Civility Project: “I Never Argue,” or What Flannery O’Connor’s “The Barber” Can Teach the Internet

Flannery O’Connor’s posthumously published short story, “The Barber” offers us much wisdom in our age of internet arguments. O’Connor tells the story of Rayber, a liberal college professor in a Southern town arguing about an upcoming election with a barber who holds segregationist views. Over the course of the story Rayber fumes, obsesses with proving the rude barber wrong, seeks solace from like-minded colleagues, and ultimately punches the barber when his arguments prove ineffective. The story calls out the futility of arguing with people who have no desire to change their minds. It also reminds us that others may not find our reasoning as persuasive as we do.

The comment sections beneath news stories and on Reddit, tweets, and the feeds on Facebook brim with arguments like those found in “The Barber.” Some people try to remain calm like Rayber, believing that sound reasoning will always win the day and that everyone is able to be convinced if they simply heard the best argument. Others take the barber’s tack, drawing quick conclusions about their opponents and throwing around dismissive insults. In many ways Rayber and the barber are more similar than they would like to admit. Both carry the conviction they are right and have closed their minds to other views. Both want the last word.

In my favorite part of the story, Rayber reads a paper to Jacobs, his colleague who teaches philosophy and holds similar views about democracy and race. Jacobs listens to the paper, which Rayber believes will prove his point against the barber.

“Well,” Jacobs said, “so what? What do you call yourself doing?” He had been jotting figures down on a record sheet all the time Rayber was reading.

Rayber wondered if he was busy. “Defending myself against barbers,” he said. “You ever tried to argue with a barber?”

“I never argue,” Jacobs said.

“That’s because you don’t know this kind of ignorance,” Rayber explained. “You’ve never experienced it.”

Jacobs snorted. “Oh, yes, I have,” he said.

“What happened?”

“I never argue.”

“But you know you’re right,” Rayber persisted.

“I never argue.”

Perhaps before we comment on a story or post an opinion we should ask ourselves Jacobs’s questions: “Well…so what? What do you call yourself doing?” Are we going into the discussion to learn more about the other person’s position? Are we willing to change our views? Do we want to add to the discussion with the hope that the community’s knowledge and wisdom increases as we consider different perspectives? Or do we want to prove someone else wrong and show them just how smart we are? Do we enter these discussions so that we might win an argument?

My point is not to say that all debate is futile—I do not think that is the message of, “The Barber.” Otherwise, we should simply retreat to our corners and interact only with people who already agree with us. Nor do I believe there are not some views that should be rebuffed outright. Rather, I believe most of the time we should engage different points of view when we are open to learn and change. I hope we can better discern when others are willing to do the same. That does not mean we give up core convictions, but that we allow our perspectives to broaden. We can then shape better opinions, meaning we are more informed when we accept or reject the other person’s reasoning.

In what has become an annual ritual, I have fasted from Facebook during Lent. I noticed again more peace in my life as I did not engage in so many arguments. Getting some distance from Facebook allowed me to better appreciate the story of “The Barber.” Jacobs’s words to Rayber stung. I’m guilty of wanting the last word and desiring to win rather than to learn. I need to hear Jacobs’s questions as well as remember his motto, “I never argue.”

If O’Connor’s story doesn’t make the point succinctly enough, I present this xkcd comic from Randall Munroe, who shows the reality of many internet arguments:

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