From the Archives: Argue Like a Saint

First appeared at SharperIron on June 25, 2008.

Verbal communication is one of God’s favorite inventions. He created speaking beings in His image and then spoke to them. Over the millennia, He gave visions to prophets and commanded them to speak or write what they had seen. And He inspired select prophets to write His words as they were moved by the Holy Spirit. He gave us a book.

So whenever we use words, we’re doing something of personal importance to God. And since we believers are at peace with God through Christ and represent God to a world that does not know Him, our writing and speaking carry that much more importance.

We should not be surprised, then, that Scripture has so much to say about how we use words. And we should attend energetically to how that instruction applies to posting in Internet forums.

The Proverbial Gold Mine

Here we’ll focus on Proverbs. It’s packed with instruction for how we should and should not use our mouths, and it applies well to the verbal communication challenges we encounter in forums.

In Proverbs, words never simply exist. They are tremendously powerful forces for good or ill.

A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit (Prov. 15:4).

From the fruit of his mouth a man is satisfied with good, and the work of a man’s hand comes back to him (Prov. 12:14).

Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits (Prov. 18:21).

Also, though Proverbs doesn’t discourage a good debate, it calls us to avoid quarreling.

The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out (Prov. 17:14).

So in Internet forums we must pay particularly close attention to how we handle differences of opinion. Disagreements provide some of the finest opportunities for words to become trees of life but also bring the most tempting opportunities to use words that damage and “break the spirit.” With that in mind, consider seven principles for better forum posting.

Seven Principles for Better Forum Posting (or How to Argue like a Saint)

I don’t claim to be a consistent example of these principles, but I do aspire to model them.

1. Seek Understanding First.

If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame. (Prov. 18:13)

When expressing disagreement, the value of what we say or write increases in direct proportion to the degree that we accurately understand what we’re opposing. We only make fools of ourselves when we zealously reject a proposition no one is advocating. It’s just beating the air.

We have nothing to lose by taking the time to understand before we react. For one thing, this step keeps many disagreements from occurring in the first place. We discover that we actually agree after all. For another, when the disagreement is real, taking the trouble to understand allows us to form counterarguments that are much better aimed.

We should aim to state the other’s views in terms he or she would accept. True, sometimes that goal proves to be impossible to achieve. But it’s always wise to try and usually wise to try more than once.

2. Aim to Persuade.

When we have gained understanding, our next goal in discussing a disagreement should be to persuade. And if persuasion is the goal, it only makes sense to use terms, phrasing and tone that are likely to persuade! The question to ask ourselves is, what do I find more persuasive when others are disagreeing with me?

The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness. (Prov. 16:21)

We don’t listen well and think carefully when someone comes at us with veins popping and fists clenched. Why would we think sarcasm, snide remarks, or accusations are persuasive when we use them on others? It doesn’t work. Nobody ever changed his mind because someone else called him a “heretic” (or any other name). If people change their minds at all, it’s when they hear good reasons presented in a way that invites reflection.

By insolence comes nothing but strife, but with those who take advice is wisdom. (Prov. 13:10)

A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Prov. 15:1)

With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone. (Prov. 25:15)

3. Talk Up Rather than Down.

Proverbs warns against arrogant forms of communication.

Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips. (Prov. 27:2)

Though this verse refers to bragging, talking down is a subtler form of the same thing. One dictionary defines “talking down” as speaking “condescendingly or as though the listener is inferior.” Talking down is sometimes an unintended consequence of trying to be helpful (we don’t know how informed our listeners or readers are). But often it is nothing more than a sophisticated way of saying, “I’m better than you are.”

I often wonder what would happen if we not only refrained from talking down to people but also talked up to them instead. What would happen if we consistently debated sensitive issues with the attitude that we are in the presence of our betters? That posture need not alter the content of what we say, but it does alter the tone. Rather than trying to gain advantage in the discussion by lifting ourselves, we would gain advantage by lifting our listeners—and there is true advantage in doing that. They will more readily listen to what we say.

4. Aim for Brevity.

Brevity is relative. It depends on the substance we need to communicate. For example, considering how much there is to know about life, the world, and our Maker, the Bible is a brief book. But during disagreements, we face the temptation to pile words on words, perhaps because we’re emoting, or perhaps because we’re trying to dominate the exchange. But neither long rants nor domination by excess verbiage is persuasive. Proverbs warns us to avoid talking too much.

When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. (Prov. 10:19)

Note the lack of restraint in these verses also.

Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin. (Prov. 13:3)

The wise of heart will receive commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin. (Prov. 10:8)

Excess talk is characteristic of fools.

5. Be Thick-Skinned

The highly compressed Hebrew of the Proverbs is difficult in places, but the ESV appears to have the right idea here:

The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult. (Prov. 12:16)

NKJV (and KJV) end the verse with “covers shame,” which translates kasa qalon. Though qalon normally suggests shame, Proverbs 6:33 reflects the more specific sense of “dishonor” (NKJV, KJV, ESV; “disgrace” in NIV, NAS). And since the fool in 12:16 is upset, the dishonor is coming toward him from others. Furthermore, the basic meaning of kasa is “to conceal or hide.” So “ignores an insult” is truly the gist. Fools trumpet their hurt feelings. Wise people quietly overcome them.

What’s great about forums is that we can be thick-skinned in writing even when, in reality, we aren’t thick-skinned at all. We can insert a delay between injury and response, walk off the discomfort, and pretend it didn’t even happen. After all, “I’m offended by that” is not persuasive. The wise quickly refocus on the questions at hand and the pursuit of truth.

6. Value Evidence

Proverbs 12:17 reminds us of the importance of pursuing truth and getting the facts straight.

Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness utters deceit.

For our purposes, the first half of the verse matters most. A court scene is in view, but that isn’t far from what happens in some forum threads. Someone decides there is value in putting a person or organization on trial, and opinions pro and con begin to fly. But we often forget that facts (not feelings) matter most when evaluating the right and wrong of things. And sometimes the available facts are too few to make any kind of fair judgment (assuming we have any business judging the matter in the first place).

When there are not enough facts to draw a conclusion, we should refrain from speculating (usually negatively) at length. As someone said, “Where facts are lacking, stop yakking” and hunt the facts down.

7. Slow Down

Finally, our forum communication will improve if we all remember two words: slow down.

It is a snare to say rashly, “It is holy,” and to reflect only after making vows (Prov. 20:25).

There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing (Prov. 12:18).

Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him (Prov. 29:20).

Internet culture is possessed of some ironies. For example, in SI’s forums we’re (a) writing and (b) having an audience of hundreds, eventually thousands, of people. You’d think that fact would make us hesitant to express ourselves too quickly or too freely, and often it does. But Internet forums do not naturally work that way. Since the audience is not visible in front of us, we forget about its size and how great a matter our little fires may be kindling. And since we also have no visual or auditory contact with the individuals we are interacting with, we forget we’re dealing with human beings.

So we must actively fight the false sense of urgency forum discussions tend to create. There is rarely any genuine need for speed, and haste often brings harm.

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