Photo credit: Whoever was standing in front of Tim Berners-Lee
Dealing with people in real life is beyond the remit of this advice column. With any luck you won’t meet many, as live human beings are notoriously difficult to hammer into shape. We shall concern ourselves with replying to those in the splendid human construct known as social media.
You see a contrary opinion online. An itch starts in your brain, impossible to ignore. It must be scratched! But how do you get to it?
Through your keyboard. (Real warriors use keyboards, not touch screens.)
1. Take a deep breath, it will oxygenate your blood. Maybe have a nice cup of tea before getting down to work, if tea’s your cup of tea.
2. The time-honoured practice of cracking your knuckles is an over-used trope, but do it if it you’re superstitious. Just don’t overdo it, you’ll be needing those fingers in good working order.
3. We’ll dispense with the numbering system. The point is made that this is a logical process.
Rember always that arguments are like bowling balls—they’re bound to have holes in them.
Examine the enemy’s case closely for flaws. (‘Enemy’ is merely convenient shorthand.) You might get lucky straight off the bat: have they even written something worth rousing yourself to answer?
Be polite. It’s a rare skill, often confused with cowardice. It will confuse the enemy.
If this is a factual fray, document, document, document. Be meticulous with your sources and be ready at a moment’s notice to provide links, preferably more than one should your adversary show an indifference to your preferred authority. Bear in mind that both The Guardian and the Daily Mail (two well known mines to go digging for fool’s gold*), which both employ professional journalists (not necessarily a compliment), are equally unreliable in matters of opinion, which often masquerades as fact.
Determine if the position is theirs or somebody else’s. Have they put in the work to hold it all by themselves? Are you going to attempt to knock them off a bandwagon, or are they standing on carefully prepared ground? If the latter, you may wish to retreat to fight another day, or better yet, accept that perspectives can differ. Even the itchiest brain can learn to accept this as a scratch of sorts.
Look for signs of hypocrisy. Should you find it, consider the labor-saving strategy of allowing them to tie their noose with their own words. Note that any gratification derived may be a private affair, given that hypocrisy is usually vampiric in nature.
it’s obvious who’s the fairest of them all
Use spellcheck if you don’t trust yourself, it’s right there on Google. Generally conform to accepted grammatical norms, but teasing grammar Nazis crosses the line into cruelty.
Don’t say “We’ll have to agree to disagree.” Whoever says this first, loses. While some may see this as politely sweeping away the gauntlet laid down, in truth it is the equivalent of loudly stomping off. There is no need to belabour the obvious.
Whatever you do, never announce that you’re leaving the discussion. This cannot be stressed enough. If you want to go, just go. Some warriors are amazed this is even an option.
Refrain from posting immediately prior to a period of being out of contact with the www, e.g., going to a wedding or funeral, a session of lovemaking, etc. I know you pride yourself on your ability to multitask, but should you think up a better comeback whilst indisposed, the itch will be visited upon you tenfold.
If you think your opponent is reading what he or she wants to read rather than what you wrote, well, everybody thinks this. Almost everybody is right. The mistake here is to openly parade your amazement.
Do not ‘Like’ or blot your post with smileys as an 11-dimensional chess gambit, should your chosen media platform offer these cheesy options. Duel with words, not rancid marshmallows. (Sounds a bit harsh, I know! We’re talking about Likes & emoticons as passive-aggressive weapons. It’s been known to happen.)
What to do if you ‘win’
Disabuse yourself of the notion that you have. Hardly anybody ever ‘wins’, no matter what humble admissions are uttered in the aftermath. The skull is a hardened silo impervious to penetration by even the most sensible argument; while the brain inside may be slammed and partially flattened by the impact of a new idea, it reliably pops back into its original shape.
There are, however, documented cases of people who actually have had their mind changed by a disembodied consciousness filtered through this thing we call the internet: