The Retort: A Fading Art Form

Even though I spend most of my time running a losing race with technology, I love it.  I look at kids phone-thumbing their way across the virtual universe and think “What a wonderful time to be alive!”  However, like most people my age, I’m already nostalgic for some of the finer points of the old world that technology is destroying.  First among equals on that list is the retort, that verbal slap that says: “Throw down!  ‘Cause this conversation just got serious.”  It’s impossible to retort electronically.  First of all, there’s too much lag time.  The retort has to be on the fly, swift, offhanded and sharp as a rapier’s thrust.  Secondly, there’s way too much nicey-nice in the digital world; too many LOLs and those sucky little emoticons.  The best you’ve got to be demonstrative with is the cap lock key, and that’s just sorry.  Finally, the retort has to be face to face; half of its power is delivery, half is tone and the other half is the nanosecond of recognition in the other person’s eyes that says “Gotcha!”

It’s really too bad the retort is fading from our world; however, I’ve collected a few to save them for posterity (like memorized books a la Fahrenheit 451) in the hope that, one day, the retort will be resurrected for general use.

I’d agree with you if you were right.

We can’t have a battle of wits; you’re an unarmed man.

If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?

That argument is an encyclopedia of misinformation.

If you’re trying to be a smart ass you only got the second half right.

Obviously, the only thing on your mind is a hat.

I could drive a truck through that argument and never hit the truth.

You’re not the village idiot; you’re his apprentice.

There are only three things wrong with that argument: the beginning, the middle and the end.

If thought were a symphony orchestra, you’d be playing the bagpipes.

I could make a better argument out of Alphabet Soup.

What did you study in school?  Recess?

Ideas that are that stupid should be put in solitary confinement.

That isn’t a painting; it’s paint.

That idea is about as bright as Cassiopeia on a cloudy night.

If stupid was an Olympic event, you’d be in the medal round.

Beware “The Quote”

Hang around a conversation long enough and you will eventually come face to face with The QuoteThe Quote is always thrown in there, somewhere between illustrating the point and ending the argument.   It can come from anyone quotable, as long as they’re dead — or close to it (except, of course, the Bible which is seen as déclassé these days.)  Unfortunately, most of the contemporary chattering class would rather get caught kicking kittens than quoting the Bible, one of the cornerstones of Western Civilization.  Go figure.  It really doesn’t matter, though, because The Quote is seldom attributed anyway.  The rationale being: we’re all smart here.  The reality being: the speaker doesn’t actually know where it comes from.  The Quote can run from sweet and smarmy: “You can learn something from every person you meet.”  (Utter nonsense!) to instructional: “Dream as if you’ll live forever; live as if you’ll die tomorrow.” (James Dean, dead at 24)  The Quote can also be just an ordinary maxim, aphorism or homily, like “A penny saved is a penny earned” although these don’t carry the same intellectual punch that the One-A-Day calendar quotes do.  They’re so-o-o common.  Regardless, the most important thing about The Quote is it must be delivered with a God-gilt air of authority.  Otherwise it just comes off as what it is: a sham.

In reality, the quote is a lazy person’s way of saving their ass from getting verbally overwhelmed.  It’s used as a show-stopper when the argument’s going badly and isn’t time for name calling yet.  People whip out the quote like it’s a 45 and think it deserves that kind of respect.  It doesn’t.  Let me illustrate.

Everybody knows Lord Acton’s famously misquoted “Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  (Actually, what Acton wrote was “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” but I’m not going to quibble.)  This is one of the biggies.  We learn it in sixth grade, when we’re not that smart, and remember it forever after.  Everybody just naturally believes it.  The problem is, that right or wrong, the connotation is that every powerful person, from the president to your landlord, is somewhat suspect.  They are, by definition, corrupt.  Why?  Because Lord What’s-his-name wrote it with a quill pen, back in the days when most people were still peeing outside.  He didn’t support it with any evidence.  He didn’t suggest there was a minimum level of power that triggered corruption.  He didn’t even specify what power corrupted: the soul? the body politic? the drainage system?  No, none of the above!  He just said power corrupts, and ever since then, we’ve believed it.  For all we know, he might have been drunk that night sitting around with his mistress, having a few grins after dinner.  (No sin by the way.)

I’ve got nothing against Lord Acton, but in actual fact, he didn’t know enough about power to fill a mouse’s ear.  He was an independently wealthy Lord who spent his time hanging out with scholars, being smart, and collecting books.  His closest brush with power was being pals with William Gladstone, Queen Victoria’s most on again/off again Prime Minister, and that’s no primo recommendation.  During Gladstone’s time in and out of office, he managed to back the Confederacy in the America Civil War (on Acton’s advice) get General Gordon and a few thousand Sudanese massacred in Khartoum, and, in his dotage dither the Irish Question so badly it drove him out of office and divided Ireland so thoroughly they’re still having trouble with it today.  But I digress.

This is the problem with the quote.  People tend to think it’s etched-in-stone true and beyond question.  Nobody bothers to find out who said the thing in the first place or whether they even knew what they were talking about.  What happens is the quote just gets passed around for a generation or two, until people quit saying, “Hey, wait a minute!  Where’d ya hear that crap?” And then it suddenly becomes words to live by.  “Strangers are just friends I haven’t met yet” wouldn’t carry so much weight if it was Emily Dickenson waxing lyrical now, would it?

Don’t be fooled by the quotables that inhabit our conversation.  Mainly, they’re just dead guys, spouting off.  There’s only one that demands any respect.  In Henry IV (Part 2) Act IV, Scene II, William Shakespeare wrote: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Now, those are words to live by.

Conversation: A Dying Art

We all know people whose primary skill is to be annoying.  They may be nice folks, and we may even genuinely like them but invariably, in conversation, they always have to pull out the sandpaper.  Nothing seriously personal — no insults to your mother or major ideological differences just — nitpicky crap that rubs you the wrong way.  These are the folks who always have something to say, and, when they don’t, weasel the conversation around until they do.  Actually, it’s mostly the tone; just a note or two above superior but not quite nasal enough to be pompous ass.  They’re the ones who roll their eyes skyward when you start the conversation with, “I was at McDonald’s the other day…” as who should say “I’ve never tasted a Quarter Pounder.”  We all know they have, but we never say so.  We never stop the story and say, “Hey! Wait a minute, I knew you in college and you used to eat Ronny Mac eight times a week.”  And that’s the most annoying part of it all.  We let them get away with this stuff, and two days later, we’re still pissed off and rewriting the mental conversation.

We let these folks trample all over us is because it’s just too much trouble to stop everything and call them out.  We know if we do say, “Hey! Wait a minute!” we’re going to get a diatribe on the icky bits that go into the Chicken McNuggets or how the Shakes don’t melt in the blazing August sun.  (As if we didn’t know that already.)  Either that or it’s a forty minute travelogue of some quaint little hamburger place over in Funkytown where the chef/owner raises her own cows organically in the backyard, sprouts her own mustard and hand blends the secret sauce.  (Probably, ketchup and Thousand Islands!)  It’s not quite as bad as the vegetarian tirade but close.  Anyway, it’s just not worth it, and that’s what these people bank on.  They think they’re safe because the rest of us aren’t willing to stop cold and take them to task every time they open their mouths.

These people are ruining the world.

Once upon a time, it was perfectly acceptable to have an ordinary conversation: just a few people hanging out with each other.  We all heard what the other person had to say — like it or not — made the right noises in the right places and waited our turn to trot out our own semi-interesting stories.  It was great fun and how we got to know each other: the Golden Age of small talk.  These days, however, the irritating people have taken centre stage and we can’t get away from them.  They’re constantly trying to enlighten us to the perils of the world, the inequities of life and the finer things that only they have the inside track on.  They’ve turned the fine art of inane conversation into some sort of verbal tennis match where every innocent lob is returned with a Roger Federer drive to the net and overhand smash.  It’s like getting trapped in an elevator with a socially aware insurance salesman: eventually, everything gets back to “Serious” without ever having paused at “Who Cares.”

The problem is there’s nothing we can do about it.  Unless we want to turn every conversation into a low-level firefight we just have to stand there and take it.  Polite society dictates polite conversation.  Personally, however, I’m tired of the monologue on microbreweries, films with subtitles and anyone who has travelled anywhere.  I no longer admit I have a passport, occasionally drink soda pop or know how to read.  Nor do I celebrate major Western holidays, know where Africa is or understand the nuances of the LCD/LED TV.  (That last one’s true, by the way.)  I’ve discovered that it’s impossible to deal with these people.  They hold the floor like some 19th century slumlord — with just about as much benefit to the common good.

Unfortunately, since our society frowns on unleashing predators like me on these people, they are multiplying exponentially.  Eventually, all conversations will consist of a number of comatose heads, bobbing in unison, while several long-winded gasbags hold forth, ad infinitum.  No one will be able to hear (or care) what the other person is saying, and eventually, in polite good time, they’ll all just wander back to their smartphones, emails and text messages.

It’s a bleak future, but until we declare open season on these perpetual pains in the posterior, we’re doomed.