How to Argue with Friends and Family on Social Media

Illustration of black cat screaming

This post is part of a series on rhetoric. You can find a directory post here, or check out the links at the end of this post for more reading about rhetoric!

How many Facebook fights have you gotten into lately?

Be honest, now.

Frankly, there’s a lot to be angry about in the world right now. Black people are being murdered by the police, governments are failing to protect their citizens in a global pandemic, and the ultra-rich are only getting richer while US unemployment rates soar to the highest they’ve been since the Great Depression.

So, yeah, a lot of us are angry and feeling feisty enough to tackle the beliefs on friends and family members with whom we don’t quite see eye to eye.

But again, be honest. How many of those fights did you win?

Do you want to win more? Read on.

The Argument Clinic

There’s this old Monty Python sketch that I used to show students in my writing classes to introduce the idea of argument.

Michael Palin walks into John Cleese’s office to have an “argument clinic,” but all that happens in his session is a long series of contradictions—not arguments.

So, then, what is an argument, if it isn’t just saying “yuh-huh” and “nuh-uh” at each other over and over again? Well, one way to define it is just as Michael Palin says in the Monty Python sketch, “A collective series of statements to establish a proposition.” Technically, it doesn’t even require any kind of contradiction or negation. In an argument thusly defined, you make a claim and support that claim with evidence.

But you didn’t come here to learn how to make a claim and support it with evidence, did you? You came to learn how to pwn n00bs online.

Pwning the n00bs Online

Actually, I’m sure most, if not all, of your arguments with friends and family have been in good faith. Maybe in some cases, especially if you’re really riled up, you just want to pwn the n00bs, and that’s understandable, but I know a lot of people spend their time arguing with people on the internet because they genuinely want to spark some belief change. You hope that if you present enough evidence, your audience will come around to the claim you’re making, whether it’s that yes, black lives do matter, yes, wearing a mask does help stop the spread of coronavirus, or yes, the climate is changing and that’s bad.

But if your experiences are anything like mine, you may have been met with quite a bit of resistance, despite how much evidence you provide your audience. And now for the million dollar question:

Why?!

Why, when presented with what feels like mountains of evidence, do some people not change their beliefs?

Spoiler alert: it’s not because of ignorance, even though that’s often easy to blame. We like to think that if we just educate people enough, they’ll come around to our position. And sometimes that happens. But often, it does not. Why is that the case?

How Stasis Can Help Us Understand the Opposition

There’s this concept in rhetoric called stasis. No, I’m not talking about the stasistool in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. In that game, you can use stasis to freeze an object in time. You can use it to stop enemies in their tracks or hack away at them while their frozen in place. 10/10 pretty useful tool.

But in rhetoric, stasis is something different. Rhetoricians in ancient Greece and Rome used it as a strategy for coming up with persuasive arguments. But we can also use it to help figure out why our arguments may not be as persuasive as we’d like.

So what is it, exactly? The theory of stasis basically says that there are four categories of argument: conjecture, definition, quality, and policy.

  • Conjecture: Does something exist? What happened?
  • Definition: How do we define the phenomenon in question?
  • Quality: Is the thing good or bad? How important is it?
  • Policy: What should we do about the thing?

These four categories are ordered, meaning that in order to be persuasive about policy, your audience must already agree with you about the conjecture, definition, and quality of your particular issue. Otherwise, there’s no way your audience will find your arguments about policy persuasive.

Let’s walk through an example. What’s a good, relevant topic? Ooh, I know! Climate change. I’ll list out some questions for each category of stasis, and talk through possible disagreements we might encounter in each category.

Conjecture: Does climate change exist? There’s lots of scientific evidence that suggests that it does, but many people still question that evidence. They disagree that climate change exists.

Definition: Is climate change man-made? Here is a crucial point in climate change debates. Some people agree that the climate is changing, but disagree that it was caused by human impacts on the environment.

Quality: Is climate change good or bad? Is it important? It’s possible to think that climate change is both real and caused by humans, but think it’s not an important issue to address. Someone with this position may think that humans will adapt, like Ben Shapiro’s misguided belief that people in low-lying coastal areas affected by climate change will “just sell their homes and move.” (The implication being, NBD.)

Policy: What should we do about climate change? Some people think we should do things like ban plastic straws, despite how important they are to some disabled people. Others think we should focus our efforts more corporate regulation.

So, then, stasis can help us think through each of these categories so that we can identify where, precisely, we disagree with each other. If we understand where exactly we are disagreeing, then we can hopefully better figure out how to come to a consensus.

Hopefully.

Stasis Shows the Sticking Points

The biggest way stasis theory is helpful in diagnosing online arguments, I think, is its progressive nature. Not progressive like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but progressive in terms of movement. Again, according to stasis, before you can even talk about questions of policy, you and your audience first have to agree on questions of conjecture, definition, and policy. In other words, if your audience doesn’t believe climate change exists, there’s no sense in trying to convince them to put solar panels on their roof.

So, what have been the sticking points of your arguments recently? Were you and your audience disagreeing about the same thing, or were you actually stuck in different levels of stasis? Do you have a better idea of how to meet your audience “where they’re at” in terms of being persuasive? Let me know in the comments!

Like this post? Want to learn more about rhetoric? Check out the other posts in this series:

Like my blog as a whole? You can follow me here or on Facebook for regular blog updates, or you can buy me a coffee! I’d be much obliged!