This post is specifically about debating online primarily with strangers or casual acquaintances. Strategies can be very different for in-person discussions and/or conversations with close friends.
Yes, debating online can be worthwhile.
Secular Pro-Life exists because of online debates.
Around 2007, I joined an abortion discussion board on Facebook and began arguing about abortion almost daily with the same few dozen people. This went on for over a year. In that time many of us (pro-choice and pro-life alike) became friends. This discussion board is where I met Kelsey Hazzard.
Around 2009, Kelsey reached out to tell me she was creating a group specifically for non-religious pro-lifers. She knew I was (at that time) an agnostic, and asked if I’d like to help her. I said sure. That was the beginning of SPL.
Meanwhile, a woman named Terrisa Bukovinac had hired me to work for her at a Starbucks in San Francisco. We got along fine, in a professional way, but we didn’t discuss anything personal or political.
When Terrisa moved on to another position, I friended her on Facebook. I didn’t think about how that connection allowed Terrisa to see my many, many comments about abortion on the SPL page. An atheist herself, Terrisa had already been rethinking the abortion issue but didn’t see any place for herself in the pro-life movement. She was surprised and happy to learn about SPL, and reached out to me to get more involved.
Today I’m SPL’s Executive Director, Kelsey is the Board President, and Terrisa is the Board Vice President. Secular Pro-Life exists because of online debates.
Online debates have multiple uses.
Debating online, when done well, can be extremely helpful. Yes, some people do change their minds because of online debates (either participating in them or reading them). Additionally, arguing online has dramatically improved my understanding of different pro-choice perspectives and priorities. It has introduced me to friends from all different walks of life, thus helping me avoid echo chambers (echo chambers make you weak!) It’s introduced me to countless sources that have informed SPL’s content. Online debates can improve our knowledge, clarity, connections, and resources-again, when done well.
Of course it’s easy to argue online poorly. You can waste your time, energy, and emotions without useful results. You can represent the pro-life view badly, alienating people we hope to draw to our cause. Here are some notes I have to try to avoid those problems.
Remember the silent readers.
When I argue about abortion online, typically my target audience is not the person I’m arguing with. It’s the people silently reading the conversation and considering what both sides are saying. I’ve had people privately message me over the years to say that they read my arguments and it’s been persuasive to them. Sometimes they are people I had no idea ever saw anything I wrote. You never know who’s watching.
As you engage, think of yourself as an ambassador to the silent readers. This is especially important for those of us with very politically mixed social circles. The less we’re in an echo chamber, the better positioned we are to soften hearts and minds.
This emphasis on silent readers changes how I interact with the people actually debating me. I’m less likely to take vitriol personally and more likely to consider it useful, insofar as people on the fence tend to be more open to calm, rational discussion and more alienated by aggressive and angry rhetoric. Similarly, I’m less likely to be horrified by extremist pro-abortion views, and more likely to consider the expression of them useful as I try to get people on the fence to relate more to my position and less to the other side’s.
I’m also less likely to get absorbed in fruitless 100+ comment threads, knowing fewer and fewer people are silently reading a conversation the longer it goes on. The more people can read your conversation, the more potentially useful the conversation is. I’m more likely to spend time and energy debating if the other person and I have a lot of mutuals who can read our content, or if our conversation is publicly viewable. In contrast, I have very little interest in private debates (e.g. through DMs) because I would expend the same amount of time and energy and only one person gets to see the arguments. It’s inefficient.
Focusing on silent readers also means I’m less likely to be concerned if the person I’m talking with doesn’t seem to be coming around to my view. That does happen from time to time, but it’s uncommon, and it’s not really the point. The point is to represent our side well.
Here are some ways to do so.
Build trust by being carefully accurate, and honest when you’re not sure.
When easy and possible, cite your sources. Avoid pro-life sources, as readers will likely not trust them, and instead prioritize neutral sources or even pro-choice sources if they can underscore your point.
If you feel reasonably confident of a claim but don’t have a source on hand, use caveats such as “if I recall correctly” (IIRC) or “as far as I know” (AFAIK). These are ways to be honest about how sure you are (or aren’t), which can help set the tone of the conversation, decrease defensiveness in interlocutors and readers, and actually decrease defensiveness for yourself. I have found it’s much easier for me to concede an error (if it happens) if I made the claim modestly.
Similarly, avoid language that leaves no room for nuance (e.g. always, never, and superlatives). That kind of wording is easy to disprove, and it’s often not necessary to the central point anyway.
If you do make an error, just acknowledge it. “You’re right, that’s my mistake.” Acknowledging mistakes builds rapport and trust. People are more likely to believe you when you insist you’re certain if they know you would say if you were uncertain or if you realized you were wrong. They still might not agree with you, but they’re more likely to recognize you’re arguing in good faith.
Build rapport by being calm and (reasonably) respectful.
In addition to being factually accurate, it’s also important for us to be generally calm and respectful, or at least neutral. Avoid condescension (e.g. “You do realize [whatever claim], right?”) I also avoid words like “obviously,” in case what I’m saying is not, in fact, obvious to others.
And, crucially, try to avoid telling people what they think, what they feel, or what motivates them. Even if our assessments are accurate (and they often won’t be), doing this just irritates and alienates people. Try instead to couch concepts in what you think, feel, or know, and leave the other person to monitor their own thoughts, feelings, and motivations. If it really becomes necessary to address the other person’s thoughts, feelings, or motivations, try to do so in the form of “My understanding is that you think/feel XYZ, is that right?” Leave them as the authority to confirm the contents of their own mind.
Acknowledge common ground where possible. In some cases, this may be the best way to move on from a conversation. “Well I don’t agree with necessarily everything, but I definitely agree with you on XYZ. Always glad to have common ground.”
While it’s important to be calm and respectful, don’t be obsequious. It can be a difficult line to define, but there is a distinction between being decent and being submissive, and the latter often invites disdain.
Establish boundaries on your time and energy.
Despite your best efforts, there will be plenty of conversations that aren’t an efficient use of your time and energy. Here are some suggested boundaries for lengthy or particularly heated debates:
- Avoid engaging in real time. The quick back and forth makes it too easy to get emotional or stuck on tangents. If someone is responding to you in real time, consider muting notifications and coming back an hour or 12 hours or a day later to respond. You could also try writing out the response you want to send but then saving it to post later. This slows the pace of the conversation and gives you time to reread your thoughts when you’re feeling less reactionary. If you worry you will forget about the discussion because you muted notifications, set a timer or reminder.
- If you’re in a conversation where multiple people are arguing with you, feel free to say “It’s too much for me to respond to this many people at once, so I’m going to focus on so-and-so’s comments this time.” Similarly if you are arguing with someone who is bringing up a lot of different points in every comment, feel free to focus on just one at a time. Ideally you can plant seeds and give people something to think about without spending prohibitive amounts of your energy and time.
- Don’t feel obligated to continue conversations that have gotten particularly vitriolic. If an interaction is taking a toll on your emotional or mental health, stop. There will be plenty more opportunities in the future if you decide you want to try another time.
- Remember conversion rarely happens in a single conversation. Two or three times a year we ask people who used to be pro-choice why they converted, and many of them report that they took years to fully switch stances. Our goal here is not to hyper focus on any single conversation’s effects, but to keep calmly putting relevant facts and pro-life perspectives out there for the person we’re talking to (and, even moreso, the silent readers) to consider.
Consider the “hit and run” comment.
If you don’t have enough time, energy, or emotion for a lengthy or outnumbered conversation, remember the 80/20 rule: 80% of the result you want can come from 20% of the effort (but if you want that last 20% of the result, you have to expend the other 80% of your effort). These aren’t meant to be accurate percentages, but a way to remember that you get a whole lot more result simply by doing anything rather than nothing.
With this in mind, I often try what I’ve come to think of as the “hit and run” comment. You see a public post filled with pro-choice arguments and misinformation, it would take you all day to address it all, and if you do comment you will likely be dogpiled by far more people than you could reasonably respond to, and often their comments will be particularly vacuous and aggressive.
You can’t reasonably spend your entire day fighting the internet, but you don’t want to leave a pro-choice echo chamber so peacefully undisturbed. In that case, just pick one point you can counter, write a brief response as neutrally as possible and, if applicable, link to a source making your point.
Then immediately turn off notifications and forget all about it.
Sure, a lot of people will disagree with you and bring up counterpoints you won’t end up answering. Yes. And given infinite time it would be better to push back on every piece of misinformation everywhere. But this is the 80/20 rule. You can leave these bread crumbs of pro-life views and factually verifiable information for silent readers without bashing your head against the wall. With “hit and run” comments, you have at least, however briefly, pierced an echo chamber and left something else to consider. And these comments cost very little, in terms of your time and energy.
If nothing else, donate to us.
Despite all of the above considerations, if you just don’t have the heart or energy to argue about abortion but you want pro-life arguments to be out there, feel free to donate to us! We do this all the time. And maybe the most efficient way you can fight pro-choice rhetoric is by empowering us to fight it for you.
I talk about much of the above in the following Tiktok and in even more detail in Equal Rights Institute podcast episode linked below: