Some people are just so ignorant. No, I don’t mean that they are uninformed, so perhaps “ignorant” is not the correct word for me to use. What I mean is that they don’t a very good job of processing the information they do possess. The result is that their conclusions and/or reactions to the available information are woefully inadequate. In other words, they have the hard drive, but their processor is corrupted.
Some of the things I hear and read sadden me because it is difficult to believe that people can be so “out to lunch” (There, I like that better. . .) leaving me at a loss to know how to respond. For the most part, I try to stay silent, largely because I am unsure that any response will result in any good (and secondly, because there is a part of me that thinks, “What if I am the one who is really ‘out to lunch’?”).
Biblically speaking, being called a “fool” is just about the worst thing anyone can call you. It is the opposite of being “wise.” The wise person not only has good information, but knows what to do with it. The wise person consistently acts in accordance with truth. The wise person realizes the importance of respectfully using “people skills.”
The truth is that we all act foolishly from time to time. . .and we need to be corrected.
Proverbs 26:4 speaks decisively about how to deal with a fool:
“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him.”
There you have it. Do not answer a fool. Keep your mouth shut and let him hang himself. Foolish people can’t keep their mouth shut and getting into an argument with them just brings you to their level. The wise person does not answer a fool. Right?
The very next verse, Proverbs 26:5, has more to say:
“Answer a fool as his folly deserves, Lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
So which is it? Do we answer the fool according to his folly or not?
The seemingly contradictory nature of these verses has caused some people problems in the past. On the surface, this seems to be a clear case of the Bible contradicting itself. However, when one looks more deeply into the verses’ meaning, there is no reason to believe that these two verses contradict each other. Both verses are drawn from the Biblical genre called “Wisdom literature,” where the author assumed that his readers are “smarter than that.” It is not as if the writer was recording a thought, only to subsequently forget it or change his mind on the issue.
So which is true? Do we answer a fool according to his folly or not? Yes. Actually, both commands are correct, depending on the circumstance. Let me explain and illustrate.
To answer a fool according to his folly is to stoop to his level. It is to be like him.
However, sometimes when we are silent, the fool thinks our silence reveals his wisdom. Therefore, he thinks he is the smart one.
Today I received an email from a friend who read some post on Facebook about a particular political issue (you know this is never good!). The post was full of misinformation, caricatures, and personal attacks on those who disagreed with the writer. There was no balance or thoughtfulness. Rather, it was obvious the writer felt any truly thinking person would agree with him. The presumption was that those who disagree merely do so because they have not studied the subject as well as he has. The situation was worsened by the fact that any shred of respect or positive tone was simply not present.
My friend sent me a well-constructed response that more or less met the writer on his own ground, demonstrating that it was actually the writer who was uninformed. Now, my friend did not resort to using accusations (as the writer had), but it was definitely an answer which recognized the folly of the other fellow’s argument, pushing his less than thoughtful assertions to their logical conclusions.
He asked me how it sounded. I told him it depended on what kind of fool he was dealing with. Who knows whether my friend’s answer was a case of unnecessarily (and ineffectively) stooping to his level, or if the response would be exactly what the guy needed.
I think it is important to see the difference here, but it is often very difficult to know which way we are to answer fools.
Again, we all say and do foolish things. This is especially true on the Internet, as our foolishness is so often put on public display. When I say something foolish and put it out there for all to see, and there is no response, I am liable to conclude that I was “right.” Why? Because if I had been wrong, someone would answer me. Since no one has, it can only mean one thing: I am wise . . . at least in my own understanding. But when someone meets me where I am, takes apart my argument, and/or demonstrates that others disagree, I may not like it so much, but it should give me pause to rethink my position.
Yet this is not always the case. Sometimes when people disagree with me, meeting my arguments with counter-arguments, I react very foolishly and just get defensive (it often depends on what kind of mood I am in). My position may have been proven weak, but I take it more personally and see the rebuttal as a personal affront. No matter how weak my arguments are, I react by attempting to strengthen my defense of my wrong position. Any continual engagement with me, at this point, is likely a worthless endeavor and a waste of everyone’s time. The entire situation becomes mired in tactlessness. The one who is engaging me, no matter how right they may be, has now become a fool just like me.
The important point we should realize here is that this particular Proverb is not about who is right, but about how to wisely engage people.
All fools need to be answered in some way. However, that is not really the question. The key issue is whether or not we are to answer a fool “according to his folly.” Frankly, I don’t have a pat answer to this dilemma. It takes time, engagement, and thoughtfulness to know the proper course to take. Continually allowing foolish people to have a megaphone to the world without answering them head on can bring about the detriment of the fool and the community (and what a large one it is these days) that is watching. However, to continue to meet them where they are, according to their folly, quickly becomes a thoughtless and worthless endeavor, placing “being right” above “productivity in conversation”. Do you know the fool you are answering? Are you willing to take the time to learn enough about them to see what response, if any, is best. Or, do you just meet them on their own ground without second thought. I saw a cartoon the other day which illustrates this so well to me. A fellow is at work on his phone and at the computer. As he looks intently at the computer screen, he says, “Cancel all my meetings. Someone on the internet is wrong.” Similarly, we are confronted with the case of answering a fool according to his folly. In the end, as Obi-wan-Kenobi once said, “Who is the more foolish: the fool or the one who follows him?”
I don’t know if my friend will end up answering this fool according to his folly. I hope he does. But, then we have to be wise, knowing that we are only one step away from become a fool just as he is (no matter whether we are right or wrong).