There once was an old man in a family who loved to tell the same hunting story over and over again. At family gatherings, the man would try to find some cue that would enable him to insert the story into the flow of talk. On one occasion, he became increasingly frustrated at the lack of an opening in the conversation so he finally took his walking stick and rapped the ground sharply. In the startled silence that followed, he said, “What was that? A gunshot? Talking of gunshots, that reminds of the time …”
We have all had the experience of bores who go on and on about their pet topic or pushing their pet point of view. Sometimes it is an elderly relative whose repetitions we tolerate out of affection, like with my grandfather who lived to a ripe old age and lived with us for much of the time (I shared a room with him for many years) and whose stories I heard so many times that I could tell them verbatim. But I listened anyway. This is a natural development with older people as their world shrinks with age and lack of mobility and the death of contemporaries, leading to a paucity of new experiences and increasing dependence on old ones.
But for some other bores the cause is not age but due to a form of monomania, a fixation on one issue or one point of view that gets hauled out and repeated at the slightest excuse or, like in the story above, by manufacturing an excuse. Such people can be interesting initially before one realizes that they are largely one-note singers, utterly predictable and tediously repetitive.
As regular readers have undoubtedly observed, we have a few such people appearing in the comment threads here. We have those whose allegiance to Israel and defense of its atrocious treatment of Palestinians is their driving passion and who resent even the slightest criticism of that country’s policies. We have those feel that men are under siege and being oppressed by feminists and their fellow travelers, and somehow find examples of that even in the most tangential of post topics and use it to once again vent their sense of grievance. We have those who feel that what the US government does at home and abroad, even the most heinous acts such as deliberately murdering people with no due process and killing innocent civilians while doing so, must be defended because the leaders of the US (and the western world) are (almost by definition) good and wise, who only do things in pursuit of noble goals after careful thought, despite all evidence to the contrary. Such people clearly have succumbed to tribal thinking where they do not judge actions by the same set of standards but use one set for the in-group and another for the out-groups, and feel that the lives of poor people in other countries are of less value than those in their own.
From time to time, I get the request to ban these commenters because they are hijacking comment threads. I have resisted such calls for a couple of reasons. One is simply my dislike of the idea of banning speech in general. It is not that I will never ban. Although I have not done so in the past, I keep the option open because I cannot foresee what might arise in the future.
Another reason is that I think that banning is not the best way to deal with such people. I am a firm believer in the theory that if you give such people enough verbal rope, they will hang themselves. The best way to discredit people with monomania is to let them talk because the more they do, the more it becomes increasingly apparent that they have this mental block that puts them into a repeating groove, like a scratched record (for those who get that reference). At that point, they become like the man in the hunting story who talks but no one listens. They cease to have any meaningful voice in the conversation but just become a background hum. For example, Deepak Chopra can be quite intriguing the first time you hear him. But the more he talks, the less sense he makes, and you soon realize that he is a quack and you tune out the quacking.
As for me, I read all the comments but when I see one from the usual suspects, I usually read the first bit and skip right over the rest because it looks like the same old thing and so I rarely respond. I may be doing them an injustice because they may actually say something interesting further down but this is the price these commenters pay for their history of monomania. I do the same thing with articles in the media by those who grind the same old ax repeatedly. I do not have the time or the patience to read more because I figure that the possibility of something new or interesting being said is as unlikely as my grandfather inserting a novel element into his anecdotes.
I have to admit, though, to a guilty pleasure. Periodically, I like to test my theory about the nature of monomania and so deliberately write something to see if these commenters rise to take the bait, the rhetorical equivalent, if you will, of a tap to the knee by a doctor to test reflexes. It is quite gratifying to get the expected knee-jerk response, sometimes down to even the exact words.
So for those who are irritated by such comments and commenters, I urge you to see them as I do, as a source of unintentional amusement, similar to the way that my siblings and cousins, when we were children, used to roll our eyes when our grandfather would go on a roll with his reminiscences. Such people can hijack a thread only if you let them.
As the old saying goes, the dogs may bark but the caravan moves on. It is the motion of the caravan that we should keep our eyes on, and learn to tune out the barking.