Does “fisking” help change views?

Have you ever heard or read a new word, and realized that it perfectly encapsulates something you’ve always known but never knew how to define?

I remember years ago hearing the term schadenfreude in the hilarious musical Avenue Q, and instantly memorizing it as the term to describe “happiness at the misfortune of others.” Sure, it’s a pain to spell (although the song from the show helps with that), and people look at you funny when you just casually throw it out, but I couldn’t not use it after learning it. Last week I had a similar experience when I learned of the term fisk.

For those who are out of the loop, fisk is a British slang verb meaning “to refute or criticize (a journalistic article or blog) point by point.” It was named after Robert Fisk, a  journalist for the UK newspaper, The Independent. Whether it was coined for his own style of writing (as the above dictionary.com entry suggests) or used against him in an insulting manner (as Wikipedia cites) seems to be an unsettled matter. But to the topic at hand – although the term has been around since the early 2000s, it didn’t come into vogue on this side of the Atlantic until last year, when the NRA used the term in a video that threatened to “fisk” the New York Times when they report stories about gun violence. It didn’t even have a dictionary.com entry until then!

Myself, I didn’t learn of the word until a random comment in r/ChangeMyView mentioned it:

(personal note: Please don’t fisk, it massively hurts readability and cuts context out of the response so the discussion is worsened).

Intrigued, I looked up the word and found the information listed above. And two thoughts swirled in my head:

  • Fisking obviously rubs some people the wrong way.
  • I fisk the vast majority of my responses on Reddit.

In my Reddit posts, my fisking takes the form of quoting specific portions of a poster’s comment and responding to each idea in turn. Sometimes I’ll quote a paragraph; other times a sentence; and perhaps even a specific phrase or word that I wish to emphasize. I’ve never really questioned this method of responding because it always felt like the obvious best way to respond. If you quote someone directly, you’re using their own words – thus eliminating the risk of “putting words in their mouth”. By pointing out the specific part to which you are responding, there’s no way you can be accused of ignoring part of their argument. And if they come back with something like “Well, that’s not what I meant,” then it just shows that they’re not able to back up their own words.

But when I was looking up information about fisking, several articles pointed out that the term has negative connotations. As in the quote above, fisking often makes reading difficult and taxing, as frequently a short comment will spawn an extremely long response, with a single sentence or a handful of words prompting paragraphs in reply. It also cuts out context and tends to become pedantic, focusing on things like word choice over the topic itself. It bogs conversation down by demanding justification for why you said something in a particular way rather than conversing naturally. And by only fisking specific words or sentences, often other information is set aside and ignored. After responding to several paragraphs in a fisked reply, what poster has the energy to then follow it up with “But you totally ignored THIS part!”, especially if they know they’ll likely get another essay in return?

In short, I felt like I had been going about my responses in an entirely backward way.

So I took to r/ChangeMyView to see if this was the case, and if I should actually change my writing style from fisking to something more narrative. After all, we have a study about CMV showing what techniques correlate best to changing someone’s view, and fisking doesn’t seem to be the way to apply them. Thus I created the topic “CMV: “Fisking” is a good way to reassure people who already agree with your view, but a poor way to change the view of someone who doesn’t.

The post attracted over 100 comments (and enough mod attention to be invited to write this blog post!), and a wide variety of opinions. Many posters instinctively felt like I had before learning about the term; after all, discussion on the internet is a different beast than discussion in real life, so it only makes sense that different response styles are required. Others mentioned how fisking is used in offline situations as well (although my CMV was meant to be specific to the subreddit). In the end I awarded a handful of deltas, mostly when posters were able to supply examples of people changing their minds after being fisked. That said, I didn’t do a complete 180 degree on the topic. As I mentioned in one response that awarded a delta:

I still think that fisking in general is probably less likely to change someone’s view than a narrative response; but that doesn’t mean it’s a poor technique in all types of situations. I think my view now is more closely “fisking is a poor technique for changing views in general, but can be good at doing so in specific contexts such as an OP basing their view on 100% incorrect facts.”

Will this change my response style? The jury is still out on that. Even in that post I caught myself reflexively fisking my replies several times before consciously forcing myself to do otherwise. I think that at the very least I will be more aware of how I write going forward… and I’ll probably try to keep fisking as a niche tool instead of my default technique. It’ll be interesting to see if I have more success in changing views by structuring my responses as a narrative rather than fisking them point by point.

One thought on “Does “fisking” help change views?

  1. I read your thread but didn’t engage. I’m consistently surprised when I see people respond negatively to so-called fisking, though I guess I shouldn’t be since it feels like someone is picking you apart. My thoughts were always that it was /better/ because you’re responding to something a person actually said rather than the big picture approach that can impute statements to another person.

    Liked by 2 people

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