A World of Speculation

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me a spirit of despondency, sloth, love of money, and idle talk.
— Lenten Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian

Did you ever get into an argument with a troll? I’m ashamed to say that I have a few times, and it doesn’t turn out well. The arguments were always about politics or religion, but they can be about anything that people have strong feelings about. And by troll I mean someone who stirs up anger for his own entertainment.

In Flannery O’Connor’s story, “The Barber,” a man named Rayber, a “liberal” (her word; 1950s definition) college teacher tries to correct the moral, political, and intellectual errors of a bunch of rubes and bigots. He doesn’t persuade, however; he only entertains them. After being dragged into a political debate during several of his weekly haircuts, he gets frustrated at his inability to persuade and decides to prepare his remarks.

He tries his speech out on Jacobs, his older and—we discover later—wiser colleague, who simply wishes Rayber luck and says he doesn’t argue. When Rayber tries out his speech on his wife, she waits politely for a pause and then leaves before he’s finished.

The prepared remarks don’t go as he hoped in the barbershop. Here’s how O’Connor summarized the outcome in the first paragraph of the story:

After the Democratic White Primary, Rayber changed his barber.

The story reveals a truth about human nature that has been noticed through the centuries but has become magnified by social media.

After the barber asks if Rayber is a n*******-lover, Raber comes up, too late, with the response, “I am neither a Negro- nor a white-lover.” Rayber shared that “might have been” remark with Jacobs, who replied, “That’s a poor way to be.” Jacobs refuses to explain; he has a policy of not arguing. The comment hits home oafter further reflection. Rayber doesn’t love the white men or the black man in the barbershop.

By the end of the story, we see how wise Jacobs’ “no argument” policy is. At Rayber’s last visit to the barbershop, he is not reacting to the trolls’ taunting. He has come prepared; he opens the question. With his noble goals, he’s become one of them.

It’s a reminder of the wisdom of Proverbs 26:4:

Answer not a fool according to his folly,
Lest thou also be like unto him.


  • Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.
  • Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash