Responding to online comments that make you angry

Most critical thinking courses focus on the more cognitive aspects of critical thinking: what an argument is, when it is valid, the types of logical fallacies, and so on.

These are definitely crucial, but an equally crucial aspect of critical thinking is the affective or emotional aspect. You can know all the logical fallacies in the world, but if you fill with rage upon encountering a claim you disagree with, that knowledge isn’t going to be very useful to you.

This is especially the case when discussion happens online. In this series of posts, I will address some issues surrounding how to handle emotional responses to comments online.

A common emotional response when reading something online is anger. Thinking and responding critically will require recognizing why we are angry and acting on that anger in appropriate and helpful ways.

What is the source of my anger?

The first step to responding appropriately is to ask yourself why the comment makes you angry in the first place. Does the comment express views you find morally repugnant? Does the commenter treat some intellectual issue you find deep and difficult glibly and as though it has an easy answer?

Knowing why the comment makes you angry can help you think more clearly about how to respond to it. Sometimes figuring out why you are angry can diffuse the anger and make you more capable of critically evaluating and helpfully responding to the comment. Other times uncovering the source of the anger will reveal that it is simply best not to engage in dialogue in the first place.

If they treat some intellectual dispute glibly, you can ask yourself if they are only doing this because of lack of knowledge or simple arrogance. We all have thought some of the deep questions of life had an easy answer at some point in our lives. Recognizing that you also had this attitude can diffuse the anger. This will put you in a better position to critically evaluate and helpfully respond to the comment.

This probably won’t be the case if the comment angers you because it expresses morally repugnant views as is the case with racist or sexist comments. At this point you need to ask yourself if responding at all will be a useful way of expressing your anger. Will it help diminish the morally repugnant views on display? If not, it is probably best to take that anger in more constructive directions.

What is my role?

If after uncovering the source of your anger you do decide that responding to the comment is appropriate, you need to ask yourself what role you see yourself in and what role the commenter sees themselves in. Are you an intellectual equal of the person you are responding to or are you a teacher seeking to correct mistakes in someone less knowledgeable than yourself?

Whatever role you see yourself in, you need to ask yourself if the person you are engaging with also sees you in that role. A lot of angry dialogue online stems from a mismatch between the roles discussants see themselves in and the roles they see the other person in.

Someone responding as a teacher will get push back from someone who does not see themselves as a student but rather as an peer. The teacher will often be frustrated that the person they are responding to doesn’t recognize their need to be taught. The teacher might display their credentials or simply point towards teaching aids without considering the claims and arguments the other is making.

This type of response misses the point. If a commenter does not see themselves as a student, they do not want to be taught; they want to discuss. Only frustration will result by continuing the dialogue while adopting these mismatched roles.

Thus if you approach a conversation as a teacher, you need to make sure the other person sees themselves as a student. If they see themselves instead as a peer, it is better to engage the person as a peer. If you don’t see this being fruitful, it is better not to start the dialogue in the first place.

Reading and responding constructively

If you think there is a match between the role you see yourself in and the role the commenter sees themselves in and you decide to respond, you are still probably somewhat angry about the comment.

One helpful technique to respond constructively is to reread the comment as slowly and deliberately as possible. Imagine the person you are responding to is honest, earnest, and intelligent. If you are unable to do this or suspect that the person does not have these qualities, responding won’t be in anyone’s interest, especially your own.

Assuming the commenter has these qualities, look only for claims and arguments. If there is some claim for which you see no evidence, ask what evidence the commenter has for that claim. If there is an argument you think is problematic, explain why it is problematic.

The key here is directly responding to the claims and arguments. If the commenter sees you as a peer and you are responding as a peer, don’t wheel out credentials or point out that professionals who have thought about the issue have a different opinion. The commenter isn’t likely to care about this and only wants to discuss the argument directly. If you respond at all, you should respond in this manner.

tl;dr

When a comment online makes you angry, ask yourself four questions before responding:

  1. Why does the comment make me angry? Can I defuse the anger by understanding why the person has the views they have and recognizing that we have all displayed ignorance and arrogance at some point in our lives?
  2. What role do I see myself in, and what role does the commenter see me in? Am I a teacher correcting mistakes or a peer engaging in a dialogue?
  3. Can I read the comment as though it is coming from someone who is ready to engage in a fruitful exchange?
  4. Am I willing to respond directly to the claims and arguments in the comment?

Answering these questions can help you respond to comments that make you angry in a critical and productive way (or decide to refrain from commenting at all).

Do you have any more tips on responding to comments that make you angry? Comment below!

Logically Valid Arguments

When developing an argument, the goal is for it to sound, part of which means being valid. So lets start with validity first.

As mentioned in a previous blog post, an argument consists of a set of premises from which a conclusion is supposed to follow. A valid argument is just an argument from which the conclusion actually follows from the premises.

What does this mean? We talked a little about his previously but let’s go into more detail.

Structure

Some arguments are valid because of their structure. What kind of structure are we talking about? Logical structure.

When we talk about structure, we are talking about, roughly, how the pieces of language are fit together rather than what those pieces of language mean. For example, all these claims mean very different things:

Kelsey is a writer.

Daassa is a lovebird.

Lewis is a Sagittarius.

But when it comes to structure, all three of these claims have the same structure: they are all simple subject-predicate sentences. We can reveal this structure by writing:

A is a B.

Now let’s take a look at the following argument to see what logical structure is:

P1) If my cat is a ginger cream, then my cat is a ginger.

P2) My cat is a ginger cream.

C) Therefore, my cat is a ginger.

When looking at structure, we want to find repeating elements and replace them with capital letters so as not to distract ourselves from the structure. Specifically, we want to find the biggest repeating elements we can find.

This last point is important because if we focus just on the smallest repeating elements, we might be capturing structure at too fine grain at level. For example, we may notice that “my”, “cat”, “ginger”, and “cream” are repeating elements of the previous argument. Taking the advice of the previous paragraph, we would end up with this:

If A B is a C D, then A B is a C.

A B is a C D.

Therefore, A B is a C.

This is a good start! Now we aren’t distracted by the meanings of the words involved. But there is such a thing as too much structure. When is structure too much? When even the structure itself includes repeating elements. Looking at the argument, we can see that there are still two repeating elements: “A B is a C D” and “A B is a C”. Thus we can simplify the structure and make the argument clearer by replacing these elements themselves with capital letters:

If E, then F.

E.

Therefore, F.

Now that’s simple!

The rule of thumb for this is: replace repeating elements with capital letters until there are no more repeating elements that are not themselves capital letters.

Back to Validity

Now that we have isolated the structure, we can see if the argument is valid. We do this by means of truth tables.

Remember: a logically valid argument is one in which there is no situation in which the premises are true and the conclusion is false. This is precisely what a truth table can tell us.

We want to start by listing all the atomic claims in our argument. Atomic claims are represented by the capital letters. In our example, this would be E and F. We assume that a claim is either true or false, so there are four truth possibilities for our claims: either both are true, both are false, E is true while F is false, or F is true while E is false:

E | F

——

T | T

T | F

F | T

F | F

Once we have listed our atomic propositions, we want to add the premises of our argument. The second premise is easy to list since it is just E. But our first premise requires a bit more explaining. How do we know what truth values to assign to “If E then F”?

We know because in the logical system we are using, called classical logic, claims which are constructed out of atomic claims are true or false in virtue of solely the truth value of the atomic claims which make them up.

For conditionals like our first premise, they are true just in case the antecedent (the claim right after ‘if’) is true and the consequent (the claim right after ‘then’) is false.

This means that our first premise will only be false given the truth values of the atomic claims listed in the second row of our truth table. Our truth table thus far looks like this:

E F | If E then F ——— E

——|——————————

T T |———T—————T

T F |———F—————T

F T |———T—————F

F F |———F—————F

The thing to notice right off the bat is that only on the first row of our truth table are both premises true. That means that all we need to figure out is if the conclusion is also true on that first row. Remember: when testing validity we only care about the scenarios in which all the premises are true.

Adding the conclusion to the end completes the truth table:

E F | If E then F ——— E—| F

——|—————————— |—

T T |———T—————T—| T

T F |———F—————T—| F

F T |———T—————F—| T

F F |———F—————F—| F

We can see that on the first row, the conclusion is true. Thus there are no situations in which the premises are true and the conclusion is false. Thus, this argument is valid.

What is an argument?

For our first ever blog post, I thought a website dedicated to helping students with arguments ought to start with the most basic question: just what is an argument, anyway?

The word ‘argument’ often has negative connotations. If you learned that your friends recently had an argument, you would be concerned for them. An argument in this sense is some kind of scuffle or public row.

Arguments as understood at the Thought Laboratory, however, are not a bad thing at all! In fact, they are the bedrock of us relating to each other as people trying to collaborate to find the truth. It is how we try to convince each other of some view.

Ok, arguments are pretty nifty things. But what are they?

In short, an argument is a set of claims from which follows some conclusion. That’s it. Easy, right?

Not so fast. Just what is a claim? An easy way to understand a claim is that it is the kind of thing that can be expressed with a complete sentence. Here are a few claims to chew on:

1) My lucky bamboo needs to be watered.
2) Cats are mammals.
3) The moon is made of green cheese.

An important thing to notice about 1-3 is that they can be either true or false: 1 and 2 are true while 3 is false.

That might be simple enough. But the last bit that needs explaining is this “following” business. What is that all about?

This is in fact a deeply controversial issue debated by philosophers and logicians specifically. (If you want to learn more, scheduling office hours might be a great way to do so!.) But we can avoid these controversies by starting simple: C follows from P if P is a reason to believe C.

Ok, but when is P a reason to believe C? A common way of understanding this is that the truth of P guarantees the truth of C. Let’s see how that works. Take the following argument:

P1) My cat is a mammal.
C) Therefore, my cat is an animal.

“Therefore” is an important word to remember: it is the “follows” indicator. What the above is saying is that C follows from P1. This is because if P1 is true, then C must be true. There is no situation in which my cat is a mammal but not an animal. Such an argument is said to be valid

Let’s take another example:

P1) Daassa is a lovebird and the bike is blue.
C) Therefore, Daassa is a lovebird.

Like the previous argument about my cat, if P1 is true, then so is C.

There is an important difference between these arguments. In the second argument, the argument is logically valid. The validity of the argument is due to its structure. You could replace “Daassa is a lovebird” and “the bike is blue” with any claim and the C would still follow from C. In the first argument this isn’t the case. C follows from P1 because of the meaning of P1 and C. Changing the claims would change whether it was valid. Such arguments are said to be materially.

After all that, we now know what an argument is! An argument is a conclusion which follows from some premises. In later posts we will go into more depth about validity and other features of arguments. Stay tuned!