Passover is still a few months off, but I wanted to share a bit of wisdom from the Passover Haggadah because it has helped guide me through many an online debate. There is a section which tells the story of the four sons (we always read it as “sons and daughters” at my house): “one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, and one who does not know to ask” and “recommends answering each son according to his question.” Wikipedia can fill you in on the rest of the story and the traditional responses if you need help understanding the irony of the cartoon at the top of this post, but for my purposes I just want to focus on the central pedagogical insight: that different questions and questioners require different responses. That different questions call for different responses may not seem to be a particularly useful insight, but I think a lot of the pain involved in internet discussions can be avoided if one thinks clearly about this and learns to act accordingly.
For me, engaging in online debate means trying to think seriously about a comment1 and what work it is doing before I choose how to respond. This avoids the problem suggested by the joke of the cartoon: that one’s ideological stance will shape how one interprets the comment. I’m not saying that one can respond to comments in a way that is completely free of ideology, just that focusing on the comment text itself rather than your assumptions about the person leaving the comment can help a lot. Yes, interpretation of the motivation and character of the commenter is important, but in this approach it only enters into the equation after you have determined what type of comment you are dealing with. What follows then is my adapted typology of the four types of comments one finds on the internet, and how best to respond to each one. Continue reading