How to say “you’re an idiot” effectively.

How to say “you’re an idiot” effectively.

They’re rubber — you’re glue. Get whatever you said unstuck from you.

April 5th, 2021 at 9:22 pm EDT

So you’re arguing with someone — let’s say his name is Shen Bapiro. You can measure how far the man’s mind has traveled in mental gymnastics, somersaults and cartwheels straight past Musk’s flying roadster — dude’s on Pluto. And what, your plan is to… prove him wrong?

You will not succeed in teleporting him back to Earth. You can point out his logical fallacies, but he’ll remind you, I imagine, of something like the “fallacy fallacy”: “Just because a fallacy’s a fallacy doesn’t mean the fallacy’s wrong, stupid face.”

Okay, Shen.

You will also fail in getting him to actually trek back. Notably, no one gets pwned in that process, so really it’s a nonstarter.

And it is impossible to successfully insult someone so self-assured of their own intellect and self-accepting of their own immaturity. The man will “rubber and glue” every insult into oblivion. He’s mastered the art of masking schoolyard-level thinking with bigly words and speed.

Here’s an idea: Ask how he got to Pluto. Let him re-prove it to himself. “Socrates” the ideas either to death, or to elevation because lo and behold, he actually had an actionable and fact-based thought or two. A broken mind is still right twice a day.

He may mercilessly point out how far he’s traveled as proof of his pwnage: “Look at how far away I am from the ‘msm’! They’re all in on it, duping simps.” 

“Okay, and in your time watching the mainstream media, how many people did you confirm as ‘in on it’? And what is ‘it,’ exactly? How many hours did you have to watch to know?”

I myself have had only mixed success with such cross-examination. Even practiced patience won’t be perfect — but there does exist precedence of great restraint.

Famed antiracist Daryl Davis, a Black American musician and author, has collected hundreds of KKK robes through conversation alone, as he guides human beings out of the Klan’s orbit and back to Earth with the rest of us.

His journey started at a gig in Maryland in 1983, when Klan members congratulated him on a set well played. The Klansmen were surprised that a black man could perform rock n’ roll so well, they said, like the white musicians they thought invented it.

In 2017, Davis spoke to NPR about his time attending rallies and breaking bread with the Klan. He outlined one telling exchange where he calmly knotted up a Klan member by just asking questions. Five months later, he had his robe. About remaining attentive, Davis observed, “Whether they like you or not, they respect the fact that you’ve done your homework.”

While Davis has patience the envy of us all, we’ve known the effectiveness of a simple Askstrategy for decades, and we’ve also known that, by contrast, direct argument is likely to fail spectacularly once pernicious ideas have taken root. We’ve seen the initial inflexibility of made-up minds in labs as much as we have on Twitter.

Researchers from Harvard, UCLA, the University of Colorado and Brown published one such telling study about political ideologies in 2013. The results showed, unsurprisingly, that people don’t really know much about the implementation of policies they parrot in sound bites. The study also showed that people can and will cave under simple pressure for more detail. An inability to explain pulls them back by the power of their own head-scratching hands, no arguments necessary.

We need trialed and true strategies to shuttle our QAnon faithful away from the edges of our solar system and into the boring light of qualification and run-of-the-mill human days on Earth.

Trump, everyone knows, has helped normalize the drunken art of ambiguity, everyone is saying. He regurgitates attractive talking points for untold millions of teenagers and 74 million American adults — about a quarter of us or more — and is capable of taking evasive action like a slippery red herring whenever asked to explain.

Detailing little, he outsources brain cells; the details to any given plan, well, the voters can invent those. A well-maneuvered argument is not always a sound one, however, and even the layperson knows the difference between having evidence, and having none.

It is possible to get the owners of those contracted cells to snap out of any given politician’s rule and into a greater state of personal awareness. We’ve proven the effectiveness of interview in other studies, detected in psychology the origins of what it corrects, and laughed at its manifesting in late-night segment after late-night segment.

Misinformation-era nebulousness compounds the problem. In exploring idea spaces, we constantly teeter on the edge of event horizons, black holes of ineffective concept just to our right.

I ran through one such line of questioning and potential response to Ben Shapiro — a relative of Bapiro’s, I hear — in an article about these nonexistent “Democratic Cities” everyone keeps talking about. I laboriously showed, as one might with geometric proof, how his claim-stacking and evidence-shorting amounts to a compilation that’s relatively easy to take down if you ever have the time to deconstruct sequences of misinformation — which, for Shapiro, stack so quickly and rapidly, they necessitate a hearty pause to cover each. Like a tangent universe in Donnie Darko did I have to open whole new worlds’ worth of detail, to respond appropriately to Shapiro’s Plutonic cartwheels, asking the very types of questions I champion here and positing the necessary premises, the necessary answers he’d have to accept and vocalize to sustain his own claims.

I don’t imagine I would have been able to do what I did quickly on the spot without letting him do it to himself, instead. Trying to break down arguments properly in the moment would have buried me deep in his exoplanet’s gray sediment; our culture generally believes the person with the faster thought has the better thought. We trust wit, and the illusory wisdom that comes from it, over care and curation.

The preference is no doubt a partial byproduct of our biological clocks’ tick, our looking for easy solutions that don’t expel a ton of energy or take us so long that we become another animal’s dinner. There is nothing about quick thinking as of 2021 that should render it as the default over what’s carefully reasoned, time be damned. Evidence-based, countering the rush of righteousness may extend to us literal years on our lives — better years, at that. Psychologists and retirement planners alike know this, too: selectively delay righteousness, or any other gratification, and be the ultimate hedonist when you eventually cash in.

There isn’t a lion around this or that anymore, nor a new alien around a crest on Pluto. We can sit and just get better. A debate segment can continue beyond the five minutes Chris Wallace and company have afforded for answers to our society’s most perplexing and important questions. How any candidate can ever say with a straight face, “I know, and I know enough,” without a cabinet standing behind them brandishing a library of research is beyond me.

So, if you have time, take time, and engage.

For outright conspiracy theories, there’s a specific, powerful question, one I used earlier that counters quite well: “How many people would have to be ‘in on it’?”

I’ve written about this specific question’s versatility before. Ask, then stay with the theorist and help enumerate the various stakeholders necessarily involved when, say, faking a mass school shooting like that of Sandy Hook. Alex Jones, proud Sandy Hook denier and devastator to parents of murdered children, has no unique rhetorical power, only a unique lack of conscience, rigid bluster and for whatever reason, a complete and successful evasion of tunneling questions like “How many people would have to be ‘in on it’, Alex?”

Asking earnest questions to eviscerate conspiracy theories specifically, too, is not only a common-sense solution, but one supported by research in that field.

We need trialed and true strategies to shuttle our QAnon faithful away from the edges of our solar system and into the boring light of qualification and run-of-the-mill human days on Earth. De-escalation. Deradicalization.

The psychological warfare against extremism and domestic terrorism need not be limited to engaging extremists and domestic terrorists, either. Let those who are just to the left of them handle that burden.

The goal is not always to counter the fringe, then, but to counter the fringe-adjacent, to give them the resources to pay it forward.

Where we land is so predictable and average you could spit: we land in a shade of gray. No, the hue isn’t perfectly halfway between black and white, but it is decisively gray. We find that each issue was neither black nor white, nor neutral-gray — but was a “dark slate”, “pewter” or “graphite.”

When we sit atop our color swatches and, like a carbon-based copy of Gina Carano’s mind interviewing Gina Carano’s mind, self-indulge, interacting with only that which is saturated our same shade, we get exactly what we should expect: a somehow deepening, already-pitch black of logic-holes and deep space. We get further and further from human home.

Lost but feeling found, we grow complacent with error, a deluded few our companions. Limited numbers, we nest and build mass out of collective disassociation. 

Researchers’ suggestions care nothing of who does or doesn’t deserve these efficacious efforts, either; few that damaging and lost do. What they and I are suggesting is to aim for an evidence-based result we want. Indulging ourselves in what we deserve to scream, while granting us personal catharses, will maroon dark souls further. Some days, I’m mad enough that I am completely okay with that. On others, I’m mad that I could ever have become so mad to create a backfire effect; I worry about extremism growing, and there are few other strategies on the books to help other than crossing our fingers. We’ve never faced a threat this large, ballooned by malicious actors and the massive libertarian platform that is the internet, allowing deviant creativity to find like minds as much as deviant hate.

Granted the time, energy and patience, have the audacity to “Ask.” The spacemen won’t always deserve the kindness — but you might just see a soul ship itself back.


Direct argumentation, armed with facts to disprove the distant degenerate.

It’s not our only strategy, and we will need more — but for now, A.S.K. Don’t expect immediate results; consider it an inception.

IDEAS SIFTED: The Socratic Method, Daryl Davis, Ben Shapiro, Donnie Darko, QAnon, Alex Jones, Gina Carono’s firing from The Mandalorian, Inception.

Ryan Derenberger is a freelance journalist and editor, a Journalism and AP Language teacher at Whitman HS in Bethesda, MD, and the founder of 'The Idea Sift.'