The Atlantic

The New Science of How to Argue—Constructively

Disagreement is central to our lives online. ‘Erisologists’ want to study it more systematically.
Source: Simon McGill / Getty

In the early days of the internet, way back in the 1990s, tech utopians envisioned a glittering digital future in which people from very different backgrounds could come together online and, if not reach consensus, at least learn something from one another. In the actual future we inhabit, things didn’t work out this way. The internet, especially social media, looks less like a dinner party and more like a riot. People talk past one another, and the discussion spirals down accordingly.

Some of this has to do with, well, people from very different backgrounds coming together online. A common trigger is when specialized terms once restricted to certain corners of academia—think or —leak out into the broader public discourse without everyone agreeing on their precise definitions. If an academic uses the term on Twitter in an exchange with a nonacademic, for example, some level of animosity might arise simply through a lack of shared understanding over what the term does mean—that white people, on average, enjoy certain benefits relative to other Americans—and what it does not: that all white people are “privileged” in some absolute sense. If you Google , you’ll see a lot of people responding not to what the term actually means, but to a

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