Saturday, March 10, 2007


"Arguing on the internet is like running in the Special Olympics... Even if you win, you're still retarded."

One of the things that keeps a successful message board and blog comment section popular is discussion, debate, and even argument. Different people have different points of view on various topics, be they political, artistic, religious, game related, or what have you. In the process of pointing out things or suggesting ideas on an Internet forum, you will inevitably run into people who differ from your point of view and often a disagreement will result.

Sometimes these disagreements can be quite pleasant, they are a refreshing point of view shared by an intelligent, mature person who can argue their position well. The best kind of discussions are between these sorts of people - people who are able debate ideas rather than people. The kind of folks who are willing to admit that the other person has a point and further might even be right, and them wrong.

Such kind of people are rare, and in truth, all of us, no matter how good we are normally, will have times when we lose our patience, had a terrible day, are discussing a matter we can't debate rationally and calmly, and let our passions overtake our reason. In addition, everyone needs to learn how to debate and argue properly, this is not a skill trained in school or by most parents, so you have to learn on the fly. In the process you can be pretty awful at it, and even make enemies of people whom you've never seen.

The FoolThen there are the fools. Fools are not defined by their ignorance, or their passion, they are not defined by their lack of intelligence or discernment. These are all errors that each of us to some degree exhibit. I'm ignorant of many things in life and try to avoid discussions of those topics except in a minor way. I'm lacking in intelligence compared to some, and discernment to many. I am often passionate about topics, sometimes to the exclusion of politeness and reason. We all are, at times and in various places.

No, a fool is another creature entirely. The fool is someone who is deliberately, willfully obstinate, someone who knows better and simply doesn't care. Someone who knows the facts of the matter, but prefers their story, and clings to it regardless of what the truth is. A fool is someone who will never be shaken from a position no matter what is presented to them. The internet seems to attract such people in unusual numbers, particularly on hot button topics. They come from all sides of the argument, liberal and conservative, moderate and radical, religious and atheist, it doesn't matter. This is a characteristic of the person involved, not the positions they cling to. Some fools are incredibly well educated, some are simply ignorant.

Fools are very frustrating. They defy any sense of debate or persuasion, and do not attempt to persuade you. Typically a fool will cling to specific phrases and memes that they've heard or been told to use without fully understanding what they mean. Call these pablum or talking points or what have you, they are often simply sounds repeated in print by the person involved, like a parrot repeating what it hears. Polly doesn't have a clue what those sounds mean, but she loves getting a cracker when she makes them.

There are two basic kinds of fools, both of which show up on the internet. The first is the fool who is simply there to cause trouble: usually known as a troll, this is someone who is not interested in debate or discussion, he or she doesn't even care what the topic is or who is there. They simply are there to create disruption and get attention, to cause a disturbance and angry response, thus fulfilling a need for people to pay them heed.

The second is there ostensibly to comment on the topic and debate, but without the tools or personal understanding to do so. This is the kind of person who, had they more skill in rhetoric or knowledge of the topic, could be quite interesting and even could be beneficial to the conversation, but they have neither. All they have are lines to repeat.

Now, many will point out as the initial quote implies, that arguing on the internet is idiotic and pointless, you never accomplish anything, nobody is persuaded, and it just leads to ulcers and sleepless nights. That you are simply engaging in a form of mental masturbation, serving some personal need to be right or to fight people without any higher goal or end possible in the exercise. There is some truth to this point, often this is the case. However, argument on the internet need not be an exercise in futility and frustration.

I've learned a great deal over the years from discussions with people, reading other people's debates, and thinking things through that I assumed or had not considered more closely. As I've done so, my skills in writing and rhetoric, debate and logic have improved, at least to some degree. The interaction between intelligent, well-informed, and polite people can be immensely beneficial to other readers and each other, and it does show up on occasion.

Through this effort, you will find what I'm fond of and why I consider comments to be important: the debate will bring up information and thoughts that the original article does not. Each good post is like a miniature essay or opinion column on the topic, with links, arguments, and evidence that advance understanding of the topic. A good debate ends with everyone better educated on the topic, and thus better able to tackle it in real life. The point of discussion is not to make everyone involved feel smart, but to close approach the truth and to learn.

Broken TeethThat's what keeps me coming back, the chance to learn, the chance to expand my understanding of the truth and the world around me, to learn history, to be more aware of topics and areas I know little about. That's what makes the fool so frustrating, they are like throwing a washer in your cheerios, it tastes like oil and chips a tooth, destroying the entire breakfast. Their jarring intrusion on what could otherwise be educational and enjoyable leads people off in odd tangents and ruins the flow of the debate with pointless strawmen and endless logical fallacies.

You see, the person who came up with the quote about the special olympics and arguing on the internet did so to argue his point on the internet. He violated his very principle trying to make a point, he argued on the internet how people ought to not argue on the internet.

The question for anyone posting on the internet is always: how do you respond to such a person? How should one answer a fool? In one sense there's a desire to answer a fool who has posted something particularly deceptive or emotionally compelling. Sophistry (things that seem intelligent and learned, but are without rational content) can be very persuasive to some who have not considered the topic very carefully. The concern is that people will read this and become convinced of something that is wrong and mistaken, so the desire is to quickly answer it to prevent such confusion.

In another sense, often the fool's post is something so patently absurd and goofy that leaving it alone will completely debunk their point. Sometimes the post is not worth answering because it is obviously trolling for a response, often completely off topic. Sometimes, the troll has even posted this in order to stop people from thinking about the topic. Wow, that's particularly embarrassing for my side of the issue and I have no answer to it... so lets deflect attention away from it and people will forget it.

Both of these points of view can be correct, depending on the situation and the point being made. So how do we make that call? In the book of Proverbs in the Bible, there's this little sequence in dealing with the fool:

"Do not answer a fool according to his folly, Lest you also be like him."
-Proverbs 26:4
"Answer a fool according to his folly, Lest he be wise in his own eyes."
-Proverbs 26:5

Yes, that's right, these two verses directly and in sequence completely contradict one another. Now, this might seem like a complete head scratcher, but keep in mind that many proverbs contradict each other: "look before you leap" and "he who hesitates is lost." So what should we do? Look quickly? Don't hesitate while you examine the situation? Huh?

The answer is that proverbs are like advice, you don't take them as rules or laws, you take them as pieces of wisdom to apply in their appropriate situation. If your child is about to walk in front of a bus, you ought not hesitate to save them. If you are about to send your bank account to an Ethiopian Prince so he can send you $100,000, now its time to look before you leap. Both proverbs are true and wise - in their place.

And this is how we should approach the fool, as Proverbs points out: note that each says "according to his folly." Fools should be answered based on their folly and what is wisest in each situation. And this is where it gets harder, because it takes discernment and often experience to know what to do. If you aren't sure, simply don't answer, that's the safest course to take.

The best clue you're dealing with someone who ought not be answered is when they are deliberately attempting to get attention or distract from the main point. You can tell this because the post is a classic troll, the bait is juicy and the hook hidden; the post is an attempt to get a response rather than to consider the topic or share an opinion, information, or thought. When you see such a post, ignore it. It doesn't matter how compelling it is, the purpose is to get attention like a spoiled child, and they will go away if starved of what they hunger for. Along similar lines is a Greifer, someone simply posting to cause trouble, crash the server, or send you a tasty virus.

Ace of Spades Headquarters commenters started a trend in which they would ignore trolls and instead respond by indicating that they had clicked on an ad at AOSHQ instead. In the place of a response, the troll simply was enhancing the website's advertising profile and thus potential revenues. Good work troll boy, you just made the guy you hate richer. Sadly this died off after a few months, but I thought it was a particularly clever and effective way of showing up trolls. *click.*

Another type of fool you can safely ignore is the cut and paster. It is not always wrong or out of place to post a copy of something, if you're trying to use it to make a point, clearly point out what you are doing, and limit the amount and frequency of this action. It is a copyright violation, and thus not only unethical but illegal to paste an entire article without obtaining permission. Someone who posts obviously copied material without citation, especially huge portions, is someone you can safely ignore. Such a commenter has nothing of particular value to add to the discussion, they are just vomiting chunks of text on the debate as if that answers everyone's point. Someone who does this repeatedly, even to the point of spamming the same thing over and over is clearly someone to ignore.

A particularly frustrating kind of fool to ignore is the one you've tried to reach, tried to debate with, but who has demonstrated an utter lack of ability to actually engage in sensible discussion. This can be obvious soon, and it might take a few posts to work out. Several different types of commenters fall under this category, such as the contrarian, the party line poster, the talking points poster, the autorant bot, and the mole.

Such a person might start out rational enough and seem like a person you can discuss matters with, but rapidly will decay into a fool you should ignore. The pattern can be easy to spot after a while, they will make a point, which is calmly and totally refuted, then without admitting they were mistaken move to another point, then repeat the process... usually ending up exactly where they started as if nothing had happened. This is evidence of someone who is immune to persuasion, logic, and fact, but has their position on things and simply ignores what everyone says. Often such a person is not really paying much attention to what is being said to begin with, they just have their laundry list of things to spit out and once they've got to the end, well its GOTO 100.

Here's a partial example of what I'm referring to. The recent announcement of Scooter Libby's conviction for perjury and lying to cops was celebrated across the internet by Democrats and leftists of all persuasions. They flooded to conservative or right-leaning blogs to gloat over this gargantuan prize, and with them they brought a host of misconceptions about the trial and sadly among them were some real prize fools and trolls.

At Ace of Spades HQ, again, the announcement of this conviction brought quite a discussion and sadly a fool. It started out with the commenter Evil Progressive about the "16 words" speech by President Bush, which for some odd reason people claim was a lie:
“The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa .”
Yellowcake UraniumAs even Factcheck notes, this was substantially and factually accurate - and in any case couldn't have been a lie, since President Bush was simply reporting what a foreign intelligence service said. Evil Progressive claimed this was a lie, that Wilson's report to the newspaper clearly was the truth, and refused to believe otherwise. But he offered a challenge:
Prove it. Link to the sources that prove it. Please refer only to non-partisan, i.e. --- unbiased --- sources. You know, the kind of sources that lay out the facts as they are, and let people judge for themselves.

If I were presented with facts -- including a precise timeline of the events -- from unbiased, well-researched, and well-documented sources, I would take the time to form an opinion. I may very well conclude that you were correct or partially so.
To this, commenter Toby928 responded by linking the report by the Select Committee on Intelligence on the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq, which provides exactly what Evil Progressive asked for. I responded as well with quotes from the Washington Post about the committee's report. To this information, another commenter called it a "handpicked whitewash committee."

This committee had the following Democrats on it: Vice-Chairman John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-WV), Carl Levin (D-MI), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Ronald L. Wyden (D-OR), Richard J. Durbin (D-IL), B. Evans "Evan" Bayh III (D-IN), Johnny R. "John" Edwards (D-NC), and Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD).

Not exactly paragons of conservative thought and right wing extremists.

Evil Progressive simply moved on to the next talking point: polls show Bush is unpopular, then to how stupid religious people are, even invoked Godwin's law (because no discussion on the internet is complete without Hitler coming up):
You exhibit the same psychological psychoses that the followers of Hitler, or Pol Pot, or Stalin, or any other vile dictator in history, suffered from.
Given the proof he asked for, EP simply shrugged and went on as if nothing had happened. This is classic fool behavior. When you see this happen, its time to shrug and move on: such a person is unreachable, at least at this point.

There is, of course, the highly educated fool. As I have noted elsewhere, postmodernism and relativism has destroyed the ability of some people to think. They may be incredibly brilliant and well educated, they may have deep wells of knowledge and experience, but their entire worldview rejects the very idea of reason and truth. This will lead them to be unreachably foolish in their arguments, and indeed, them arguing at all is a violation of their very philosophy: if there is no truth then why are you trying to convince me of anything? If you run into someone like this, just walk away. Experience may reach them at some point like Newton's apple or the liberal and the mugger, but you won't.

Lastly, there is the occasional post fool, where someone lost their head, had a bad day or simply is on a topic they can't be rational about. Everyone has these moments, and when I'm are going through them, I'm unreachable too. When someone has such a time, leave them alone, and they'll get over it. This typically happens late at night when someone is too tired to think straight, or something incredibly awful is going on in their lives.

Something to remember, always, is that you are under no compulsion to answer anything or anyone. The world will not end if some fool gets away with a misleading statement. Chances are anyone reading a blog's comment section is pretty well informed to begin with and is not likely to be taken in by a single radical comment. If they are, they likely aren't going to be the kind that will cling to the truth even if its pointed to them in any case.

Because the internet is quite anonymous, there is no intimidation factor, someone who otherwise might be quiet in a discussion in person for fear of looking like an idiot or being wrong is much more likely to chime in while anonymous and distant. Further, the ages of people posting are often difficult to pick out. One would think that the grammar, spelling, and vocabulary of a person on the Internet would give clues, but oddly enough in a text-based environment, all of these basic tools of language have suffered rather than been enhanced by use.

Leet KeyboardAbbreviations abound, even of simple words like you (u) simply to save time typing. Some have gotten so used to typing on a postage stamp-sized phone keypad for tiny text messages that they echo this constantly without those restrictions. Some consider these language-distorting efforts to be cool and trendy and repeat them because their friends do it and it seems more hip and culturally relevant than typing out full words and phrases. KTHXBYE (ok, thank you, good bye).

Thus, you might be arguing the deeper meaning of relationships, marriage and responsibility with a 13 year old girl and not really know initially. She may have very strong opinions - or at least be repeating strong opinions that others have expressed to her - but not understand them in the slightest.

And it is in understanding these limitations that one can begin to know how to deal with such a person. Because while the person you are talking to might come across as a colossal knucklehead, they may just be simple, or very young and need some help to get to where you are going. We all had to learn, and the best thing to do when dealing with someone who is misguided but trying to learn is to be patient. Both of you will learn from the process - you to be patient and humble, them to know what the truth of the matter is.

Remember: for a young person, especially a teen, often losing an argument is akin to losing esteem and "face" in ancient Japan. They may feel like suicide, because their confidence level is so amazingly low. The fear sometimes can be overwhelming: if I'm wrong here, if I can't trust the people who taught me this who can I trust?? This can lead people, even adults, to argue past the point of logic and reason because it has become not about the point being discussed, but the persons involved. For them, losing the argument means something about them, it makes them losers and they'll fight that to the end. I suspect to some degree or another, we all suffer from this.

There are always people who cherrypick lines to answer from a post, ignoring the other points being made. This is a cheap stunt that lets you feel as if you've "won" (or at least scored points of some sort) while ignoring the bulk of the argument being made. Someone can be wrong in some factual point without damaging their argument in the slightest. If I get a date wrong in a list of events, that most likely will not make the slightest difference (unless it destroys the sequence), but that can be a factual error that someone leaps on to attack. Proving that fact was wrong does not equal winning an argument, but it can seem so to a fool.

Stay on target, to quote Star Wars. Admit the mistake with a humble and gracious spirit, then move on; if it doesn't hurt your argument, then push the point. If it does, rethink your point, and see if you're still right. It could be, as remote as it may seem, that you actually are mistaken.

And sometimes, your opponent might be right, but is simply terrible at making their point. This may be youth, it may be poor rhetorical skills (and give them a break, who teaches rhetoric today?), it may simply be they are tired, ill, or out of sorts in some manner. This might make them seem foolish and irascible, but in fact they just are incompetent, at the moment. This happens to me on more occasions than I care to admit. I'll read something I've written later and it's nearly incomprehensible. The ideas are jumbled together, without order or warrants, and the examples are simply nonsense. Chances are if you write enough, you'll find this true at least once. That person you are discussing things with might not be a fool at all.

Black KnightThe purpose of discussing an idea is not to win, not to be the smarter guy, not to show how great you are, not to demonstrate what a pile of trash your debate opponent is. It is to seek the truth. Truth doesn't need your protection, something remains true even if everyone on earth rejects it; you can deny that you've lost all your limbs til you die, but that doesn't actually change the fact that you are dismembered.

We don't have to "win" an argument, that is, get the opponent to agree or finish by humbly submitting, for the truth to win out. Sometimes it simply takes time, people have the seeds of information planted in their minds, and over weeks or years, it wins out. I've found this to be true for myself many times in the past. I've been certain something is true, but one point made by someone in the past works its way around, resounds with other points made and eventually I realize the truth. You don't have to convince someone in one sitting for the point to be made.

As I noted above, sometimes people will simply refuse to admit a point for pride and ego. To admit they were wrong simply would be too much to give, even if they realize the fact at the time. Remember: answering someone according to their foolishness makes us the fool, and fulfills the quote at the beginning of this essay. Don't stoop to the level of a fool, or you both lose.

Our purpose, all of us, when we discuss matters, should be to find the truth, to understand what really happened, to be factual (these are three different concepts, but now is not the time to address that). Personal issues ought to be left aside. In our best moments in a discussion, we ought to be humble, winsome, polite - always polite, and calm. The purpose is not to defeat the opponent, but defeat their mistaken ideas. You aren't out to crush them, you're out to seek the truth together. Consider them a partner in this exploration, not an enemy.

You cannot see who is on the other side of that screen. In real life, they might be great friends, someone you would love to go to a ballgame or hang out with. I have people whose philosophy and mine are utterly at odds, but we are famous friends. It is too easy on the internet to assume that disagreement means enemy. You can and do disagree with friends, family, and lovers without making an enemy of them. They're more likely to listen to you, think about what you said, and consider your points if you are a winning and gracious person.

The thing to keep in mind is that when you argue with someone, you're not arguing with them you are arguing with their ideas. They may be very fine people but mistaken. Attack the ideas, not the person. Understand that their disagreeing with you is not a personal attack (at least, it ought not be), it is simply being at odds with your thoughts. Sticks and stones, remember. Do not attack the person, and always when you attack their ideas remember that they might take it personally and be hurt. It never hurts to be gentle.

Someday, maybe, I'll take this advice to heart consistently myself.

One last point has to be made: sometimes, just go with me here, sometimes when you read something on the internet and go "what an idiot!" sometimes... I'm being the fool. Sometimes you are the one who is resisting logic and truth, to cling to something you presume without examining. I know I've found that to be true in the past, much to my humiliation. I recall well a heated argument about Value Added Taxes and who would be covered by it. I insisted that criminals who don't pay taxes now would be a huge source of income, and someone else pointed out that in fact that's not exactly true.

It's a bit complex, but basically criminals spend their money and the people who earn this pay taxes on it. If you eliminated the income tax for a value added tax, the person paying the taxes would shift, but the money being taxed would not. Partly due to my stubbornness (yes, amazingly enough I can be stubborn, and even arrogant), and partly due to the lack of clarity on the part of the other person, I did not get that point for about a week. It was rather embarrassing, but enlightening.

If we truly are seeking the truth, the first place we should examine should be ourselves and our own ideas. Sometimes... I'm the fool.
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Lance said...

You know what they say fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on you twice as much for fooling a fool, you are the foolish, fool and a fool and his fool are soon parted, yay verily it is harder for a fool to sit upon the toadstool of righteousness the for a fool to ......fooling you ........

Random Name said...

What can I say? (I'll say it anyway.) I am guilty of all the varieties of foolishness you describe. (By the way, your post interface keeps displaying information and instructions in Chinese, or perhaps it is Korean.)

geoff said...

The best defense against the fool is deleting his comments. Their primary reason for invading a site is to get attention: it really cuts them when their comments start disappearing.

Of course, that doesn't stop me from badgering them at AoSHQ when I'm bored or frustrated with work.

Serious George said...

Thanks, Mr. Taylor. This was informative as well as instructive. As a result I've gone a full three days without replying in kind to the kind of fools you speak of. "Hi. My name is not George. ("Hi, not George") It's been 72 hours since my last sip at the trough of folly." And somehow, the world has kept its appointed turning.

Tookshire said...

Thank you so much for such a long post. I'm so glad I googled and found this entry. Somehow it got through to me a bit more than a friend's short and sweet advice to "just ignore it." It has taken the sting off a little, and will allow me to deal with the prideful thought of "if I can just explain/address" better that the individual will finally stop being so circular.

Tami said...

Thanks so much for your informed post. It has helped me tremendously. I deal with the "fools" you speak of daily on my blog, and I realize I have spent far too much time responding to them. I would like to link to your post, I hope that is all right.
God Bless,