Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic” as an Allegory for Social Media

How NOT to have a debate

Anyone who knows me knows that I love Monty Python. I’ve watched every one of their shows and movies several times. I find myself constantly referencing punchlines from their jokes in casual conversation, often to the befuddlement of friends who’ve never watched the famous British comedy team: “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”, “What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?”, “That’s just a flesh wound!”, “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”, “Spam, Spam, and Spam!”, …

Some of my fondest memories are of the dozens of times I watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail with my (then) teenage daughter, finding new jokes in it every time, often laughing so hard we had to pause the movie just to catch our breaths. Yes, some of their skids fall flat but they’ve also created some of the funniest moments ever recorded on celluloid.

A case in point is “The Argument Clinic.” Do yourself a favor and go watch it right now if you haven’t already. It’s only six minutes long and well worth your time (even though it does have a silly ending). Here’s the gist: What if you could pay a few dollars in a local establishment to literally buy an argument with someone for a few minutes?

Of course, things go horribly (and hilariously) wrong as we watch Michael Palin attempt to do just that at the local office of a company that offers such a service. At first, he’s berated by another employee when he mistakenly walks into an “Abuse” clinic instead of the one offering arguments for sale. Once he enters the correct room, he runs into every conceivable impediment as his protagonist, John Cleese, botches his end of the argument by simply contradicting him at every turn instead of presenting an actual counter-argument, at one point even refusing to argue because the allotted time is up. It’s a hilarious lesson in how not to argue effectively.

The genius of Monty Python is that they foresaw the advent of social media and its negative impact on our communal discourse forty years before it happened, the only difference being that we don’t have to go to someone’s office to have an argument. We can do it regardless of where we are physically, 24x7, with practically anyone else in the world, and we don’t even have to pay a penny to do so!

Guess what. Some of those same absurd scenarios pop up for many of us multiple times a day as we jump into a dozen online arguments, often on trivial topics, and always with people we don’t even know. Worst of all, there are no rules of decorum in place. The results, unfortunately, are anything but funny. There are several root causes to this dilemma but I want to talk about only three of them here.

First, that written text is a horrible medium for debate. You lose much of the context as you try to squeeze meaning out of as few sentences as possible, there are no visual or verbal cues to soften the messaging so everything is interpreted negatively, and worst of all, it’s not done in real-time. I would have thought we’d learn from our experience from the e-mail days but no, here we are again.

Second, that there are no agreed upon rules of conduct on social media. Even a high school debate has strict rules in place. The only rule on social media seems to be that the companies offering the platform can decide, based on an ever changing and malleable set of guidelines, whether someone has gone too far and banish them from the island. That, in turn, just means they click on another app and dive headlong into an argument with someone else.

The third root cause, in my opinion, is that we’ve forgotten (or never learned) how to debate. Most people (myself included on many occasions) believe there’s only one right answer. If my opponent lands a point, that must mean I’ve lost the battle on this particular question. Either he’s right or I’m right; so I immediately come up with the opposite position, dig in my heels, and yell out my argument even more vehemently.

Here’s the problem with that approach. There are very few “zero sum” games in the world. As Seinfeld so wisely taught us: “You can have this and you can have that.” You can be right and she can be right, too! One does not negate the other. This is the golden rule of debate that most people don’t understand: Just because you’re right doesn’t mean she’s wrong. Most often, you both have valid points in your arguments. You can both be right if you take the time to understand the nuances of her argument, if you take the time to see the world through her eyes and from her vantage point.

This, of course, never happens on social media where everyone is practically anonymous and you never have to look your interlocutor in the eyes. The rules of discourse go out the window aided by the terrible matching of delayed text based platforms.

Come to think of it, I don’t believe we could have devised a worse medium for global discourse. It’s not like we were doing so great having arguments one-on-one or amongst a few people face to face. What made us think we could get away with attempting the same but at global scale, without the aid of visual and verbal cues we’ve been using for millennia, and without even crisply defined rules of conduct?

Twitter is a bullhorn, Facebook is for narcissists, Pinterest and Instagram have only static content, TikTok and YouTube are too broadcast oriented, Podcasts are too rehearsed, Clubhouse is audio-only. Comments are irrelevant or argumentative everywhere and enforceable rules of etiquette are nowhere to be found. It turns out “social” media is anything but!

The ideal platform for civil discourse would have to be based on interactive video. I’m not saying such a platform couldn’t be used to implement terrible debates — of course it could — but that at least it would have a hope in hell of delivering a positive outcome if appropriate debate rules are implemented and enforced. Until then, arguing with strangers on social media is an exercise in futility and I, for one, will avoid it like the plague and go watch Monty Python instead.

I’ve deleted all my social media accounts and now depend exclusively on the kindness of strangers to pass the word around about my blog posts. Please share this post on social media if you liked it. Thanks.



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Ben Fathi

Former {CTO at VMware, VP at Microsoft, SVP at Cisco, Head of Eng & Cloud Ops at Cloudflare}. Recovering distance runner, avid cyclist, newly minted grandpa.