It started with the occasional snarky comment or a cherry-picked takedown aimed at one faulty sentence. But it steadily matured into thoughtful counter-arguments to the whole piece. I read the articles carefully, I represented the disagreements as honestly as I could, I went away and did my research, I came back with statistics and citations to support my arguments.
Instead of replying with whatever knee-jerk reaction popped into my head, I sometimes took a day or two before responding to articles that I’d found particularly infuriating. And as I did, a couple of unexpected things started happening:
The first was that I learned a lot about a wide range of topics. All of that research ended up sinking in whether I liked it or not. I also discovered, unsurprisingly, that most issues weren’t as straightforward as I’d thought they were. Even if my fundamental position didn’t change, I usually found room for nuance.
The second was that I started having actual conversations. Rather than degenerating into the typical online game of one-upmanship and bad-faith trolling, I ended up having interesting, nuanced discussions with these people who I’d only been reading out of spite. Doing this made me a better thinker, which in turn has made me a better writer.
Sometimes the conversations ended with us agreeing. Sometimes one or both of us made some small amount of progress in convincing the other. And sometimes things ended more or less as terribly as you might presume of online discourse. But almost every time I had one of these conversations, I learned something, even if just that it’s a mistake to judge a human being based purely on a few sentences that they’ve written on the internet.
It’s never more delightful to be wrong than when somebody turns out to be better than you gave them credit for. And it turned out that I was wrong a lot. Of course, on the occasions when I couldn’t resist being a jerk to them, they often responded in kind. But when I engaged with people respectfully, even while telling them I thought they were wrong, I hardly ever got anything but the same respect in return.