To Answer a Fool, AKA Troll, or Not To Answer…

We run into fools all the time. At least once a day. For me, it starts first thing in the morning, the second I look at myself in the mirror. But you know who I’m talking about: the OTHER fools.

The ones that exasperate me on the drive to work. Honk! Keep hands on steering wheel to avoid unkind gestures.

The ones saying dumb things during political campaigns. Shake fist at TV, change channel, or better yet, turn it off!

The ones that say dumb things to your face, or troll you online, and you just have to put them in their place. Or do you? The advice often dispensed with regards to fools or trolls recommends we ignore them. If no one pays attention to them, they’ll go away. By turning our backs on their folly, we give no credence to it, we don’t validate it as something worth even arguing, and they disappear.

Here’s the problem. They keep coming. They multiply. They get louder! Aside from the benefit of keeping my blood pressure at physician prescribed levels, should I walk away, then? Or should I stand up for truth, justice, and that other thing?

The tension here reminds me of two verses in the book of Proverbs, which at first seem contradictory.

As you can see, that first verse seems to line up with the oft-dispensed advice: walk away. But wait. Is that what it says? Or does it suggest instead that we don’t sink to the fool’s folly? Is it suggesting we should address that folly another way, one that doesn’t yield to a fruitless, illogical shouting match because we’re engaging in the same nonsense as the guy we’re trying to rebuke? Are we to engage him in a way that doesn’t turn us into a mirror copy of him?

Hmm. We might be onto something there. It also lines up with the next verse, which I think gets at the goal of answering a fool: correction, to help him avoid thinking of himself as wise in his folly, and to place that folly in the proper light of wisdom. Another word I like in this regard, restoration, as in restoring the person to a proper accounting of facts, and if possible, restoring your relationship with that person.

This in turn drives a point we often miss when engaging “fools”–what are we trying to get out of our correction? To feel right and justified in our own eyes? To show everyone else watching the confrontation how good we are? To prove how excellent we are at debating and arguing a point? To destroy the other person? I’m sure the person we are confronting would answer yes to most of those questions–if they were honest. This would mean we’ve gone down to their level, and there, we have no chance of defusing that folly. Because we’re not talking about the folly any longer. Oh, it may sound that way, but in fact, it’s become a game of one-upmanship.

How to answer a fool, then? First do it for the right reasons: to right a wrong, rather than prove yourself right; to guide a person to a proper understanding, and hopefully make a friend in the process, rather than to ridicule and deride them. Maybe then we’d have fewer fools to contend with, and one less to stare at in the mirror.

Originally published at on August 31, 2015.

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