Some thoughts about Poe’s Law

The website has posted headlines that run from the goofy (“What Can Pastor-Fred-Phelps-001 Christians Do to Help Increase Global Warming?” and “New Evidence Suggests Noah’s Sons Rode Flying Dinosaurs”) to the chilling (“Satan Calls Another Pope to Hell” and “Trade Us Your Voter’s Registration Card for Free Fried Chicken from Popeye’s”). The site is designed to parody the racism, scientific illiteracy, and religious bigotry widely attributed to American fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. But, judging from the site’s posted mail, it seems that the general public does not recognize that the site is parodic. Most email responses begin by chastising the authors for not knowing the true meaning of Christianity, for having misinterpreted some quoted Bible passage, or for being hypocrites with respect to some point of contention. Very little of the posted mail actually confronts the owners and writers at Landover with what they are doing: presenting a grotesque, overblown, and bombastic parody of Christian religious life.’s mail bag has entries from its first days, and there has been a consistent failure on behalf of the writing public to recognize that the site is a parody. What gives? Poe’s Law (Wiki).

Nathan Poe is widely credited for formulating the eponymous law. He first noted a particular difficulty in an entry on a chat page regarding creationism:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake (it) for the genuine article.

This is to say that unless there are unmistakable and explicit cues that one is being ironic or sarcastic, many parodies are not only likely to be interpreted as earnest contributions, they will, in fact, be indistinguishable in content to sincere expressions of the parodied view. The law can be fleshed out in a few ways, but the following thought capture the core of the Poe’s Law: For any webpage which parodies religious extremity, if the webpage has no overt cues of its status as parodic, no appeal to the page’s content can distinguish it from that of a webpage with sincerely expressed religiously extreme views. That a webpage is filled with Biblically-inspired scientific illiteracy, racism, or sexism doesn’t mean that the poster sincerely believes such things; the page might be a parody. Yet the problem is that this works in reverse as well. Blatant errors and blinding ignorance may mean that the poster is truly an immoral idiot. For every crazy thing on, there’s something just as (or maybe more) crazy on Looking just at the content, one cannot tell the difference between them.

Now, our objective here is not that of determining whether Poe’s Law is true. Our interest rather is in the effects of accepting it as true. What happens to interpersonal argument when disputants generally accept Poe’s Law? What are the effects of believing that a parodic expression of an extreme view is indistinguishable from a sincere expression of an extreme view?

To get a handle on the issue, consider first the straw man fallacy.

The straw man fallacy consists in distorting one’s opponent’s views and arguments so that they are feeble and indefensible, and then attacking the distorted versions of the views. When employing the straw man, one constructs a new, dumber, opponent and engages with that flimsy construction instead of arguing with the real opponent. Importantly, straw man arguments not only do our dialectical opponents a disservice, they also disserve the audiences to whom they are addressed. Unless they are as knowledgeable as the speaker who is deploying the straw man argument, audiences rely on the speaker to accurately represent the dialectical situation that obtains between those who accept the speaker’s view and those who disagree. The whole point of the straw man is to distort the perception of dialectical situation. Straw-manning, then, badly educates listeners on the difficulties of the issue and the state of deliberations on it.

Parody sites may seem vicious for roughly the same reason. They not only fail to engage the views and arguments actually endorsed by proponents of the other side, but they saturate the intellectual space surrounding an issue with imaginary buffoons. Lampooning one’s dialectical opponents with grotesque portrayals of their alleged unrepentant intellectual and moral vice may be deeply satisfying, but in doing so, one runs the risk of distorting one’s view of what one’s opponents actually believe. One comes to see oneself locked in battle with opponents who are beyond reason and unredeemable. This destroys the chances of rationally resolving real disagreements; in fact, it encourages the view that attempts at resolution by means of cooperative communication are futile.

Hence there is a term in popular parlance for the action of dismissing a purported interlocutor as a mere parody. When one “calls Poe” in a discussion, one claims that one or more disputants in an argument are simply playing at espousing the views they assert. Calling Poe is a way of bringing argument to a halt by asserting that there wasn’t an argument in the first place. Further, it is a way of canceling whatever points one’s interlocutor may have scored in the discussion; when an interlocutor is Poed, his or her views can no longer be taken seriously. Hence Poe’s Law often functions as a strategic maneuver in argument; it is a tool which enables one to simply dismiss one’s opponents.

There is reason, then, for thinking that accepting Poe’s Law has deleterious effects on argumentation. However, if Poe’s Law is true, parody sites do not distort the current state of argument, but rather reflect how things stand with respect to extremists. To clarify: As the parodies are indistinguishable in content from the real things, the parodies simply cannot be misrepresentations; rather, they are accurate portrayals of how dire the intellectual climate has become. Poe’s Law says that no matter how crazy or irrational an image the religious fundamentalist one constructs, there will always be an equally crazy and irrational but sincere defender of fundamentalism that one could have simply found in a Google search. In essence, does not really straw man the religious extremists with its parodies. In fact, it doesn’t directly refer to them at all; rather, it references them under pseudonym.

Hence a surprising result: If Poe’s Law is correct, straw manning is impossible. Every possible straw man has a real man correlate. And this realization encourages the tendency to regard the most extreme versions of the views one opposes as the standard or paradigmatic versions. That is, if one comes to regard, say, Christian fundamentalism as a family of views that is broad enough to embrace even the most intemperate, extreme, and ignorant versions possible, one will tend to see the most extreme versions of fundamentalism as typical of the view as such. Accordingly, one comes to see those who affirm more temperate fundamentalisms as insincere or disingenuous; the measured fundamentalisms are interpreted as strategically watered-down covers for the more extreme varieties. So why bother arguing with even moderate fundamentalists?

There are several unfortunate consequences of this attitude. Perhaps the most pressing is connected with the phenomenon, popularized by the philosopher and legal scholar Cass Sunstein, known as group polarization (Sunstein 2002). When groups hold each other in cognitive contempt and, as a consequence, refuse to cooperatively communicate, their views become more extreme. That is, when one talks with only like-minded people, one’s views actually shift to being more extreme versions of the originals. When there are actual impediments to discussion between groups or even reflections on intelligent exchange, the discussion within the competing groups tend to be enclaved and disconnected from those on their opponent’s side. In drawing group members’ beliefs towards the extremes, group polarization also expands the range of views that they regard as utterly ridiculous and unbelievable. Opposing views begin to seem not only mistaken but ludicrous and unintelligible. Accordingly, as groups polarize, they not only become less interested in engagement with those who oppose them, they become less able to do so.

Perhaps in the end it is pointless to try to argue with fools who hold extreme views. But notice that the question of who is a fool is different from the question of which views are extreme. No one is a fool simply in virtue of what he believes. Even those who believe absurd things may do so because they have an especially corrupt sense of what the evidence that bears on their belief indicates. The difference between the fool and the sage is a difference between the ways in which one’s beliefs reflect the evidence one has. The fool believes despite his evidence. Poe’s Law encourages us to draw firm conclusions about who is and is not a fool based on the content of the beliefs they espouse. This is, in the end, a dangerous cognitive policy. Moreover, given the group polarization phenomenon, it is a policy whose danger only increases.

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