The Jabberwocky Response

Have you ever heard of experiential learning? From ropes courses to trust falls, or hearing a ‘what is the meaning of life?’ talk while standing in a cemetery, the point of experiential learning exercises is to give participants a richer, multi-dimensional encounter that leads to new and lasting insight.

But did you know that there’s a powerful way to bring experiential learning into everyday conversations?

Today I want to introduce you to what I call “The Jabberwocky Method.” You practice The Jabberwocky Method whenever you deliberately practice a nonsensical idea that the other person is asserting makes complete sense.

The term comes from the nonsense poem Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll. As a sample, the poem begins:

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Confused? Let me explain with a few illustrations.

I first stumbled upon the Jabberwocky method during my senior year at Rhodes College, in a senior seminar for all of the philosophy majors. Each week a different senior presented their personal life philosophy, as the capstone project of the philosophy major, and then our professor and the other students offered their most rigorous philosophical critiques. The class was one of the highlights of my time at Rhodes College.

One week, a student presented a nonsensical thesis. I forget the specifics of it, but it was something like, “there is no meaning to language except what we say it is.” To point out the absurdity, I decided to take this nonsense seriously and practice his rule in the conversation. So I said, “The meaning I make of your words is that you are offering to do all of our laundry for the rest of the semester.”

The student was befuddled – that was not the meaning of his words. But he had just denied that his words had any independent meaning or truth – his affirmation was that all meaning comes from what the audience says it means. As part of the audience, and taking him at his word, I decided that his words meant only one thing: an iron-clad commitment to do everyone’s laundry.

You can imagine my disappointment when he never did my laundry!

After all, if his “no meaning but what we say it is” thesis was true, and I said he meant to say that he was committed to doing my laundry, why were my clothes still dirty?

His idea did not make sense. How do you respond to seriously-stated nonsense? With reason? Maybe.

The Jabberwocky Method is an alternative way to communicate that an idea is nonsense. It does so by taking a nonsense idea so seriously that you temporarily live and speak as if it is true. The purpose is to give the person who is saying nonsense an experience that reveals the absurdity of what they are seriously affirming.

In my time as a campus minister, I’ve heard many students suggest that, even though ideas which are irrational to believe could still be true, we should believe them just in case they are true.

There are many possible “Jabberwocky” responses to such a silly idea. For instance, you could say, “Everything I believe is false. I cannot speak any English. Reality is an illusion. You could be a green frog, so I will believe you are a green frog.” No matter how irrational you get, insist that everything you say is definitely true. Try to convince your friend to agree that you are right. If successful, start disagreeing with them.

The possibilities are limited only by the nonsense you hear and your personal creativity.

Let’s look at a few more scenarios:

Three More Jabberwocky Response Ideas:

“Truth is relative”

The Jabberwocky Response (TJR): Interesting. To me, relative means absolute truth, and truth means false, so you believe false ideas are absolutely true? Also, black is white, up is down, and left is right. It all depends on your point of view. My view is that your truth is cow and green is pineapple.

The point: if truth is relative, who is to say that TJR is false?

“Truth is unknowable.”

TJR: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!! Am I alive? Or dead? I don’t know! What is my name? What is your name? Where am I? What are words? Two plus two equals a million! No! A million and ten! La, la, la, la, de, da, la.

The point: If truth is really unknowable, then everything is incredibly confusing. Act, as much as possible, as if you know no truths.

“Morality is relative.”

TJR: Good! So you won’t judge me for affirming slavery, infanticide, unlimited greed, and torture, preferably as often as possible? That’s a relief. So, what’s for lunch? Hopefully we can kill someone and eat their food – or maybe we can just eat them! Isn’t it great that everyone gets to invent their own morality, and there’s no difference between right and wrong?

The point: if this person really believes there are no transcendent ethics, then everyone has perfect freedom to adopt whatever morality, in thought and in practice, that they want. But is that actually liberating? If they won’t affirm any transcendent ethics, then all they can do is say, “well, personally, I disagree with killing and eating people for lunch, and you should be afraid of being caught by the police, but I can’t say you’re wrong.” Press them on that point.

In Conclusion:

The Jabberwocky Response is a lot of fun. But don’t get carried away. It is a surgical tool, not a club. Making fun of your friend will just hurt their feelings. That’s a lose-lose situation. Instead, the point is to provide an experience for your friend that helps them abandon self-refuting, nonsensical ideas.

If your friend is going to insist on asserting absurdity with you, show them what their ideas look like in reality.

It is also important to make sure you very carefully stick to illustrating the unique kind of absurdity they have stated is a coherent truth. For instance, if you provide The Jabberwocky Response to the statement “morality is relative,” when a friend has said “truth is relative,” then you will not clarify the problem. Instead, you will amplify it and come across as looking like a fool for no good reason.

Finally, stay under control so you can recognize when they’ve gotten the point. Or, if they are confused, but ask for an explanation, be prepared to clearly explain what just happened. “You said X. I began to talk as if X were true. That resulted in absurdity. My point was to reveal that X is a bad idea. Do you agree?”

In limited cases, with the right people, The Jabberwocky Response can move you and your friend beyond absurdity and into reasonable dialogue.