From polite discourse to no discourse

I have been a christian believer for about 55 years, and throughout that time many of my relatives, friends, work colleagues and internet acquaintances have not. Most of the non-believers have been agnostics or ‘don’t cares’, but there have been some atheists, a couple of Buddhists and Jews, a few Muslims and a few whose belief cannot be easily categorised.

And so of course I have had many discussions about belief and one thing stands out – all of the face-to-face discussions I can remembers have been civil and friendly. Disagreements about belief haven’t led to discourtesy. But it seems the internet has changed all that.

Angry polarisation can happen when discussing almost any area of life, sport, online games, music, etc, but most often it is politics or religion.


Most mainstream political parties are not extreme – if they were they’d never get elected. So often opposing parties agree on many points, but to differentiate themselves they often choose to accentuate the differences and reduce these differences to very simplistic slogans.

But followers seem more and more to be unwilling to discuss these differences, preferring instead to name-call. If you can call someone a “snowflake”, a “pathetic muppet”, a bigot, or “crazy” (all epithets I’ve heard politicians, newspapers or lobby groups use recently), then you don’t need to bother with a reasoned argument, it seems. And so it’s no surprise that internet comments are following suit.

Name calling in the US …

Perhaps the most potent examples relate to the present and previous US presidents. Barack Obama was caught in no scandals, he started no wars, he presided over an economic revival from the mess he inherited, and he was affable, hip and intelligent, and yet he still attracts the most hateful comments (perhaps because he was such a cleanskin, there is little else to say but insults). I rarely see thoughtful criticisms of his policies and his legacy.

Donald Trump is perhaps an easier target, and insults relating to his hair or “covfefe” may be funny, but hardly address the issues which his critics want to address.

…. and in Australia too

I see this happening in Australia, too. Political conservatives and liberals alike will sometimes call the opposing view pejorative names rather than explain where they think they are wrong. Conservatives who opposed the legalisation of same-sex marriage were labelled “bigots”. Those who support climate science are called “warmists”. Environmentalists may be called “tree-huggers” or accused of opposing progress and wanting to send us all back to live in caves.

My guess is that this trend is made worse in Australia by two factors:

  1. The Murdoch press is extremely adversarial about politics, and even about sport. Most issues are turned into “them vs us”, with insults and doubtful or even false “facts” used to promote disdain for those they disagree with – I suspect as a deliberate tactic to try to combat the weakening influence of newspapers by aiming at the gut level rather than providing thoughtful news.
  2. Our political system is extremely adversarial, in manner, if not always in fact. Mockery and point-scoring seem to matter far more to most mainstream politicians that actually governing the country for the good of us citizens.

Motivated reasoning

The tactic of insulting rather than presenting a reasoned argument is virtually never effective in persuading anyone who thinks differently – it is more likely to polarise them further. So why do people so often resort to this approach? It appears it may be more for their own benefit than to try to persuade someone else or even engage in conversation with them.

Psychologists say that when someone forms a belief that is contrary to the evidence, or contrary to the commonly held view, they may suffer from cognitive dissonance if that belief is challenged and they don’t have a clear answer. (Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort of holding contradictory beliefs or values.) Motivated reasoning may be the result.

Motivated reasoning can lead to us seeking out information that confirms what we already believe while avoiding information which challenges us, finding it easy to remember supporting information but not information which opposes our opinion, and using insults and epithets to demonise the viewpoints we oppose and so keep them at a distance.

In the recent Alabama Senate election, Republican candidate Roy Moore was credibly accused of sexual abuse by many women, charges that you’d expect would be viewed with alarm by the generally conservative and christian voters of that state. But, it was reported, many conservative voters refused to accept that the charges might be true, and instead saw Moore as a hero, a man of integrity, and refused to consider any other option. You can understand them maybe thinking he was the lesser of two evils (as the saying goes), but it seems like motivated reasoning to refuse to see any problems.

In the end, enough Republican voters became alarmed that Moore was narrowly defeated, but it was close and unexpected.


The same trends are obvious in religious discussions on the internet. The old tactic of describing believers as “delusional” is now a little old hat and mild compared to the low-level mockery that can be found on internet blogs and forums. This post was originally prompted by an exchange on a Patheos christian blog where a Jesus mythicist chose to combat some reasoned statements by some New Testament scholars with mockery and name-calling – unfortunately (?) the comments have been taken down so I can’t link to them.

But you will have seen it yourself. Christians mocking and being hateful to those who are sceptical of their faith. And when I as a fellow christian suggest that the New Testament gives us clear teaching to be polite, they point to Jesus arguing with the Pharisees in a most direct manner (ignoring that (1) they aren’t Jesus, (2) the culture was different back then, and (3) it was the religious people that Jesus criticised sharply, not the unbelievers).

And on the other side, some atheists still play the delusional card, mocking believers for having a mental illness that requires treatment and justifies the tough comments atheists may make (ignoring that this is very much NOT the way to treat people who truly have a mental illness). Or using derisory words like “sky daddy”, which say more about the user than they say anything to the listener.

Whether either side on these insults is showing evidence of cognitive dissonance and motivated reasoning is anyone’s guess, but you’d have to wonder.

An open mind?

Saying any more would be tedious. We all have seen examples of this sort of thing. The interesting, and worrying, thing for me is the consequence.

Once upon a time, when I was younger, before the internet, people discussed face-to-face, and mostly they discussed politely. They might have argued vehemently, but mostly the protagonists recognised that disagreement didn’t take away the social obligation for courtesy. And so the different viewpoints could be aired, and sometimes even considered.

But it is much harder to hear and consider viewpoints now. Insults and mockery preclude discussion. They prevent discussion, by alienating the other person before any discourse can begin, and they take the place of discussion – an insulting tweet is much easier that actually presenting reasons.

Is this what we all want?

I presume that those most likely to want to diminish civil discourse and indulge their taste for insult are those who are most likely to be using motivated reasoning and hence are suffering cognitive dissonance. They are perhaps unable to discuss thoughtfully because of previous hurtful experiences, hubris about the infallibility of their own reasoning, limitations in their reading and experience, or an antisocial attitude. Some fair reasons, some quite antisocial. Most of these could perhaps be classed as fundamentalist christians or fundamentalist atheists

But I wonder how many on either “side” are really like that, and how many are just following a growing pattern? Don’t most of us prefer to discuss our views respectfully rather than demean ourselves (and our beliefs in reason or love for fellow humans), and demean our “opponents” too?

Civil discourse won’t just happen. Those of us who want it will have to make it happen. I suggest these steps:

  1. Decide that we will aim for courteous discourse rather than polarising insults. Resolve to address arguments rather than use insulting language.
  2. Stop, wait and check what we write before we post it. Will this generate light or heat? Re-write as necessary.
  3. Avoid responding to other people’s insults. Learn not to take offence easily. Sometimes assertive behaviour, pointing out what is happening, is beneficial, but more often I think ignoring the insults is better.
  4. If necessary, totally ignore people who habitually insult rather than reason. The old cartoon shows someone staying up later on their computer because “someone’s wrong on the internet”. We can’t right every wrong, and those who insult are generally not interested in hearing our “right” anyway.
  5. If someone is offended by what we say, try to see it in their light. Even if we think they are mistaken, or just using a ploy, apologise. A genuine apology never hurt anyone.

Maybe in 2018 we can do our little bit to make the internet a safer, more pleasant place where courteous discourse increases rather than decreases further.



  1. all of the face-to-face discussions I can remembers have been civil and friendly.

    Yes — face-to-face makes a big difference.

    What is happening these days, is that people are forming communities with others that they only know as Internet identities. So it’s an abstract kind of community and not much face-to-face.

    In addition, people often don’t care about persuading those with whom they argue. They are more concerned with persuading those who just read the online discussion.

    And then there’s the problem of anonymity. People who sense that they are anonymous tend to be more abusive.

  2. Hi Neil, yes, I agree with all you say here. Online communities and discussion vary in several ways from face-to-face, as you note.

    Your comment about persuading anonymous readers is very interesting, for I have seen that happen – people convinced by arguments even though they never commented. But this surely is a point in favour of civility – cleverly insulting an opponent may make one feel good, but the silent observers will most likely not be impressed if their minds are open and enquiring.

  3. But this surely is a point in favour of civility …

    Yes, I agree with that.

    I’m inclined to suspect that insults are often used as a substitute for not having an actual good argument.

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