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Fool me, fool you

People say they don’t suffer fools gladly.  Nonsense.  I have seen fools afforded undivided attention, encouraged, even applauded, by people who knew perfectly well what foolishness was being perpetrated.  It’s contradiction they don’t suffer gladly.

I understand completely.  Nobody likes to be corrected publicly; it makes us feel like the fools we’re not supposed to … suffer. (I think we like that word because it carries implications of discomfort with idiocy to the point of physical pain.)  In any case, if we, the contradictees, suspect the contradictor is right, that just makes things all the worse.

But it’s the usual response to this most understandable of embarrassments that I object to.  Lately, and most certainly online, that tends to be character assassination.  It goes well beyond mere ad hominem and into the realm of vendetta.  I suppose this is not surprising, given the convergence of extreme-ness as the ultimate cultural value, and the mask, if not the anonymity, afforded by electronic communications.

What do I do in such circumstances, then?

First of all, let me assure you of my qualifications in this arena.  I have been contradicted many times, both publicly and privately.  The clear majority of those times, I was wrong.  So I approach this with considerable experience; it is not just a theoretical exercise for me.

When someone points out a fatal flaw in a disquisition I have been presenting with the air of inevitability, I respond by first holding my breath and staring at that person.  Then I roll my eyes, subtly change the subject, and point out that the objection lacks any validity whatsoever against the new subject.  If the person then has the temerity to point out that I have changed the subject, I throw up my hands, mutter, and leave the room.  After a suitable period, (no less than an hour is generally recommended) I can bring up the topic again, with a thoughtful air, as if I had arrived at the correct conclusion, not all by myself, for that would be dishonest, but in friendly collaboration.

This is the method recommended by most experts today, although it used to be second nature to the well-educated.  Here’s an example:

A highly distinguished professor was presenting a lecture on the identity of the architect responsible for a famous sanctuary in the ancient Hellenistic world.  This had been a topic of controversy for generations, and the professor had devoted much of his later career to resolving the issue, using methods from a variety of disciplines.  He attacked it from all angles, considered every point; it was an interdisciplinary tour de force.  He carefully laid out the elements of the puzzle, piece by piece, leading up to the culminating statement of his presentation, “I can now reveal to you, without a trace of a doubt, that the man responsible for this sanctuary was none other than  ____!”

A slow murmur of admiration, a gasp almost, began at one corner of the room and worked its way toward the other.  A stirring, a hand clap, then another, the beginnings of applause as the implications sank in.

Suddenly, a perplexed looking student rose, and said, “But, wasn’t ____ in Alexandria at the time?”

Dead silence.  The gasps and murmurs, now mixed with confusion, retreated along the same paths by which they had come.  The distinguished professor said nothing, but simply looked at the student, expressionless, until the audience began to drift off.

Now that‘s class.

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