Why Don’t We Have More Productive Conversations Online?

A couple of months ago, Robby Bensinger defended Sam Harris against his critics’ charges of Islamophobia and he was still doing it a couple of weeks ago.

But the biggest question he’s left with after all of that back-and-forth is: Why were those conversations so unproductive? He’s intelligent. His opponents are intelligent. So why did it feel like they were talking past each other so much of the time? Why did it feel like both sides were more interested in scoring “points” rather than coming to a better understanding of the other side and (possibly) modifying their own opinions?

(Anyone else feeling déjà vu?)

Robby’s learned four key lessons from his recent interactions and they’re ones that we can all learn something from. I found myself nodding furiously at this one:

Starting a direct conversation, ideally someplace private, makes it easy for people to change their minds without immediately worrying about their public image. It lets them explain their position, if you’ve misunderstood something. And it establishes a more human connection, encouraging learning and collaboration rather than a clash of egos.

This is *so* important. It’s now the first thing I do when I hear someone I respect say something I find infuriating. I double-check that they actually said it and I raise my issues with them privately before I go public with anything, just in case their response is something I ought to consider.

Once you start going criticizing someone publicly, the chance for any sort of reconciliation is all-but-lost, especially when both sides have their pride at stake.

I wish I could say atheists are better at this sort of civil debate because we’re supposed to be rational people… but you all know damn well that doesn’t happen. Read Robby’s piece and think about his lessons before you pick a fight with someone online. None of it is to say you shouldn’t have these battles online, but there are some things you can do beforehand to make sure the discussions are productive… at least if that’s what you’re really after.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Pluto Animus

    It’s simple.

    Some Liberals are actually ideologues with regard to certain topics. Such Liberals believe that all religions are harmless or even good, without exception.

    But most Liberals who are atheists are more dedicated to understanding the world empirically. We’ve carefully, honestly examined the evidence, and found Islam to be particularly evil, based on its own sacred writings and practices.

    Clueless, traditional Liberals think that valid criticism of Islam is an act of bigotry. But it’s that kind of thinking that is actually an act of intellectual dishonesty — and cowardice.

    So some Liberals can lie to each other (and themselves) as effectively as those scumbag conservatives do every goddamn day.

  • C Peterson

    People have productive conversations online all the time. It’s done by the single most important tool of the Internet, email (which is all too often taking a back seat to social media these days).

    It is a mistake is to call what happens in an online forum like this “conversation” or “debate”. It is neither. Forums like this are useful for building communities. They are useful for getting ideas out into the public domain. But they do not, and cannot settle intellectual or emotional arguments, because that’s not how humans work!

    And IMO, it is another mistake to consider online discussions “unproductive” because issues don’t get settled. That shouldn’t be seen as the goal. Forums are successful when a lot of smart people voice a lot of interesting ideas (forcefully sometimes, uncivilly sometimes). Because they- and especially the larger community of lurkers- are exposed to different views, which is the first step in expanding world views.

  • watcher_b


    When I was involved in discussing religion on forums back in the day it was never my goal to change the mind of the person who I was talking to. It was to present my side to the people who were not talking.

    It seems to me that this is how organized debates go as well. Neither side is going to change their mind, but they are there to present their case to the audience who may have their minds changed (or at least learn something new about the other side). It is why William Craig is such a good debater. He barely addresses his opposition and focuses on converting the audience.

  • Jasper

    Agree. I’d even argue that it’s more productive, because instead of trying to change on person’s mind at a time, we’re affecting hundreds to thousands – those people who aren’t doubling down on their position because all eyes are on them.

  • onamission5

    One reason that people do not necessarily like taking loaded conversations somewhere private is that it’s really difficult to be an army of one defending your own basic humanity against the status quo. My humanity is non-negotiable, there’s nothing to debate, and I am not going to give those who think otherwise the gift of plausible public deniability/respectability.

    Sometimes, asking people to go off in private and be “civil” is akin to asking LGBT rights orgs to sit down and convo with Westboro Baptist so they can work out a compromise that non-LGBT folks are comfortable with. If you’ve got no skin in a game, you don’t get to dictate rules of play. (to use a positively horrible metaphor)

  • Robby Bensinger

    This is an excellent point, and I very much agree with you and C Peterson. In fact, this is the third of the four ‘lessons’ I listed in my blog post. As Hemant notes, e-mail is a much better place to change minds (and have your mind changed in turn), because your public persona isn’t at immediate risk. But, as Greta’s noted, e-mail is also a less efficient way to spend your time. You can’t reach many people, and audiences usually gain more from debates than the debaters do. Hmm…

    A solution: If you’re worried a discussion might go south, start it in e-mail and then move it to the public only after laying a solid foundation of burning hot reasonableness.

    I also agree that whether issues get completely resolved isn’t the right measure of ‘productivity’. A better measure is how high in substance (and low on exasperated confusion) the dispute is.

  • Antdrew

    We should be able to see the truth, no matter how it is delivered.

  • Agrajag
  • Robby Bensinger

    That would be… almost unimaginably wonderful. I wish brains worked like that!

    Humans are kind of terrible at truth. It takes a whole lot of training and debugging to counteract our innate biases and our acquired prejudices.

  • sane37

    Some people use the word “Liberal” in a derogatory way. Islam = Christianity = Judaism = religion. All religion is potentially harmful. All good deeds can be achieved without religion.
    Islam is not more evil than any other religion. The sheep are as easily manipulated whichever religion they decide to follow.

  • Rain

    That’s fine for you big shots, but us little peeps out here ain’t going to go around emailing each other all day. In fact most of us would find it kind of odd if someone asked us to carry on in private emails. So presumably this must be a meta-post for the big shot blogger people who could instead have just emailed this post to each other. (Only kidding!)

  • baal

    When a loud plurality actively supports public shaming as a primary tool for social norms policing and enforcement, productive conversations are not possible. Their goal is adherence to set behavioral standards (which ‘ends’ I generally agree with) rather than truth, decency, or even humanism (writ broadly). The same folks downplay, ignore or deny the potential harms of this approach and never seek better options, critique their own effectiveness and do not mitigate unexpected local harms.

    Worse, the same folks actively rail against the principle of charity.

    I am not saying shut up and sit down as I’ve seen any number of bloggers (including dan finke and greta christina) strongly criticize (eviscerate even) people in ways that their targets would admit were fair. “because I have a strong emotion” is not a get out of jail free card.

    /end broad brush polemic and no, this topic is not one I’m willing to reply to comments about. If you want me to take your complaint seriously, send it to the email I use for discus.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Controversially, Næss has also suggested that the earth’s human population should be reduced to about 100 million.[16]

    The guy must have thought he was God.

  • Robby Bensinger

    Yeah, this might not scale perfectly. If your public forum is low-profile enough, you get some of the benefits of e-mail by default anyway. Perhaps a good rule of thumb is: If you’re taking the time to write a highly critical blog post, it’s probably worth spending an extra few minutes to talk to the people you’re criticizing first; whereas if you’re just writing a quick short blog comment, that may not be necessary. (Though sometimes it still helps a lot. I do this on Facebook all the time, when a conversation gets heated.)

    But it’s important to keep comment discussions from imploding too. We may just need to brainstorm other tricks for keeping rapid-fire public conversations substantive. The Julia Galef video I embedded has a lot of those — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fLG0kkgnRkc — and I’d be very interested to hear others.

  • C Peterson

    But religion is “evil” in different ways. I agree that all religion is equally evil in the sense that it stands at odds with reason and rationality. But the dogma of different religions is not equally dangerous. The “kill the infidels” dogma of Islam is dangerous; people get hurt. The redemption by proxy dogma of Christianity is dangerous; people get hurt. But there are also much more tolerant religions. People believe crazy stuff, perhaps, but they aren’t encouraged to go out and kill people because of it.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    I actually have had productive discussions online. They usually involve discussion on message boards devoted to a particular topic and a discussion in which someone has good information to share. I can easily be persuaded by evidence and reason. However, discussions about politics and religion are almost never productive. On those topics more than any others, people believe what they want to and then look for “evidence” to back up their pre-conceived ideas and ignore anything that contradicts them. Facts are irrelevant and logic is non-existent. So a discussion in which the word “Islamophobia” or “Islamofascism” is used is never going to be a constructive one. The very use of either term reveals that the user isn’t open to any rational discussion. One shouldn’t expect otherwise.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    Presentation does matter. Perhaps it shouldn’t be so, but it is.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    I only do it for the person who might read it who has never heard any of these BS apologist arguments challenged before. I used to be one of them. Most of what the counter-apologists offer was brand new to me until I started exploring on my own. I don’t expect to change the mind of a true believer. I do think, however, that patently false claims should be countered whenever it is practical to do so.

    I did, however, have one very unusual experience. It will probably never happen again, but back in 2004 I got into a rather protracted fight on the off-topic board of a site for classically trained singers. I gave as good as i got. I was even rude and insulting on multiple occasions, which was probably not my finest moment. But I wasn’t going to take the gay-bashing of that campaign lying down and it was a place to air my frustrations at the right-wing nonsense being bandied about at the time. Within a couple of years not only was my sparring partner more liberal than I am, she also self-identified as an atheist before me. Sometimes the people who argue the loudest are the ones trying to convince themselves of what they believe. I think in this case it was true. I don’t think I convinced her of anything so much as called into question some foundational assumptions that just didn’t add up. She did the work of questioning her beliefs on her own.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    A few people participate in online conversations to communicate. Many more people participate to express themselves.

    To communicate is to be primarily focused on the other person, being as sure as you can be that they are actually understanding you, and that you are not defeating your purpose by including something such as an insult that interferes with their ability or willingness to consider your ideas.

    To express oneself is to be primarily focused on yourself and your emotional satisfaction of getting something off your chest, and/or your satisfaction that you have been clever, or your sadistic pleasure from ridiculing or humiliating someone. Actually getting a different point of view across to another person for their serious consideration is secondary at most, and often irrelevant to your primary purpose.

  • Rain

    Well I can tell you that Jerry Coyne repeatedly reminds his commenters to be cool all the time. Seems to work pretty good for him.

  • C Peterson

    I have had many productive online discussions about religion and politics, in forums like this one. By “productive” I mean that something I’ve said has changed somebody’s view slightly, or somebody has changed mine. Also productive is when I’ve said something that stimulated discussion (which is why I sometimes structure comments provocatively) and it’s obvious that people were forced to think or examine their ideas, even if they didn’t obviously change them. And how can we ever really know how many passive readers were influenced?

    No, forums like this are certainly productive. It’s just hard to analyze. One way people settle things is to get together in a room and do a lot of shouting and posturing, until some kind of consensus happens. That actually works. But it’s not quite how an open online forum works. That’s more like a party, with people breaking up into groups and starting their own, separate discussions. This model doesn’t work for an open discussion. I know I miss half of what’s going on in busy topics, simply because of the fragmentation that occurs. We need an entirely different online model if we want to emulate a true group discussion (I can imagine Google inventing an interface for this purpose- maybe they have- Wave might have been a start).

  • Agrajag

    Most certainly not. He’s probably one of the most humble current (well, near-current) philosophers. His opinion on environmental protection are however quite irrelevant to his opinions on how to have a productive discussion (on any topic!)

  • http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/ PsiCop

    Re: “So why did it feel like they were talking past each other so much of the time? Why did it feel like both sides were more interested in scoring “points” rather than coming to a better understanding of the other side and (possibly) modifying their own opinions?”

    There’s no real mystery here. It’s just human nature at work. People are emotionally caught up in whatever their “position” is, and are unwilling to re-examine it. They view their perspectives, beliefs, etc. as an integral part of themselves, and identify with it. To disagree on something, no matter the reason, is often viewed as a very real attack.

    When faced with an attack, people equally naturally often fight back. They restate their original position as though the person disagreeing had never said a word or as though that person had misunderstood them. The second person, in turn, feels “attacked” that his/her disagreement hadn’t been “listened to” … and hence, a cyclical conflict is born.

    Whatever the result of that conflict might be … perhaps one side literally wearing down the other, or they both walk away angry and with their minds unchanged … has nothing to do with the facts of the matter or the inherent logic of either’s position, and everything to do with how both sides feel emotionally about it.

    We’re seeing that in the “Harris-is-an-Islamophobe” thing you’ve cited here. Harris doesn’t view himself as being racist (and for reasons you’ve mentioned already, I tend to agree). His opponents are convinced, however, that he absolutely must be a racist. And they either cannot or will not let go of this idea because it’s linked to their own feelings about the matter, and they can’t change their minds without causing themselves emotional damage.

    This is a very long-winded way of explaining something that’s actually much simpler than I’ve made it out to be. It has the virtue of explaining quite well the phenomenon known as the backfire effect (i.e. people holding on to false beliefs even when they’ve been thoroughly disproven). It happens because people value their own emotions over veracity.

  • The Other Weirdo

    Environment protection is one thing. Suggesting near-genocide is something else. I wonder how he reconciles the insanity of that with his supposed sanity in other philosophy.

  • Azkyroth

    Why Don’t We Have More Productive Conversations Online?

    I’d start with the people who insist on maintaining a principled, balanced, scrupulous neutrality between fire brigades and fires, personally.

  • Agrajag

    If you genuinely wonder, read up on him. It’s not as if his views are secret. I don’t agree with him about everything, nor even close. But he does make plenty of sense on plenty of topics.

  • guest

    My number one guiding principle for anything I say: am I growing the dialogue, learning and topic or reducing it, dismissing it etc.

  • http://kagerato.net/ kagerato

    Somehow, I’m _really_ doubtful that an ecologically-minded Norwegian philosopher and Green party member was advocating genocide. Triply so considering the mention of “Gandhian nonviolence”.

    Here’s a simple way to reduce the population without needing to kill anyone: voluntarily have fewer children. Use birth control. Spread it around; make it cheap, people will tend to use it.

    If every couple had only one child, the amortized change in population amounts to roughly a factor of two reduction in ~35 years. This rolls into an exponential decay function, if you can keep it up. 70 years = 4 fold, 105 years = 8 fold, and so on.

    Practically speaking, it looks like a long time scale. However, it’s not really any longer than what it took to _build_ the population up in the first place.

  • http://kagerato.net/ kagerato

    Don’t rant about charity if you’re not going to engage in it yourself…

  • Tobias2772

    In our free-thinkers club we remind each other that one of our agreed upon main goal is to get smarter and wiser.At the very least, we can understand how other people view an issue even if we think that they are full of it. I also want to explain my position in such a way as to give them the best chance to see things my way.
    For a group of people who should value rational thinking more highly than the average bear, we could do better and we could help each other to do better.

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    Conversations aren’t more productive online because there aren’t enough people with dyslexia commenting online. Dyslexia requires that you read slowly and carefully. It also makes writing difficult, therefore, writing requires more time, effort, and thought.

    My dyslexia means I’ll never be a keyboard warrior who can write comment after comment in quick succession when I’ve only scanned, rather than carefully read, what I am responding to. Of course, I can’t type either. Can’t write, can’t type means you’ll rarely see comments from An Ardent Skeptic. (In fact, Hemant, though I often read your blog, this might be the first comment I have ever posted on it. ;-)

    To anyone who wishes to take exception to my comment, it’s a joke! (Although there may be more truth in it than I realize.)

  • The Other Weirdo

    Yeah. Go see how well that works in China. And ultimately, such a draconian reduction in human population means the destruction of a technologically-advanced society and the return to the full horrors of a previous age. So, while he may be an advocate for ecology, he fails everything else. While an uncontrolled population explosion is, of course, a bad idea, equally is it a bad idea to return to the population levels of Roman times.

    Yes, I agree that birth control is a good thing and should be used. That doesn’t mean that it should be used to eliminate our species.