How to Win when Disagreeing on the Internet

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Photo credit: Parker Byrd

How to Win when Disagreeing on the Internet


When Pope Francis preached at this past weekend's consistory of new cardinals, he urged them to avoid the tendency to polarization. He actually asked them to be “immune” to it.

In my mind, polarization happens when we are talking about things that reflect our deeply held values. We care about something gravely, and we can’t understand how someone else can think it less important or sacred than it is (eg. prolife).

Is the Holy Father asking cardinals not to take a clear stance on important issues? Of course not.

What he is asking is that we not allow our differences to ever prevent caring for one another. That we never cut one another off.

"We live at a time in which polarization and exclusion are burgeoning and considered the only way to resolve conflicts,” he said. But, reflecting on Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies," he urges us to recall that:

"In God’s heart there are no enemies. God only has sons and daughters. We are the ones who raise walls, build barriers and label people. God has sons and daughters, precisely so that no one will be turned away."

I want to posit that we can embody this spirit in the way we engage in discussion online.

After the election of Donald Trump, I saw my Facebook and Twitter feeds blow up with animosity. I am sure that more swear words were typed and more unfollows and unfriends clicked than we can imagine.

So it seems an opportune time to share some thoughts on how to engage in discussion in a healthy way online.

Here are 7 things to remember when disagreeing with somebody online.

1. The other person’s value isn’t determined by their opinions

First and foremost, calling back to Pope Francis’ reflection: “God has sons and daughters, precisely so no one will be turned away.”

When we are in disagreement, we need to recall that the person we are disagreeing with is not merely the sum of their opinions on things; they are God’s son or daughter. They bear his own image.

So as crazy as their views may seem, it is inconsistent for me to write them off simply because I disagree with them.

Rather, I need to remind myself that they are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” (Ps 139:14) and that they can come to new viewpoints.

Even the most pro-abortion politician can come to a new moral awakening. But if everyone who is pro-life has already unfriended him, it will be a much longer path.

2. There is probably some good value in their position that is worth affirming

I try to never cut off discussions about important topics, and I presume that the person on the other side is motivated by a good value.

An example in the U.S. election: immigration.

On one side, people are motivated by a desire to see the sojourner welcomed and protected.

On the other, people believe that public safety and economic stability are threatened by unregulated immigration.

I’m not making an argument here on the validity of the sides, I am just saying that positive values (hospitality; safety; prosperity) can be at the heart of the position.

We don't help the conversation by dumbing things down to "love vs. hate" or "inclusivity vs. fear.” That type of labeling only increases polarization, in my view. 

So try to see and assume the good behind the other person’s position, and tell them that you see it!

“Hey Bob, I see that you really care about ___. I respect that, and I care about ___, too. But I think something that is missing from the discussion that is also really important is ____. What do you think about that?”

Articulating the good you see in the position of your opponent will increase trust between you and help advance the dialogue.
3. Zingers feel great... and almost never work

Because social media is like having a conversation with spectators, sometimes we want to come off as really smart. So rather than thinking of the person we are trying to dialogue with and how best to convince them of the truth of our position, we try to get in a real zinger.

“Ha! That’ll show ‘em!”

These really don't work. You already knew that, but I’m saying it anyways. When we get away from our aim of helping another person come to a new awareness of truth, and allow the motive of trying to look cool to take over, we all lose.

A question you might ask yourself: would I be saying this in this way if the person were here in front of me? How would I feel if I were on the receiving end of a comment like this? 

4. You never regret taking the high road

Let’s be honest: sometimes people are just itching for a fight.

But we don't have to lower ourselves to the bad conduct of another. If someone is taking cheap shots, I will usually just call it that and move on.

There is a passage about casting pearls before swine, and the heart of it in this context is that we shouldnt waste good time and sincerity on someone who isn’t really offering the same.

So, resist! The name-calling starts, just whistle and walk away.

5. You don't have to heal the whole world in one Facebook thread

Ever notice these Facebook threads that become exchanges of 10-paragraph essays?

Personally I think that these back and forths are best left to a personal email or private message exchange. So if you find yourself getting caught up in one of these you might say,

“Hey, since we are vering off into a different direction from the original post, why don't we continue this in PM?” 

Or better yet, if it is a personal contact, maybe continue the discussion over a coffee.

Facebook and Twitter threads are great for sharing ideas, but it is hard to convert a someone's heart in a single thread. It could happen! But don't let yourself be kept up at night trying to force it.

6. Even if our opponent is wrong, we can often learn something from them

My parish priest from when I was a kid had a great saying and my mom often quoted it:

“You spend your whole life learning and you still die stupid."

There is a limit to our knowledge and experience, and a good posture to assume is that of being open to continued learning. 

There is a limit to our experience, and a good posture to assume is that of being open to continued learning. 

As an example, I do not believe that our PM Trudeau could be more wrong on abortion (which he has called a fundamental right). It is the polar opposite of the Catholic view that all human life is sacred and invioable. And I would love to be able to discuss his position with him!

In doing so, in addition to trying to convince him of the evil of abortion I would hope that I can also learn something from the conversation. I don’t know what that would be... but that’s the point!

I think we can get a lot farther in conversations when we adopt the posture of student as well as teacher.

7. Please show your own face

Hey, I know its a Catholic thing to put an image of the Blessed Virgin or Christ the King as our profile pictures. But let's reconsider it for a second:

I know you post your devotion as a sign of reverence. And it’s not that these are not beautiful images; it’s just that they aren’t you. They aren't what people expect in a profile image. They aren’t on your drivers license. They aren’t on your passport. Why do they need to be on your online profiles?

Think how much more impersonal it is in trying to dialogue with someone who is wearing a mask. That’s how I feel about people using anonymous images, even religious ones online. As well, if someone has a beef with the Church, they will be all the more acrimonious in dialogue with you if your profile pic is clearly a religious image.

So let’s keep these lovely devotional images! Let’s keep them on our living room walls, on our desks, in our wallets,  on our dashboards…. even post them on your feeds, when appropriate! But not as a substitue image for your own face.


Disagreement is a sign of respect. It shows that we consider each other worthy of the time it takes for dialogue and exhortation. It’s a good thing! 

As Christians online, let’s show our friends and acquaintances what healthy disagreement looks like.

Question: What tips do you have for healthy online disagreement?

You may also like: Why You Should Be a New Media Missionary

Disagreement shows that we consider each other worthy of the time it takes for dialogue — Josh Canning

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