Guidelines for Lobbing Handgrenades

Today I saw a comment on CNN’s Belief Blog that really caught my attention. One commenter wrote:

Atheism has done more good in the last 100 years than Christianity has in the last 1900.

Now I’ll admit, my first inclination was to launch into a sarcastic response that would show the uneducated and asinine nature of this assertion. Beyond that, it doesn’t give any credibility to the thinkers in this guy’s camp who do actually have legitimate data to work with. Fortunately, I refrained from responding. It did, however, make me stop and think about an actual problem with debating in places like blog comment threads, Facebook, and the like. Social media and blogs don’t typically foster healthy, intelligent debate. Let me explain why.

  1. There are no credentials necessary to participate in discussions. You use to have to have a PhD in your field of expertise (i.e. science, philosophy, religion) in order for anyone to take you seriously enough to publish a book that would get exposure. Now you can just type something in on a popular blog and thousands of people will read it (see the quote at the top of the post for an example).
  2. There is no personal interaction. It’s significantly harder to make fun of someone when they’re sitting across a table from you. Now we can be insensitive jerks behind our computer screens and not have any respect for our opponent’s feelings. This sucks all the civility out of our debating.
  3. There is not enough room to develop an intelligent argument. All we have room for on these comment threads are brief responses. You can’t write a 200 page book defending your position or critiquing theirs. We’re forced to give oversimplified answers to very difficult questions.

Below I’ve posted a video that recommends some great principles for disagreement that we can all benefit from. Internet debate is dealt with specifically. Do your best to watch the entire thing but if you don’t have the fortitude then skip ahead to the 9:00 minute mark.


The reason I titled this post Guidelines for Lobbing Handgrenades is because one of the men in the video, Matt Chandler, describes internet debate in those terms. He’s absolutely right. When we engage in debates about serious issues in 10-150 words, we’re trivializing the volumes upon volumes of serious research and writing that experts have slaved over for literally thousands of years. If arguing on a Facebook comment or blog thread is a handgrenade, the real work that’s being done is a World War.

So here’s the thing: in spite of everything I’ve written so far, I actually don’t think it’s wrong to debate on comment threads. I just think we need some guidelines in order for it to become beneficial. So here are my recommended guidelines for lobbing handgrenades.

  1. Respond to one statement at a time. Instead of trying to answer every single one of someone’s critiques or points, just respond to the most foundational one. Keep your answer simple and get to the heart of the problem ASAP.
  2. Don’t engage in every debate that pops up on your newsfeed. Sometimes you need to just let it go. Don’t feel obligated to pipe in on every debate. If you’re tempted, go play Angry Birds to cool off.
  3. Don’t caricature/stereotype. Don’t trivialize someone else’s beliefs or opinions. Even if you think they’re unintelligent, at least show them the common courtesy of not making fun of their position while you debate. This provokes people to be offended instead of fostering thoughtful, constructive dialogue. If you were actually speaking in person, you wouldn’t be so crude.
  4. Don’t make broad statements which require data to substantiate. The quote at the top of this blog fits into this category. When two people are debating on a comment thread, they normally aren’t working with very good data. Most of the time you’ll have to criticize their logic not their data.
  5. Prove that you know the other person’s position before you critique it. If you watched the video above, then you heard them talk about this. Let me please express that if you don’t absorb anything else I’ve written on this post, at least put this recommendation into practice. Take the time to learn what your opponent actually believes and is espousing. When you do this, the person will not only listen to you, but your critiques will actually hit home. This will propel the debate forward instead of leaving you spinning your tires in the mud.

I hope you’ll put these into practice along with me as we continue our philosophical, religious, scientific, and political debates. We need to keep debating, but let’s work on doing it in a constructive not destructive manner.

Best wishes in your handgrenade lobbing!



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