)…

My Twitter feed is almost entirely comprised of people I’ve never met. This allows me to interact and debate in a way that Facebook does not. First, these conversations, no matter how tactful I try to be, would cause rifts between me and people I know personally and love. Secondly, people on Twitter by and large also enjoy the debate, and I choose to follow those who are intellectually up for the challenge. I have carefully curated a list of follows of some brilliant, insightful conservatives. Certainly, I also follow some liberals — it can be nice to have back up sometimes. I have made new friends, and not necessarily with like-minded people. I may never meet them face to face, but they are nonetheless friendships in their own right

Social media certainly has many negatives, but it is not hard to avoid the toxicity. I take advantage of the mute and block features for people who do not add much of value to my timeline. The “mute words” function is a great way to avoid topics that would tempt me to engage in nonconstructive ways or just to avoid topics that do not interest me (for instance, “Tomi” or “Kanye”).

Arguing on the Internet is not the most productive thing to do. However, it is not a waste of time if it sharpens –and opens — my mind. And if it does even a little to foster understanding and mend the rift between left and right, it is worth every character I type.


Senior Editor
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Em was one of those argumentative children who was sarcastically encouraged to become a lawyer, so she did. She is a proud life-long West Virginian, and, paradoxically, a liberal. In addition to writing about society, politics and culture, she enjoys cooking, podcasts, reading, and pretending to be a runner. She will correct your grammar. You can find her on Twitter.

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40 thoughts on “Fighting on Twitter Doesn’t Have to Make You a Loser

  1. Careful — I entered the political netosphere 15 years ago from the door to the left, then started actually reading & talking with conservatives and libertarians, and now I don’t believe anything anymore.

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    • I’ve had almost exactly the opposite experience, entering near the middle and steadily being moved left, as much by conversations with conservatives and libertarians as anything else.

      And not because they were all jerks (though I can’t deny some real jackasses contributed), but because a lot of the ones who were (as far as one can tell based on an impression over the ‘Net) really solid people clearly articulated values that don’t resonate with me in the slightest.

      So you know.

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        • It was a mix. I’ve always been really liberal on social issues, but didn’t necessarily realize that. The biggest contributor to the recalibration side of things was probably the debate over gay rights, though. I’ve always found the arguments against that not only wrong, but mystifying.

          I’ve gotten a lot less interested in fiscal conservatism.

          Oh, and I went from being hardcore in favor of gun control to squishily opposed, but that’s hardly an example of leftward motion.

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    • This sums it up for me also. I come from a seriously liberal family, mom, and grandpa born and raised in the Berkeley hills. I don’t think my beliefs have really changed, more clarified, but the Left has moved very left. I think cultural hegemony has done this in large part.

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    • I strongly believe this is a 50/50 thing – since, I’ve argued with conservatives and libertarians for over a decade, and only become more sure of my social democratic leanings. I’ve become a little softer on free trade, but that’s about it

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  2. A fine post but as an internet old timer who made his bones debating in comment sections on blogs it makes my skin crawl to think that tumblr, Facebook and urk… twitter, are where people are learning to argue now. God(ess?) Help us.

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    • Fair enough (though I would not say I learned how to argue on Twitter). But really, having engaged on tumblr, FB and Twitter, I can say that the most constructive dialogue is by far on Twitter. FB is too personal with family and friends and crazy Aunt Edna, and tumblr… well, it is gross (I mean, just an absolute pool of filth.) Twitter has some very smart people and if you follow the right ones, you get some good analytical brain exercise.

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      • Character limits are a diamond hard pass for me. Pure poison. I tend to be verbose and in my uninformed opinion that mandated brevity poisons everything resembling thought on twitter from the idiocy of hashtags, the mendacity of gif posting to the pulsing need for brief clever quips that can fit into a post. Oh and the insanity of the twitter rant; if your thoughts dont fit into twitter post size then why the hell are you posting on twitter???

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        • I actually enjoy the challenge of finding a way to make a complete and cogent point within the confines of the character limit. It’s good practice for legal writing, where “concise” is the gold standard.

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            • You make an interesting point, but I feel compelled to push back against it. There are several factors you may not have considered about the unique nature of Twitter as, essentially, a broadcast medium, that suggest the emphasis on brevity is misplaced. In reality… 1/329

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              • Homer: (writing on his hand) Mindy, because of our uncontrollable attraction, I think we should avoid each other from now on.
                Lenny: (writing on his hand) Max, what I did was because of alcohol and anger…
                Guy with huge hand: (writing on his hand) I am tired of these jokes about my giant hand. The first such incidence occurred in 1956 when…

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          • I think I agree with North, Burt, and Em here. Brevity and concision are great, but with North, I’d say the character limit is an invitation to abandon nuance, etc. I remember one person who (in my opinion, from reading his blog) was a very thoughtful writer, but who, when I read his tweets, came off as smug jerk, even when he was making basically the same points.

            However, while I’ve read a few tweets here and there, I’ll admit I’ve never really given twitter a chance.

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            • The character limit can be invitation to abandon nuance, but if you take it as a creative challenge it can also be a good thing; refining a thought to its absolute bare minimum is always a good writing exercise. I try to think of it like the old composition exercises where they had to take all the articles and connecting phrases out and then re-read and see if you actually needed them or if it was just wordy fluff. So it’s in how you approach it.

              Nuance is a fair point. Happened to me last night with people who I daily interact with, something was taken the wrong way. It was quickly worked out, but even amongst friends who are familiar with things like your humor and sacrasm nuance can get lost really quickly.

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  3. I cannot abide intellectual dishonesty or deliberate obtuseness. Engaging with my ideological opposition has helped me to drill down to the heart of the disagreement in a way that catch phrases and protest signs cannot. It takes a bit of reading between the lines, though, and a willingness to dive beyond the superficial, but doing so also helps me to clarify my own positions. It helps shore up my more nebulous opinions and sometimes knocks out the foundations of others. Even if I don’t change my mind, I often end up on more solid ground, with stronger arguments. In turn, it makes the “other side” either work harder to justify their own beliefs with facts and logic, or weeds out those who cannot. Win/win.

    (I’ll always be liberalish though, for reasons I will probably pontificate about in long form at some point.)

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  4. What stands out to me is that I could have probably written more or less the same piece but in describing Ordinary Times. That indicates to me it is less about the what/where and more about the who.

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  5. Great piece. I’ve been doing this online since Usenet days, and since many of us live in bubbles, it is one of the best ways to learn about how the other N% think and feel. (Which can be both educational and depressing as hell.)

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  6. I don’t mean this snottily, so sorry if it comes off this way, but are you saying that up until 6 months ago you thought that conservatives hate poor people – or at minimum, you hadn’t encountered the argument in favor of small government and charity at the local and private levels?

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    • That was a bit of hyperbole, but I will say I have heard a lot of talk about lazy people, bootstraps etc that had little regard for individual circumstances, with local solutions and smaller government argued more as an afterthought than a motivating factor.

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      • It’s been my experience that 99.5% of my liberal chums (since I’m more conservative-ish) really do think that anyone who ID’s as conservative or libertarian do so because they hate poor people. But I am who I am politically in large part because I truly think smaller government is better for the poor than big government policies.

        It’s always felt very ironic to me to be lectured by people who are almost always far better off than I am about how I hate the poor.

        Really enjoyed the piece, Em!

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        • Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
          I can only speak for myself here, but I feel like the problem is too big for local and private solutions, and I have my doubts about relying on the generosity of individuals (its surprising how much my liberalism is influenced by a general lack of faith in people- I struggle there). So, if a person is convinced that big government programs are the only way, and someone says “I don’t want my tax dollars paying for…” then assuming ill will is a logical, if lazy, inference. I know enough caring and compassionate conservatives to make me discard that conclusion, even if I was inclined to accept it in the first place.

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          • It’s interesting you say that because that’s very much how I feel as well – a general lack of faith in people leads me to have serious doubts about them being put in charge of government programs and absolutely influences my libertarianism.

            I truly believe that people on both sides of the aisle are very similar, just that we come at the problems from different angles.

            Looking forward to reading more from you!

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  7. I live with liberals, socialists, and a variety of left/left of center/left wackos…basically everything that’s left of center. The “republicans” here are basically left of center.

    I go online to read about non leftish opinions. Why would I ever want to engage with folks on social media….it’s the devil. I do it in person. Target rich environment if I want to talk about politics.

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  8. I love arguing on Twitter and have had only a few really bruising sequences I really regret – and I’m not anywhere close to adhering to a single one of those four rules (Holy crap, those are TOUGH!). My worst experiences by far have been in comments sections where I can get myself in much more comprehensive, empirically-supported trouble than I can in 280 characters, and endure much more well-crafted and justified assaults upon my character and rhetorical skills. So who knows.

    Kidding aside, these are good (but pretty unobserved on Twitter: don’t expect reciprocity) rules for discourse, and I’m glad you find Twitter to be worthwhile. I was an early evangelist for it in these comments; unfortunately that presaged my own eventual departure-for-the-most-part from this place. For me the immediately obvious value of Twitter was the iterativeness: nowhere else can you get such varied and high-volume interaction on an idea from people who think at the pace of the internet, and with the knowledge often of academia and the professions. Blogs really just can’t compare: the only people at a blog are the people at the blog, whereas everyone’s on Twitter, and on blogs nobody faces a character limit, so people’s thoughts are totally unedited (mine especially). Twitter’s efficiency at clearing ideas can’t be challenged except by another version of it. That being said, most of my interactions on Twitter are with people I used to discuss things with on here. It’s sad, but there it is.

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  9. I’m just now getting to this thread, Em. The four rules/steps you provide are a really good way to approach many potentially adversarial conversations. I never follow them perfectly, but if I followed them more consistently, I’d probably learn more and others might learn more from me.

    I’ll add something, and this is more about terminology and my own priors than anything substantive you’ve said. I have a personal tendency to dislike framing things as “debate” or “argument.” Not that I’ve never done so, but to me “debate,” “argument,” and other similar terms imply victors and losers in a way that’s not usually helpful. In part, that’s because I’m not a very good “debater” and tend to either lose or get too emotional, which is a form of losing. 90% of that is all on me, of course.

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    • I don’t see it quite that way, maybe due to my training and profession. I don’t see argument as a negative; I am “arguing” when I’m in court, strenuously debating opposing counsel point for point in hopes of persuading the judge to see it my way. I suppose there is a “loser”, in a sense, and sometimes that’s me, but I don’t take it personally.
      If I strayed from those rules when arguing in court, I would get my ass handed to me, and I would deserve it.

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