CHASING THE RABBIT

Posted in Rants on May 1st, 2012 by Ed

Whether regular readers realize it or not, I read every comment that is posted here even when the daily total reaches triple digits. I remember well when I started this site and it felt cool to get one comment per post, not to mention the (eventual) thrill of seeing the occasional comment from strangers who were not my immediate friends. In short, I don't take it for granted that people bother to spend their time reading this stuff and writing some kind of response. It seems like the respectful thing to do to read the comments. Even the stupid ones. But I kid.

On Monday's post, we see an exchange in the comments that typifies one of the differences in mindset between liberals and conservatives in this country. It's one of the most common sources of irritating, time-wasting arguments on the internets: one person makes an assertion, and another says, in essence, "prove it". Explain it in great detail and show your work.

One of two things is true in this situation. If we assume that the skeptic has good intentions – i.e., he is legitimately interested in exchanging ideas and perhaps learning something or correcting his misconceptions – then the issue is merely laziness. Take this hypothetical exchange:

Al: "Barack Obama supports keeping troops in Afghanistan until 2050."
Bob: "No he doesn't. That's ridiculous."
Al: "O RLY? LINKS PLS."

The correct response on Bob's part, assuming that dealing with delicate feelings is not one of his concerns, is "Google it, pal. I'm not your research assistant." Even if in this instance Al really is curious but is limited by inaccurate information, it's not others' responsibility to fix it. If you're the one who's mangling the facts, be a grown up, read something that isn't written by an AM Radio host, and update your beliefs accordingly.

The second possibility is that Al isn't making a real good faith effort to engage and discuss something. He is just out to waste your time. The goal is for you to respond with a thousand word treatise full of links and examples, all of which he will dismiss out of hand, followed by changing the subject or expressing more skepticism (Your sources, for example, are probably "biased"). Getting sucked into such an exchange will accomplish nothing because it's not a conversation, it's a game. In 2004, the Bush campaign utilized Karl Rove's strategy of throwing out topics off the cuff, watching with delight as the Kerry campaign devoted lots of time and resources to responding, and then simply ignoring it and moving it on to something else. They called this "chasing the rabbit." Kerry's campaign took the bait repeatedly, wandering off message and wasting time.

When someone expresses skepticism over something that is either totally obvious ("Since when does the Republican Party take contradictory positions on issues? I NEED LOTS OF EXAMPLES.") or a simple factual question ("McKinley is taller than Mount Hood? LINK PLZ.") it is probably not sincere. "I'm not your secretary. Google it." is the preferred response, possibly followed by a comma and "dumbass" if the situation calls for it. At this point, he or she will dismiss your viewpoint – "See, you can't find any links because I'm right!" – which may tempt you to respond. Rest assured that a factual, detailed, response would have been dismissed just as summarily.

If people actually want to learn something or verify facts, there are amazing new technologies that allow them to do so. If they don't understand how to find things on the internet quickly, you shouldn't enable their ignorance / laziness. It's far more likely, of course, that they know damn well how to find things on Google but they'd rather let you do all the work and then follow up with a "NOPE!" afterward.

These exchanges rival watching paint dry in terms of thoughtfulness and informational value.