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.