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.
When a comment online makes you angry, ask yourself four questions before responding:
- 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?
- 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?
- Can I read the comment as though it is coming from someone who is ready to engage in a fruitful exchange?
- 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!