Stop Being an %$#@& on Social Media: False Dichotomy, the Bane of Modern Debate

Stop Being an %$#@& on Social Media, PART 1: 14 Quick Tips for Better Online Interactions

Stop Being an %$#@& on Social Media, PART 2: 5 Common Logical Mistakes to Avoid

Logical Fallacy: False Dichotomy

Picking up right where we left off…

A false dichotomy is another logical fallacy that I see regularly used in online debates. It’s to offer only two possible options even though a broad range of possibilities are available. These often can be summed up in “either/or” statements.

For the sake of illustration, let’s say someone asks me, “For coffee, do you like Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks?” This is a false dichotomy because the implied idea (whether purposely or not) is that these are the only two options: Dunkin or Starbucks. Essentially, the person is saying, You can either like Dunkin Dounut coffee or Starbucks coffee — and there’s not other option. But what if I don’t like either? What if I like both? What if I like the local coffee shop down on the corner? Or Tim Hortons? (My northern friends know what I’m taking about.) What if my favorite coffee is the coffee I make at home? Or how about this: What if I don’t drink coffee at all? 

To give a theological example, one of the biggest debates in Christian history is Arminianism versus Calvinism. But Molinism is a perfectly acceptable, biblical alternative. Another big issue with this “only-two-options” way of thinking is that it tends to ignore nuance and details. In other words, the two options are generalized; specificity is overlooked or ignored. When false dichotomy is going on, often stereotyping is going right along with it. For instance, there are different “degrees” or flavors of Calvinism. Someone may agree with most of the tenets of Calvinism while not subscribing to them all. We can fairly say there is “soft” Calvinism, “hard” Calvinism, and even “hyper-Calvinism.” I don’t care what John Piper said; it doesn’t mean the Calvinist you’re talking to holds that same exact belief.

I don’t know what it is about human beings, but we love creating false dichotomies. Is it because we love a good rivalry? Or are we just too lazy to think harder? And I think it’s even worse with us Americans, likely because of our two-party system.

You’re either liberal or conservative. (Can’t some of my views be “conservative” and some “liberal,” depending on the topic?) You either affirm everything about group X or you hate all of group X. (Can’t one disagree with views of people X but still respect and value them?) You either love whatever president is in office or hate him. (Can’t I criticize where it’s due and praise where it’s due?) 

For some reason, we Americans can’t help but think that there are two — and only two — options. You’re either on “the Left” or on “the Right.” You’re either Democrat or Republican. There’s no nuance. No middle-ground. No moderation. No compromise. This way of thinking is a false dichotomy. And it’s illogical. (And this is why the U.S. is in big trouble.)

False dichotomy is what I call the great fallacy of American thinking today, and sadly it’s negatively affecting the thinking of Christians as well.

Faith VS. Politics

It is my strong opinion that if you are truly living consistently to the biblical guidelines you claim to live by as a follower of Christ, then you fall outside of the false dichotomy of modern U.S. politics. A Christian cannot align him- or herself to the Democratic or Republican parties (or even with what is generally called “the Left” and “the Right”) without compromising biblical values. Yes, plenty of Christians align with one or the other, but they do so by raising certain biblical values over others. I’m not here to try to tell anyone how to vote; that’s something all Christians need to wrestle with, as I do each election cycle. But what I am declaring is that biblical Christians should be uncomfortable with the current false dichotomy of U.S. politics. If you’re a Christian and you find yourself sitting comfortably within one of those political tribes, I think you need to study your Bible more closely or pay better attention to the world around you.

It has been my experience that Christians who pledge undying allegiance to one of the parties have their judgment clouded when having moral discussions. To give an example, I was having a online debate about a certain moral issue that is easy to know where to stand morally based on Scripture and God’s moral law as well as logical thinking and science. This is the issue of abortion. During this moral debate — well, that’s what I thought it was — my opponent (a self-proclaimed Christian) suddenly made a statement about me voting for a certain political candidate. I asked, “When did I ever say I was voting for him?” — rendering my debate opponent totally befuddled. So, what was a moral debate for me appears to have been a political debate for my opponent. In her mind, I was making an argument about who to vote for, not whether the murder of the unborn is something we should stand against. Clearly, the false dichotomy of U.S. politics is damaging the clear thinking (and clear witness) of the Church.

I realize giving any sort of specific example of a politicized issue is asking for trouble. I’m not trying to start any sort of political debate. (I can hear some of you clicking away on your keyboards already…) So, before anyone pipes up, let me be clear that this is certainly an issue with Christians that align themselves with both parties. Don’t believe me, just point out President Trump’s unChristian behavior and watch right-wing Christians fall over each other trying to defend him.

If you’re a Christian dedicated to a certain party, let me point out to you, that this doesn’t mean you have to blindly accept all of the party’s views. What better way to make a party more godly than to have biblical Christians as part of that party changing it from the inside?

My point is Jesus defied the false political, cultural, and even religious dichotomies of his day, and so should Jesus’ people. (And, yes, sometime Jesus even confirmed true dichotomies. See Matthew 12:30.) I often run into the false dichotomy that pits biblical truth versus compassion; the underlining attitude is we need to downplay truth so not to hurt any feelings. Now, this could be a whole blog by itself because there is a load of issues with this thinking, but let me point out that Jesus was both compassionate and truthful. He never compromised God’s truth, but he also spoke and acted in love.

Say it with me: It’s both/and, not either/or.

NEXT: Some biblical concepts to assist in online interaction and debate.

Stop Being an %$#@& on Social Media, PART 1: 14 Quick Tips for Better Online Interactions

Stop Being an %$#@& on Social Media, PART 2: 5 Common Logical Mistakes to Avoid

Stop Being an %$#@& on Social Media: 5 Common Logical Mistakes to Avoid

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PART 1: Stop Being a %$#&@ Online: 14 Quick Tips for Better Online Interactions

Not everyone is motivated by logic. And when that’s the case, all communication breaks down. Just like there are laws of physics that are undeniable, there are also laws of logic. The Christian worldview believes there’s a divine intelligence behind creation, so it makes sense in the Christian worldview that these immaterial, universal laws of logic exist. Even those opposed to the Christian worldview can’t escape these laws of thinking any more than they can escape the laws of physics. And, thus, when we abandon logic, things fall apart.

There are common logical mistakes people make when in debate  — whether politicians, journalists, or keyboard warriors — and these are called logical fallacies. If you’re truly hoping to have meaningful conversations, avoid these. (And, let’s be honest, people often make these “mistakes” on purpose!) Sadly, all of these have become so common in online interactions, people just accept them as the norm. By being aware of them, you can avoid making them yourself as well as be equipped to point out the faulty arguments of others.

 

1. Straw Man

The straw man fallacy is to give an inaccurate or ridiculous portrayal of an opponent’s argument so to easily dismantle it. The idea is to build a man of straw, so then it’s easy to knock him down.

For example, I once posted an article about how daughters who grow up with their biological fathers in their home are safer, less likely to get pregnant before marriage, and less likely to get into abusive relationships. A feminist, who took issue with the article (despite it being backed by data), summed up the article as, “All girls who grow up without a father will be raped.” Well, that’s not what the article said! And, so, I’m under no obligation to defend that view. As you can see in this example, often the straw man fallacy plays out as the person taking the stated view to an unreasonable extreme.

Another straw man I have often come across online is when atheists portray Christianity as “believing in an old, bearded man in the sky.” If that’s what they really think Christians believe, they have no grasp of the most basics of Christian theology. Even Christian children’s books I read to my kids don’t teach this idea of the God of the Bible. Now, if Christians did believe an old man in the sky — have at it, atheists! But Christians are not ancient pagans; Christians worship an immaterial, timeless, self-existent being who exists apart from the universe and brought all of creation into existence — the Uncaused First Cause, the Unmoved Mover. As you can see from this example, often those making the straw man argument are trying to make their opponent look foolish. In many cases like this, they’re just looking to mock someone, not have a reasonable discussion. So, don’t waste your time. Move on.

Represent your opponents’ opinions accurately and engage with that, not some caricature you created.

 

2. Ad Hominem

Ad hominem is Latin for “to the person.” This is to attack the person and not the argument. 

This is the internet atheist who goes on and on about how dumb you are to be a Christian, yet he doesn’t give one relevant argument against Christianity or for atheism. This is the person who labels you as a bigot or hate-monger because you reasonably disagree with a lifestyle or behavior. This is the person that dismisses you by stereotyping you as a member of a group rather than addressing what you’re saying.

Let me point out something else: As a Christian, I have moral, logical, and practical reasons for being against hypocrisy, but even if a person is the biggest hypocrite in the world, it doesn’t necessarily mean their argument is invalid. For example, a person could give a perfectly valid argument for vegetarianism while eating a hamburger. Is the person a hypocrite? Yes. But that doesn’t mean the argument is any less valid. 

Attack arguments, not people.

 

3. Red Herring

A red herring is an attempt to distract from what is being debated by bringing up an unrelated — and usually emotionally loaded — topic. Apparently, the saying comes from when criminals would drag stinky fish across a trail to throw off the scent of the hound dogs hunting them. 

Recently, my friend was leading a reading group on a Zoom meeting for our ministry at Rutgers, Ratio Christi. The topic of discussion was a book on scientific evidence for the existence of God. A husband of one of the women, an angry atheist that clearly didn’t like her participating in the group, jumped into the meeting and started ranting about Christians who believe humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time. He kept bringing up the young earth view of creation, but nothing in the book had anything to do with this. Furthermore, the young earth view isn’t an essential Christian belief. It was irrelevant to the conversation! He was just trying to derail the discussion. (There was a fair amount of Ad Hominem and Straw Man fallacies spewing from his mouth too.)

One of the clearest examples I’ve personally experienced with a red herring fallacy is when I posted an article I wrote about the eugenic origins and racist history of Planned Parenthood. Someone responded by bringing up how certain churches hold to a view that doesn’t allow women to be elders. What does that have to do with Planned Parenthood’s racist history?! This was so random it’s hard for me to imagine the thinking behind it, but it was clearly an attempt to distract from the real issue. 

 

4. Snow Job

Similar to a red herring, this is an attempt to overwhelm an opponent with mountains of information and facts — but the problem is they’re irrelevant to the debate. 

I’ve experienced this most often when a person responds in a LONG paragraph. My first reaction (before reading it) is to feel intimidated and think, “Man, this person must really know what they’re talking about!” But, once I read it with a critical eye, I realize that much of the paragraph is not about the specific topic being debated. Sure, the person is bringing up a lot of related stuff, but it’s not addressing the specific component of debate.

Recently, someone matter-of-factly mentioned racist doctrines in the modern church. I asked for examples. The person wrote a long paragraph giving examples of racism and even some places where modern Christians could do a better job addressing racism with solid theology, but none of this was racist doctrine that was held by any church. For the record, I’m not denying racism committed by self-proclaimed Christians either in the past or present, but I do deny there is any doctrine based on biblical grounds to justify this evil — though there have been attempts (and they all fail miserably under biblical scrutiny). My point is, I asked for examples of racist church doctrine and he provided a long paragraph on racism and the church, but he didn’t answer my request.

 

5. False Dichotomy

OK, there’s one last big one that needs to be addressed, but it’s such a big one, it needs it’s own article…

 

PART 1: Stop Being a %$#&@ Online: 14 Quick Tips for Better Online Interactions

 

Stop Being a %$#&@ Online: 14 Quick Tips for Better Online Interactions

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OK, I get it. You have opinions and you want everyone to know them. I get it. You look at what’s going on in the world and you don’t like it. I get it. The things people are posting in your feed are alarming. I get it. 

But I also can’t help noticing that no one is listening to you either. Yeah, your peers who hold the same exact opinion are cheering you on, so if that’s what you’re looking for, you got it. They are listening to you. But I don’t see you bringing anyone over to your team.

Where I like to occasionally post things about my kids or hobbies or something that made me laugh on social media, I also occasionally feel the need to jump into what I call the Online Mosh Pit. For those of you who’ve never been to a punk or metal show, a mosh pit is a swirling mass of violent dancing in a crowd at a concert. Just like when I was in my twenties at a punk show, standing on the edge of the chaos that is “The Pit,” I’m watching the violence online — the flailing fists, the bodies running into each other, the big guy jumping off the stage and knocking everyone over like bowling pins. Sometimes I watch as simply an observer, sometimes I watch too intimidated to jump in, and sometimes I jump right into the fray.

In the glory days of the mosh pit, an old school guy like me will tell you, there were rules of etiquette. It wasn’t all senseless violence. So, let me suggest some rules so you can be less of a %$#@& when the band breaks into your favorite chunky breakdown and you start swinging your fists around online.

 

1. Try Asking Some Questions Before Jumping Into “Battle Mode”

There’s a lot of miscommunication (and badly communicated posts) on social media. The nature of social media pretty much guaranties this. So, take some time to try to understand what the other person is actually saying. Even general questions like “Can you explain to me what you mean by that?” and “How did you reach that conclusion?” can move the conversation along. Practice active listening skills too. Repeat back to the person what he or she said in your own words: “So, if I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying… Do I have that right?”

 

2. Give a Compliment

Hey, give credit where credit is due! Don’t be afraid to say, “That’s a good point.” Or, at least, “I understand what you’re saying, but I think you’re mistaken because…” You could even say something like, “I appreciate your passion for an important issue like X, but I don’t know if what you’re saying are the best way to address it…” Such comments let your opponents know that you’re considering what he or she is saying and not just looking to smash him or her into bits. 

 

3. Seek Common Ground

I’ve had interactions before where someone is going at me in full battle mode and I’ll point out, “You and I agree on a lot more than we don’t…” That usually changes the tone of the conversation. Point out where you agree. I find this makes the conversation more specific — more focused on working out the differences rather than just slugging it out. Try saying things like, “You and I agree on X, but we disagree on the best way to address X, so how do we work that out?” 

 

4. Don’t Respond Emotionally

That should be obvious, but, well… Spend seven seconds on social media and you’ll see most people don’t do this. If you feel yourself get heated, wait until you’re feeling more level-headed to respond. That’s one of the advantages to having a discussion online versus in person.

 

5. Prepare

Yeah, someone always wants to throw out “That’s just your opinion” to dismiss what you wrote, but there’s a difference between having a weak opinion (often based on emotion) and a strong opinion (based on research and backed by facts and logic). If you’re going to jump into a debate, do the hard work of reading and thinking first. (BTW, anyone saying “That’s just your opinion” is telling you they can’t come up with a good counter argument to what you wrote.)

 

6. Read Opposing Opinions

There is wisdom in the saying, “Know your enemy.” Where I certainly hope you don’t consider those you’re debating as your enemies, knowing the arguments your opponent would use before engaging them is wise. Not only will it better prepare you to respond to their arguments, but maybe — just maybe — you’ll be exposed to an idea you never thought about before. 

 

7. Be Ridiculously Polite

Work to have a discussion, not an argument. Once it becomes an argument, no one is listening anymore. It’s very easy to read the wrong things into people’s words online because we can’t pick up on social cues, body language, tone of voice, etc. (With this, people feel more emboldened to be rude online.) Thus, I sometimes go out of my way to be extremely polite and make it clear my intentions are good when engaging with someone. When you’re interacting online, do whatever you would consider “overly-polite” and then be even more polite than that.

 

8. Don’t Assume

You know what they say about assuming, right? “To assume (ass-u-me) makes an ‘as*’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.’” Don’t assume you know everything the other person believes just because they express a certain opinion. Unfortunately, we are infected with this “either/or” mindset when it comes to the political issues people debate today and we want to dump everyone into the “liberal” or “conservative” camp. This is just lazy. (For example, I could be a conservative who criticizes President Trump. I could be a liberal but against abortion.) People are a lot more reasonable and moderate than you think. Plus, every opinion has nuance. Unfortunately, the loudest voices are the most extreme, and we have the bad habit of lumping everyone into categories. I’ve had people assume things about me because I’m Christian. I’ve also had people lump me into both “liberal” and “conservative” camps because of views I’ve expressed, only to have them baffled when I express another view they consider to be part of the opposite camp. 

 

9. Don’t Post Memes

Think you found that perfect meme to stick it to your opponents? Don’t post it. Memes are great for laughs, but they do nothing to move along a debate. Most memes are just cheap shots at the other side and they often commit a slew of logical fallacies. If you want to have a serious discussion, don’t post a meme. Just don’t.

 

10. Don’t React to a Headline

Read the whole article before you respond to it. There’s been many times I’ll be getting pushback for an article and it becomes clear to me that the person didn’t even read it, whether it’s an article I’m reposting or an article I wrote for my blog. (Also, if a person reposts an article without comment, don’t assume you know their motivation behind posting it.)

 

11. Address What the Person Actually Wrote

As the saying goes, “If I only had a dollar” every time I’ve had someone give pushback to something I’ve posted only to read his or her comments and realize the person is not addressing anything I wrote. Usually, they’re arguing about something someone else (such as a politician, journalist, etc.) said about the topic. I’ve responded to comments like these with something like, “OK, but that has nothing to do with what I wrote.” Please respond to what a person actually writes, not what you think he or she thinks. 

 

12. Pick Your battles

If you’re going to go after everyone with a differing opinion than you, eventually people will just roll their eyes when they see your tiny picture and just scroll past your comments. Those who do respond will not be responding to what you write as much as responding to your personality because you’re annoying. 

 

13. You Don’t Have to An Opinion About Everything

Hey, it’s alright to admit to yourself that you don’t know enough about a topic to have a strong opinion and to decide to sit this one out. When it comes to the vast amount of things that we can discuss and debate, we all don’t know a lot more than we do know. Most people are just regurgitating stuff someone in their “tribe” has said without doing the hard, honest work of researching and thinking to form their own, independent opinion. So, be humble. Be teachable. Spend some time reading and thinking before becoming a keyboard warrior.

 

14. Get A Life

Consider that you have more important things to do than pick fights online. Take a walk with a friend. Plant a garden. Write an elected official. Volunteer at the soup kitchen. Read a book with your kids. Invite that person you disagree with over for dinner and have a real conversation.

Also, ask yourself: Other than screaming online and voting once a year, what am I really doing to live out my convictions?

This is a good start, but coming up: Common logical fallacies to avoid on social media and — since this is a Christian blog — biblical guidelines for Christians for online interaction.