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Socratic guide to online debates

Jimmy Daniel Berlianto
Jimmy Daniel Berlianto

Researcher at the Summit Institute of Development

Lombok | Thu, April 5, 2018 | 03:45 pm
Socratic guide to online debates

How should netizens respond to different perspectives without falling into the trap of endless, frustrating debates? (Shutterstock/File)

As an internet user, you are likely to have seen a debate take place online. Debate topics that are currently prevalent – especially due to increasing political tensions – arguably lead to deeper polarization on the perceptions of truth.

Even though differences are natural, deepening polarization could lead to communities being torn apart and further drowned in their own point of view.

However, being silent is not an ideal option either, especially when we have seen the consequences of polarization, such as hate speech and hoax news. Himawan Baju Aji, former head of cybercrime at the National Police, stated that in 2015, there were 671 reports of hate speech, while 2016 had a similar number, as reported by kompas.com.

So, how should netizens respond to different perspectives without falling into the trap of endless, frustrating debates?

First things first: debates have to be faced by dialogue; focus on getting to the truth, not justifying a perceived truth, moreover hatred. One of the methods that can be implemented to achieve this is the Socratic or dialogue method.

This method is derived from the name of the classical Greek philosopher Socrates, who in his time tried to encourage Athenians’ critical thinking. The Socratic method is a journey in looking for the truth by asking questions that will tackle the argument's flaws. Through this method, one is encouraged to realize one's own contradictions or logical flaws. This kind of self-realization would then be more plausible in influencing a viewpoint concession or shift compared to only countering by other facts.

So, how can one actually implement this method?

First, stop any prejudices you have or seeing different perspectives that people have as a threat. By getting rid of prejudice, one can improve their understanding and start seeing the other parties view within their own values and beliefs – that is standing in their shoes.

Second, listen. The ability to actually listen is an essential part of every social relationships, including dialogue on the internet. We often do not realize that in a conversation, we are not listening to understand, but only to counter. Will there be any change with that kind of dialogue? Of course not.

Third, engage in dialogue through questions. This is where the technical aspects of the Socratic method start. Questions that are based on facts and information are designed to show inconsistencies and contradictions within another party’s arguments. Reasoning would have to be given by the other party, which is responded to with more questions. The flow of this activity is the orientation of plausibly getting to the truth.

Implementing this method is certainly not that simple. Self-defense will persist as findings from neuroscience state that the human brain – especially the left side of the brain – has a mechanism to preserve its beliefs about the world around it, as explained by Sandra Blakeslee and Vilayanur S. Ramachandran in their book Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind.

In this regard, have we ever seen any kind of change happen in the majority of internet debates? Based on the facts above, the possibility is unlikely.

Through the three steps then, the realization of contradiction can be triggered from within, not pushed from the outside. In other words, the brain has to contradict itself, which would make concessions more likely to happen. We have to understand also that who is on the right side is not really the point, but more of who starts a constructive dialogue – a peaceful dialogue.

We are in a moment where half a year ago and a half year from now we will celebrate the annual International Day of Peace and we have to ask ourselves; where do we stand right now in terms of peace in our communities?

Indonesia, as a part of the world that we live in, certainly has a lot of homework to do in the struggle for peace and we have to be ready to preserve it. All of our communities have to realize that peace is not achieved by only eliminating direct or physical violence, but can only be achieved when every individual can respect each other in a situation where violence is nonexistent.

The willingness to listen and understand is the foundation of peace and respect and dialogue is the way to build it. With the increasing number of hate speech cases, the internet – especially social media – is the media outlet in the spotlight.

The time that we live in is a defining moment that decides how the relations of human interaction through the internet will be built upon. Defining this moment is the beginning of the “unlimited” flow of information. Communities that are able to be critical in this era will decide how the communities in the future will handle the development of human interaction and relations through a wider variety of platforms.

Plato, another classical Greek philosopher who was a disciple of Socrates, once said that ignorance is the source of evil. In this regard, ignorance can be understood not only in terms of the things that are happening at the moment but also ignorant to what kind of future we are building.

Let’s be a nation that upholds dialogue. Let’s be a peaceful nation and be ready to preserve it. (dev/kes)

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The writer is an alumni of international relations at Gadjah Mada University, who focused on the field of development and peace. The writer currently works as a researcher for an NGO in Lombok, which focuses on public health and community development.

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