Arguing on the Internet: The Dwarves are for the Dwarves

If you’re familiar with C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, you may know what I’m quoting in the title. In the final book of the series, The Last Battle, there is a group of dwarves who believe in their cause so strongly that they cannot perceive reality. There are multiple interpretations of the dwarves, particularly given how prone to Christian allegory Lewis’s work is, but I think they hold a lesson for those of us witnessing and/or participating in arguments on the Internet.

Here’s the thing. Everyone believes their own worldview. It may not totally jibe with the one they project to the world, a la Stephen Colbert. But deep inside, everyone is the champion in their own narrative, or at least that’s the impression that everyone I’ve ever met or read about gives me.

And because they’re the main character in their story, people like to believe that they are good or at least mostly good. But that definition of good can vary wildly from individual to individual. It often is a combination of definitions associated with a particular religion along with whatever personal modifications one requires. Their attitude and behavior toward other beings are shaped by those definitions.

So, the dwarves are being good according to their own dwarvish standards, which, depending on our own internal definitions may or may not seem incorrect to us. That’s worth taking a moment to think about.

It’s a point that often gets overlooked, particularly in arguments on the Internet. As is an accompanying point, that in arguments it is much more common for every participant to believe themselves fully in the right than it is for any of them to believe themselves in the wrong.

Am I saying bad faith arguments are never made, that no one enjoys playing devil’s advocate or creating an elaborate chain of logic one could slip around an opponent’s neck? No, those exist but should be saved for another time. What I’d like to focus on is how one person who’s convinced they’re right can listen to another person who is also convinced that they’re right and end up at a meaningful conversation.

We get angry when people disagree with us. We become defensive when we feel we are under attack. That is a normal response that goes back to our early days of being human. But one of the cool things about human beings is that we can recognize that impulse in ourselves, and take it into account, and then move on to a more considered response which by no coincidence is usually a more courteous response.

To me, part of my definition of being good is questioning assumptions as well as what I’m told by my surroundings, particularly popular culture, and my own biases and filters. It seems to me more meaningful to be good in a way that I know to be correct because I have spent time thinking about it than to accept a definition pre-created for me. I can conceive of a world view, however, where that is not true.

And part of that definition is being willing to listen, to try to find common ground and agreement. To take a little time for give and take, rather than worrying about who’s the most rightest of all. Passionate anger can be a great motivator. But what it’s best at is creating more passionate anger.

Am I saying I am never offended ever? Holy smokies, no. But I am saying that I try to be willing to listen. That I try to extend the person I am listening to the courtesy of assuming they speak in good faith. If they don’t, eventually that will come out, at least in my opinion. Yes, I may feel that they should be listening to me first and that viewpoint may be justified. But what is more important, being right or achieving communication that may enable change of that worldview, or even mine?

I’m aware mileage as far as agreement goes will vary wildly among readers of this blog. And I will save how one reacts to bad faith arguments for some other post. But to me, operating by these guidelines is more effective than not, and gives me the satisfaction of knowing that at least I tried.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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