Answer or don’t answer a fool according to his (online) folly?

I remember the first time I actually reviewed an Internet “forum” at great length and observed the many “debates” it contained. The impression I had at the time was that the forum was full of a lot of wind but no sails were being filled, if you get my meaning. The greater the number of voices that were added to the “discussion”, the higher the volume grew while, simultaneously, the smaller the probability shrank that anyone reading or participating would actually change their minds on even the smallest of points.

Still, once you’re caught up in something like that, the compulsion you feel to “continue the fight” can be incredible. Perhaps it is a struggle between that great pair of proverbs, Proverbs 26:4 & 5 —

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest you also be like him.

Answer a fool according to his folly,
Lest he be wise in his own eyes.

People often seem to think these verses contradict each other, but they miss the point. As “the Preacher” of Ecclesiastes might say, there is a time to answer the fool according to his folly and a time not to answer him, and it takes wisdom to discern the difference. (Examples of that wisdom can be seen in the gospels and how Christ responded to certain challenges.)

As for most (though, perhaps, not all) the “debates” in most Internet forums that I have seen, the former often seems the more applicable than the latter. Sometimes the best thing to do is follow the advice of Proverbs 20:3, “It is honorable for a man to stop striving, since any fool can start a quarrel.”

Anyway, I was motivated to write this brief post after seeing a cute one-panel comic strip at the following location:

(Yogamum, in turn, found it here:, though I do not know the name of the original cartoonist. And, kids, as usual: leave my blog at your own risk! No guarantees on external content…)

(UPDATE: Reader jhnc seems to have found the source.  See comment #5, below.)

After seeing that, chuckling, and recognizing that part of me deep (or not-so-deep) inside which felt sympathy and kinship with our poor stick figure hero, I thought it was worth passing along.

8 thoughts on “Answer or don’t answer a fool according to his (online) folly?

  1. Anonymous

    Mr Smith,

    I thank you for all those late night e-mails, and your civility! I can sympathize with the cartoon as well as your thoughts 🙂

    That question is one I ponder often, myself… from several perspectives.

    Warm regards.

  2. Deano

    Reminds me of a quote I read in this book I have.

    “Never argue with a fool. Someone watching might not be able to tell the difference.”


    Hathaway, George. Leadership secrets from the Executive Office. New York: MJF Books, 2004, Pg. 52

  3. Anonymous

    Mr Wheeler,

    I also want to extend my thanks to you for answering my emails and for answering my group’s questions!!

    Your help was much appreciated!

    Blessings to you.

  4. Well, I’ll tell you how I understand Prov 26:4-5. You can tell me if I’m wrong, Mr Smith.

    Sometimes the other person will launch into personal attacks during a discussion or debate. Instead of dealing with the subject, they will attack your genetics, your parentage, your background, and everything else. And of course they know nothing about you.

    I recognize that tactic for what it is. It’s an attempt to shut the discussion down, because the individual can’t deal with the subject at hand. It’s an oblique way of admitting that they’re wrong.

    I’m not going to get personal about it. I’m not going to fall to that level. I’m going to be like Jack Webb in the old “Dragnet” program. “Just the facts, ‘mam.”

  5. allan

    As one of our great leaders once said, An appeaser will feed the crocodile hoping he will be eaten last. Sometimes its best to agree to disagree, while there are situations where you have to point out the folly to the individual as it could affect others.

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