A Rhetoric Professor Explains How to Win an Online Argument

"I wouldn't verbally abuse them because an insult pulls you down into a state of weakness."

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Nov 26 2018, 12:45pm

Some people, including Piers Morgan and JK Rowling, arguing online. 

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy

The opposite of self care is: getting into an argument with a stranger on social media. However, there are times when, despite your best intentions, you just can't let that specific brand of wrong sit there unchallenged – and if you do happen down that rabbit hole, you better come prepared.

Elisabetta Matelli is a professor in Classical Rhetoric at the Catholic University in Milan. I caught up with her to find out why online trolls can be so effective, how to combat hate speech and whether, if all else fails, it's cool to just tell someone to fuck off.

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President Obama and Jack Dorsey host a Twitter Q&A. Photo courtesy of the White House Archives

VICE: As a rhetoric expert, why do you think people often speak in absolutes and stock phrases?
Elisabetta: The concept of slogans and stock phrases date back to the Ancient Greeks in Sicily. There was a growing push at the time for democracy to replace the prevailing monarchies and dictatorships. The difference with today, however, was that these slogans were created to spread wisdom – maxims like "know thyself" or "he who laughs last, laughs loudest". These expressions can be applied to several situations and are meant to strengthen our conclusions, because they summarise whatever topic you've just argued. Maxims were and are meant as figures of speech that everyone recognised had a higher value than regular speech.

What's changed?
Critically, our contemporary culture has somehow lowered the level of wisdom, so all we require is for someone popular to say a phrase that's catchy and lots of people will repeat it. The problem we have now is with the people we've given authority to. In the past, we were able to recognise a person's value – we would quote a philosopher or a great poet, knowing that they were close to the truth. Today, we often don't even question whether certain statements are true. We are witnessing a fall in our recognition of societal value.

What makes a slogan successful?
For a slogan to be effective, it not only has to come from a place of authority, but it needs to be universal, in that it can be applied at any time.

Let's start from there. Say we have two actors talking about a controversial topic, like immigration, and one of them says, "They should stay at home, they shouldn't come here because they'll steal our jobs." What's a good comeback to a statement like that?
The general assumption in an argument is that both you and I think we have two truths, which we hold at a rational, emotional and sensitive level. And we believe in them so strongly that we're ready to fight about it. But we also need to consider the intention: are we debating to win and to show the other person that we are superior, or to search together for a truth that is above our collective understanding? An effective piece of rhetorical persuasion usually happens when people are trying to honestly resolve a conflict, otherwise all you're doing is just fighting – which we see all too easily in our society.

I would try to aim for an emphatic approach – a way of better understanding the fears of the other person. Essentially, if I want to contradict you, it's not enough for me to say the opposite. I need to search for the overarching premise. It's like digging into our mutual knowledge and discovering that the truth is something halfway between what you think and what I think.

So I should ask the other person what are the fears that have pushed them into thinking that migrants are out to take their job?
I wouldn't speak so explicitly of fears, because they might get defensive. Instead, I would try to understand their motivations by asking why they think that. If they explain they're unemployed and they worry job opportunities will be taken from them, then that's something you need to consider. If you don't take that experience into account, you risk simplifying their reality and you won't be able to really strengthen your argument and reach a shared solution.

What if I know they're just straight up xenophobic?
In that case, I would present facts and data to try to get the other person to reason. But I would still have to understand the root of that xenophobia. If it's an irrational drive, maybe I would have to start from the experiences that triggered it. There's a lot of talk of neo-Nazis at the moment. As with all ideologies, it begins with and hides the signs of social insecurity – and people adhere to it because somehow they find a ready meal they can easily eat because they think they will get security from it.


WATCH: I Sent Fakes of Myself to Be on TV Around the World.


How important is the physical proximity between the two parties?
Communication isn't only verbal or rational, it can also be non-verbal. So generally, the outcome of a dialogue where there doesn't necessarily need to be a complete winner will more likely be positive if we're chatting next to each other over a coffee, and not in a TV studio where the distance between us is exaggerated on purpose, or on the internet, where we don't even see each other.

So what would you do if the person simply refuses to listen to reason, or says something basic like, 'Why don’t you put them up at your house,' repeating a fashionable but unfounded slogan?
I would reply that our immigration system doesn't require me or them to host a refugee at home. It's a fake premise. They are asking a questions about a context that doesn't exist. I would tell them that it's as relevant as me asking why elephants don't swim in the ocean.

If I see that the person is really stuck in their views and isn't open to dialogue, can I just tell them to fuck off?
I wouldn't verbally abuse them, because an insult pulls you down into a state of weakness. The right way of telling them to fuck off is to stop talking and end the conversation.

Do you have any recommendations for people who want to study the art of arguing?
I think rhetoric should be taught in all schools, because it teaches the basics of how to tell apart lies from truth. Aristotle explained that the appearance of truth isn't necessarily about manipulating the truth, but our attempt at getting close to a truth we do not know.

I would suggest reading Aristotle's Retorica and Quintillian's Institutio Oratoria. Their practical applications have been behind some of the most effective orations in history. More recently, there's the work of the American, Marshall Rosenberg, who explains that words can be windows or walls, depending on how they are used. From that, we can extrapolate the emphatic approach, which is about openness toward the other, not abuse of power.

We're badly educated on this in our current cultural language, which seeks, fraudulently, to make something appear marvellous that isn't exactly how it looks. Contemporary man is spoilt by extremely bad examples of "commercial communication" in the broadest sense. If we reduce the communication of existentially important questions to the level of advertisements, we enclose ourselves in a small dimension and become unable to deal with the complexity of the present.

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