Way back in the early 90’s, the average person’s idea of how the web worked was informed by terrible reporting, along with Hollywood depictions of all-knowing, all-powerful, leatherclad rollerbladers chain-smoking while wearing VR headsets and Hacking The Planet.
These days, I LOVE the movie Hackers. Absolutely adore it. But back then, it was a bane. It was so… so STUPID! But in the most time-capsuley, brilliant way possible. However, this perception of my chosen hobby and career field became a focal point during one family Thanksgiving dinner in 1997. I’d always been derided for spending too much time on the computer talking to strangers. But things really jumped off when I mentioned I was going to meet up that month with a friend I met online. And not just a friend, a girl.
You know that scene in almost every “family drama” movie where everyone around the table freezes with partially-chewed food in their mouths? And someone drops a fork on the plate and after that loud TINK! there’s utter silence for a while? And then someone makes a sound like Wile E. Coyote gulping right before he falls off the cliff, and then someone else clears their throat, and the main character is going along still eating trying thier best to pretend that this moment just plain isn’t happening? And it’s not because the main character is embarrassed, but because they already know the stupid arguments going through each of the flushed and twisted heads around the table, because they have no idea what the hell they’re about to talk about but they MUST have an opinion?
I can remember very clearly my mother and the guy who would become my brother-in-law, with their own distinct “wise southerner” logic, telling me I can’t trust stuff I read on the internet or people I meet on the internet because “…It could be anyone! How do you know???” And of course this devolved into a culture war around the Thanksgiving table between me, the early internet adopter who’d been online since 1993 versus a guy who got a college-issued laptop I had to routinely fix and a woman for whom a computer still brought to mind room-sized devices, despite seeing me operate one every day for years.
The reality they lived in was fabricated and misinformed, based solely on what they were able to understand at the time. It was sewn together by the ignorant into a portmanteau quilt of dismissive scorn. And they, the sage-like real-folk, were the ones firmly grounded in reality, while we were all spaced out weirdos lying to each other behind keyboards.
This dynamic never changed. The more they learned about computers and the internet, the worse it got, because suddenly they had some experience with the actual thing in question, and of course this made them absolute experts in everything we’d discuss at that point in time. Clickbait headlines. Scam emails. Viruses. Hoax videos. Fake News. And now, literally everything in the world, as it’s all surfaced through a computer in some way, shape, or form.
The only thing that has changed is that they now see their chosen host of sites and news and videos as sacred, and everything else couldn’t possibly be right. Now, they’re the ones believing that the highest officials in the land participate in child sex trafficking rings in pizza joints, or funding a caravan of killers (who are so talented at their craft that they have to flee REAL killers in their home country??) to come and sew discord in a country presided over by a reality tv star that these super wise folks voted into office by reading…
…wait for it…
…made up shit on the internet pumped out by people pretending to be authorities from behind their keyboards.
There is a magical and amazing irony there. I call it Paradoxical Ignorance: When someone engages in a behavior they once disparaged in order to prove how your engaging in that behavior is bad. I have people in my life who swear up and down that FreedomEagle.info is a legitimate news source, because it’s “real people doing real reporting,” while respected news organizations with actual journalistic ethics are making things up wholesale and using their vast resources to try to tell lies about a President who throws out at least five lies a day.
The people who once argued that the thing I was involved in was evil by default — back when it wasn’t — are now 100% invested in its authenticity, at a time when it’s the least authentic its’ ever been.
We talk about the Dunning Kruger effect (where people are ignorant to their limitations, thinking they are smarter than they are), or the Peter Principle (that people are promoted, in work or society, to the level of their incompetence), or other theories. There are lots and lots of them. But none of these famous theories account for the sheer asshole-ness of it all.
Truth of the matter is, people like (most of) my family, and yours, and the internet are shielded from their own ignorance by their own egos, and attempting to penetrate one to get to the other is futile. My father — a non-stupid smart person — taught me long ago, once you realize something is futile, any more time you spend fighting it is a) a decision and b) a waste of time.
The dirty little secret: they KNOW when they are wrong. They know it while they’re being wrong, and they know it after you’ve proven you’re right. You’re not fighting their facts. You’re fighting their identity, and you will lose every single time. These people aren’t arguing the merits of any topic, or the facts, so much as they’re jousting with you. And they need to win in a way you may not understand at the time, in that moment.
But if you think on it — really think on it — you can find times in your life where you’ve been that way, too. I know I have. Topics such as technology, comic book history, anime, weight lifting, cigars… I always try to approach anything as an opportunity to learn, but when I run up on a puffed-up know-it-all, sometimes it becomes war. I must teach this person how little they know. It’s not about how right any one fact I give is, it’s about how right I am for knowing all of them. And one fact about wars: they expose who we really are. No one watching comes away seeing you the same way.
I have, in my older age, adopted a new tactic in these cases, one I watched my father employ often (but not always — the man is human): Best to just let them be.
(The huge caveat: This only works provided their ignorance isn’t actively causing harm, of course. If it is, stop the harm, but do so directly and unequivocally — don’t attempt to stop it with tools that don’t work, like logic and reason. Cut them off, punch them, or have them arrested. Those are your options).
I’m not saying don’t love them if they’re family or friends. You can have love in your heart for a moron. You can have pity. You can understand them. None of those things demand that you put up with bullshit. The key question to ask yourself in all of these unpleasant interactions isn’t “How can I reach them?”
It’s “Can I reach them?” and if you’re like me, you already know that answer the second you are engaged. If you need to argue to feel right, or to prove how much you know, or otherwise to validate your own identity: do yourself a favor and take a deep breath and say “That’s interesting.” Or “I never thought of it that way.” Or “I’ll have to think on that a bit.”
I now choose to defuse the bomb. Because no matter whose holding it when it inevitably goes off, you get caught in the blast no matter what, and it’s always ugly and bloody and leaves a crater.
Again, if the person in question represents a grave threat to themselves or others, this isn’t the tactic I would suggest. That’s a wholly different situation than shitty family arguments at the Thanksgiving table or on the Internet. And as always, your mileage may vary. But in the years since I’ve been deploying this tactic, I’ve found that 100% of instances where I don’t get caught up in useless arguments where neither side is interested in giving ground, I am far happier.
It doesn’t always work. Hell, it doesn’t always come to mind. These hotpot arguments are exactly that — they raise in temperature gradually until you’re cooked. But, if you can help it, stay mindful of your audience, and look for discussion tactics that have nothing to do with discussion, and everything to do with tactics:
- Changing the subject mid-argument to keep high ground
- Appeals to authority (especially modern non-news sites billed as news)
- Disparaging or dragging down any source you quote (especially valid, longstanding news organizations they claim are “fake news”)
- Bringing up personal history or faults in conversation about abstract topics
- Placing fingers in ears and going “Na na na, can’t hear you”
You know them when you see them. And when you diffuse — especially if it’s family or friends — they will take it personally. They will spot the difference in behavior and attitude. They will call you on it. And when they do, I’ve found this phrase to be particularly helpful:
“I feel like there’s very little chance that I’m the one to change your mind, no matter what the topic. So, let’s just focus on being family / friends / having fun, and leave the fixed positions where they stand. Can we do that?”
If they persist, you may ask “Why do we need to do this? It’s not fun for me. Is it fun for you?”
Their answer will tell you everything you need to know, because the conversation is no longer about what you’re talking about. It’s about the two people doing the arguing, and who is “better.” If you can suppress the urge to win, you win. A good friend of mine once said “Anytime someone wins a little too easily, you’re letting them play a different game than the one you’re playing.”
Or, more simply: “Let the Wookie win.”
If they’re to learn, it’s going to be on the pain of their own mistakes. No one ever comes to a sudden, life-altering, behavior-shifting awareness because they argued about it with someone else. I certainly didn’t, and I can’t even begin to count the number of people in my life who loved me enough to try to coach me out of being a self-aggrandizing asshole when I was at my worst. It didn’t work, of course, because I was a self-aggrandizing asshole.
Feeling like you are the one who might reach them, or that you must try, is self-serving and ego driven. You don’t have to do this. You don’t need to be right, do you? You just need to be happy in your life, and if your life is anything like mine, you’ve discovered that the freedom to be happy in your life starts with being yourself on purpose.
You don’t need their permission, as much as you might want it.