The Heckler’s DefenseJune 18, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
Well, it’s been an interesting past few months, and I think we’ve all had a good chance to study what I call the Heckler’s Defense. It’s a useful (if not entirely honest) way to deal with the situation where you’re wrong, and you know you can’t actually defend your beliefs directly, but you still want to believe them and to find some pretext for rejecting your critics.
The Heckler’s Defense has two goals: disruptive censorship, and scapegoating. The heckler’s primary goal is to silence criticisms of his beliefs, and he accomplishes this by using whatever means he can to divert the discussion onto tangential or irrelevant topics. For example, he might make an argument with an obvious fallacy, to divert the discussion into an argument over whether or not his statement was fallacious. Or he might try and goad other people into personal attacks, and then make a few attacks of his own, in order to drag everyone into a big flame fest. He might even contradict himself and then deny the contradiction, in order to keep everyone talking about himself and whether or not he really said what he said.
The beauty (if that’s the term) of the Heckler’s Defense is that it really doesn’t matter what the heckler says as long as he shuts down the main discussion by saying it. It doesn’t matter if what he says is wrong, and it doesn’t matter if other people can document that what he says is wrong, because the goal is to get people talking about himself, and thus not talking about the things that are wrong with his beliefs.
A telltale sign of the Heckler’s Defense is that the heckler will be very cagy about revealing what his own beliefs are. He’s not in the discussion to let his beliefs go head-to-head with a competing conclusion in the kind of debate that forces both parties to put up or shut up. He already knows he’s the one that would end up having to shut up, due to the lack of factual support for his beliefs. So he plays mind games with his critics instead, offering tantalizing hints about what his beliefs might be, in order to be able to say, “That’s not what I said!” whenever anyone points out the flaws in the belief he’s suggesting.
Thus, instead of an honest debate over honestly-expressed ideas and the evidence that supports them, the heckler merely creates another diversion, baiting his opponents with the implication that this time he might just commit to a direct expression of his true beliefs, only to dance away at the last minute, laughing at them—which naturally frustrates his opponents, tempting them to question his motives, and opening the gates to yet another diversionary flamefest.
Such flamefests also serve to promote the secondary goal of the Heckler’s Defense, which is to provide the heckler with a pretext for rejecting his critics. By provoking accusations and insults, the heckler makes it possible to view his critics as enemies, and thus naturally inferior folk. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle, because the heckler can fill his comments with all sorts of explicit and implicit accusations and insinuations, thus directly attacking the character of his opponents and taunting them to respond in kind, which in turn diverts the discussion into a flamefest, which reinforces the heckler’s conviction that his enemies are unfair, unkind, and by implication, wrong, etc., etc.
It’s a rather nasty maladaptive response to finding out the facts aren’t consistent with your beliefs, promoting divisions and strife, and driving the heckler deeper and deeper into rationalizations and self-justifications based on hostility and defensiveness. I have a particularly hard time dealing with this particular defense because I tend to feel sorry for the person who has been driven to such desperate measures (not that I don’t also find them every bit as annoying as they’re trying to be, of course).
It’s interesting to indulge Hecklers once in a while, just to see how they twist and distort things. It’s a fascinating, if macabre, glimpse into human psychology and maladaptive responses. But ultimately, we have to admit that there’s no real hope the Heckler will ever make an honest and sincere contribution to the discussion. That’s not his goal. His goal is to disrupt any discussion of the evidence, and to slander everyone who disagrees with him. There’s no point in encouraging or enabling him to achieve those goals.