The Heckler’s Defense

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.

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Posted in Society. 16 Comments »

16 Responses to “The Heckler’s Defense”

  1. 5keptical Says:

    You’re not saying that the heckler is an intellectual coward are you? Shame on you! 🙂

  2. Tacroy Says:

    It should be noted that such a heckler doesn’t necessarily realize that this is what he’s doing. I would think that this sort of behavior is the natural result of someone trying to defend a vague and incoherent position against reason.

    Also, a corollary: if a heckler self-identifies as being a member of group A, then no argument against the beliefs of group A will work – the heckler is obviously a member of some special, perhaps unnamed sub-group of A, which does not believe such things or which has a counter-argument that may contradict A.

  3. Dominic Saltarelli Says:

    Well, that’s one way of saying “don’t feed the trolls”.

  4. Hunt Says:

    I’m beginning to think you have a point, since each time I ask cl a question, all I get back is the sound of crickets. Add to that the fact that he/she continues to harangue about an online “debate” when you’ve already politely declined and gave reasons for doing so — leads me to believe there’s an agenda here other than forthright discussion.

  5. pevo Says:

    I believe you gave an excellent definition of ‘troll’, or at least one variant. However, all of your analysis assumes that the subject *knows* what he is doing. What if he really is incapable of honest logical thought and discussion?

    I think it is entirely possible that some (most?) people base their beliefs/views on emotion, which is to say they don’t really ‘base’ them on anything at all. To them, there is no conflict as long as no one is breaking whatever arbitrary rules their sub-culture happens to have accepted. Logic and reason are misunderstood obstacles to them, not something they understand but choose to ignore.

  6. Deacon Duncan Says:

    I’m willing to make allowances for a certain lack of self-awareness, and indulge someone—even a troll—for long enough that they have a chance either to demonstrate some hope of reasonability or else to prove that such hopes are unlikely to see fulfillment. At a certain point, though, it becomes a moot point: the heckler’s practical impact is to impede discussion and degrade the quality of discourse. Regardless of any question of intentional vs unintentional, such destructive behavior needs to be controlled—by the moderator if not by the heckler himself.

  7. cl Says:

    Moved to the forums

  8. GaySolomon Says:


    I believe that I suggested quite a while ago that a certain someone was likely a highly evolved troll, and that perhaps feeding it would only encourage to hang around the place and foul it up

  9. John Morales Says:

    GaySolomon, I’m of the opinion (as this very post demonstrates) that DD was and is fully aware of the situation.

  10. jim Says:


    Good piece. I linked it to my blog…thanks! It’s always nice when somebody else does the work. LOL!

  11. Deacon Duncan Says:

    GaySolomon —

    You did suggest something like that, didn’t you. 🙂

    Believe it or not, though, I did have a use for that sort of input, and I’ve actually got quite a bit of good material out of some of the dialog that’s taken place in the past few months. I appreciate the patience with which you all have tolerated the imposition in the interim. It hasn’t been easy, I know, though I think it has gone extremely well, all things considered. Still, it’s time to get back to our regularly scheduled discussion. To everything there is a season, as it says in some book I read once upon a time, and the season for trolling is over.

  12. ThatOtherGuy Says:

    You mean the overly verbose pedantic million-word posts are going to go away? Oh frabjous day, callooh, callay.

  13. Hunt Says:

    I think it is entirely possible that some (most?) people base their beliefs/views on emotion, which is to say they don’t really ‘base’ them on anything at all. To them, there is no conflict as long as no one is breaking whatever arbitrary rules their sub-culture happens to have accepted. Logic and reason are misunderstood obstacles to them, not something they understand but choose to ignore.

    I think people base their beliefs primarily on a gestalt view that is perhaps totally inaccessible to them. Ultimately I think you have to accept the view of evolutionary psychology, that people “believe,” in any given circumstance, that which will propels their genes more propitiously into future generations. If that means ascribing malicious intent to a sound you hear in the grass (a lion?) then so be it. How well do any of us deconstruct what we believe? You can’t trust unexamined belief; that’s the heart of skepticism.

  14. cl Says:

    Still, it’s time to get back to our regularly scheduled discussion. (DD)

    Indeed. Yet another response here.

  15. Freidenker Says:

    I wrote once that cl was unjustifiably treated in this blog and slightly ambushed, and I’m quoted on his blog saying that

    I would like that quote taken off

    and I take my words back.

  16. cl Says: