Keith Parsons’ “Taxonomy of Interlocutors”

Yesterday, Keith Parson’s posted a very interesting “Taxonomy of Interlocutors.” The first and last categories, “The Troll” and “The Rational Responder,” are self-explanatory, but what makes the post noteworthy is what Parsons puts in-between:

2) The Total Jerk: Unlike Trolls, Total Jerks are often highly intelligent and well informed, but their severe personality defects make it pointless to debate them. These guys have serious anger management issues, or maybe latent feelings of inferiority and insecurity for which they overcompensate by treating others with contempt. Their attitude is one of utter scorn towards anyone who has the temerity to disagree with them and they ladle vitriol over anyone, even a fellow Christian, who dares to gainsay them. If you try to engage in rational debate with a Total Jerk, he will ignore or distort your arguments, ridicule them, or dismiss them on irrelevant grounds. He is very free with the vituperation and name calling, and not at all above referring to debate opponents in derogatory terms. Ad hominem, straw man, and well-poisoning are his stock-in-trade. His own arguments are clever but shallow, generally amounting to little more than talking points and rhetoric. He really has no respect at all for the intellectual process of debate, because such respect requires a corresponding respect for your opponent and the recognition that he can be a reasonable and responsible inquirer though his conclusions are diametric to yours. For the Total Jerk the only purpose of debate is to humiliate and abuse an opponent. In some ways it is really a shame not to debate some Total Jerks, because, as I say, some are very smart and raise some interesting points. However, as Scott Adams advised in The Dilbert Principle, you should get rid of the assholes, even if they are smart and talented, because assholes are always a lot more trouble than they are worth.

Recommendation: Don’t debate. You may be tempted just so you can enjoy kicking their asses, but it would be like kicking a rock. They would never even recognize that they had been kicked.

3) The Sophomore: Though people can be sophomoric at any age, these are usually young. They have read a few books by C.S. Lewis and William Lane Craig and some posts by Ed Feser and they have had a course or two of philosophy. With such preparation they think that they are ready for the big time. They are generally pretty smart, though seldom as smart as they think they are. The biggest thing about them is attitude. Fully validating Francis Bacon’s observation that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and full of zeal to smite the infidel, they rush into combat against nonbelievers. With all the arrogant presumption of few years and little learning, their discourse is long on sarcasm, rudeness, and condescension and short on logic. Generally, they get knocked about rather badly by the much more knowledgeable and experienced debaters they encounter, and soon make their retreat. The really hard cases will stick around spitting invective for a while. These persons remind me of the story I heard about a bright young guy who figured out a “system” to beat the bank in Vegas. He went to the casino with his system, a bankroll, and an attitude. He emerged two hours later with just the attitude.

Recommendation: Don’t debate.

4) The Endless Looper: Some interlocutors also are quite often very smart and well informed, and, unlike the Total Jerks, they are, at least at superficial level, polite and friendly. The problem with these guys is that they hardly ever concede any point, however minor, arguing everything ad nauseam, and they absolutely must, must have the final word. If you reply a hundred times to them, expect them to give one hundred and one. The only alternative to conceding the final word to them is to engage in an endless loop of reply and counter-reply. Their chief rhetorical tool therefore is argument by sheer exhaustion. They not only must have the last word, each of their replies tends to go on at very inordinate length, getting longer and longer as you proceed. They never get tired. The impression you cannot help getting is that these guys have no other lives and do this full time. Those of us who have day jobs and other responsibilities (e.g. grading papers, faculty meetings, non-blog reading and writing) just can’t engage in an endless loop. After a while you will have to break off and get some real work done, and that concedes the final word to the Endless Looper, who treats your withdrawal as his victory.

Another problem with Endless Loopers is that if you really press them, their answers become increasingly obscure until they finally deteriorate into arcane theological gibberish. You really can’t debate gibberish. My favorite scene in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles is where one grizzled character stands up in the town meeting and launches into a furious and unintelligible tirade. Another character then stands up and asks “Now, who can argue with that?!?” Exactly. However, if you break off the debate because it has descended into gibberish, the Endless Looper will again have the last word and will use it to accuse you of failing to appreciate that his gobbledygook is really as profound as Gödel. I guess, exercising superhuman patience, you could give them the benefit of the doubt and work with them to see if you can extract any meaning or intelligible argument from the profusion of esoteric verbiage. However, for most of us life is just too short and you are almost certainly just pushing a Sisyphean rock up a hill anyway.

Recommendation: Debate only if you have far more patience than Job, a very high tolerance for extreme long-windedness, and you are retired or independently wealthy and have few other demands on your time. Being a masochist would also help.

In the comments, Parsons allows that The Total Jerk and The Endless Looper might be worth debating if you have an audience, but I’m not sure. Total Jerks may seem to have something substantiative to say at first, but in my experience it quickly becomes clear that all they have is insults–not real arguments whose flaws you can explain for the audiences’ benefit.

With The Endless Looper, I’m a bit less sure what to say, because it’s a personality type I hadn’t really noticed consciously before, though now that Parsons mentions it, I know the type. Personally, I’m willing to go a few rounds with an Endless Looper if I’m in the mood, but would stop there. They may think they’ve won once I’ve left the argument, but I trust my audience enough to bet that they’re the only ones that will share in that delusion.

I’d also disagree Parsons on The Sophomore. Having The Sophomore disappear on you may seem like a hollow victory, but just because they won’t acknowledge to you that they’ve learned anything doesn’t mean they haven’t learned anything. Lots of people who are now atheists were The Sophomore once, and may have become atheists in part because someone was willing to take the time to argue with them. (And as with the other two, having an audience who can benefit from your argument even if The Sophomore doesn’t tips the balance towards “yes, argue.”)


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