The Fantasy of the Perfect Response

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The internet has fallen in love with the Perfect Response. I don’t just mean the Perfect Response by President Obama when Republicans, during his State of the Union address, loudly applauded his mention of having “no more campaigns to run” — “I know, because I won both of them,” he responded coolly. (What a response! Perfect!) I mean such recent Perfect Responses as the Perfect Response by director Ava DuVernay to the Oscar snub of Selma. Or the Perfect Response by director Phil Lord to the Oscar snub of The Lego Movie. Or the Perfect Response by an Arizona meteorologist to a weather map error, or the Perfect Response by a model who is sometimes told she is fat. Or the Perfect Response by Mark Zuckerberg to an analyst who asked him about Facebook or the one by Joe Montana being reminded that he didn’t win the Heisman in a commercial for AT&T. Or the Perfect Response by George Clooney when another actor called him old.  Or the Perfect Response by Melinda Gates to anti-vaxxers. Or the Perfect Response by a little girl when her dad asked her to build a snowman. Or the Perfect Response by Taylor Swift to her photos being hacked, or the Perfect Response to Taylor Swift by Harry Styles on the subject of her songs about him. Everywhere, all the time, people are responding, and, it seems, more and more, they’re doing it perfectly.

So why not applaud? After all, who doesn’t love a Perfect Response — that quick-witted zinger that expertly defuses a callous insult or thwarts some idiot’s rant? Who among us hasn’t yearned to loose just such a devastating haymaker during a bruising verbal joust? History is full of quotable rejoinders that would have been celebrated widely as Perfect Responses, if only there had existed a global network of interconnected computers on which to celebrate them. The most famous one may be Winston Churchill’s storied comeback to Lady Astor, who’d said to him, “If I were married to you, I’d put poison in your coffee.” Churchill’s Perfect Response? “If I were married to you, I’d drink it.” KA-BOOM! Perfect! (Sadly, this is also likely Churchill’s Apocryphal Response, as The Yale Book of Quotations tracked this line to a joke that appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1900.)

In pop culture, the notion of the Perfect Response recalls immediately The West Wing, a show that relied so heavily — and satisfyingly! — on Perfect Responses that you could classify it as a kind of pwn-porn. The cast was crammed with characters who had Perfect Responses at the ready, like a posse of expert gunslingers, all dangling their drawing hands over their lethal six-shooters. No one, of course, was more Perfectly Responsive than Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlett; his primary job as Pwner-in-Chief (or PWNTUS, for short) was the slaying of hapless nudniks, armed only with an arsenal of handy facts, irrefutable stats, eloquent rhetoric, and, for good measure, biblical quotes. In this famous scene, Bartlet reduces a homophobic talk-radio host to smoking rubble; it’s the Shock and Awe campaign of Perfect Responses. In fact, West Wing pwning clips are an entire sub-genre of YouTube highlights. Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing, subsequently became so enamored of the dramatic potential of the Perfect Response that he created an entire TV show in which newscasters travel through time and deliver the Perfect Response to real-life catastrophes in the past.

On the internet, who can resist clicking through when the promise of a Perfect Response is dangled, as it is so often these days? Even if, as in the case of Melinda Gates’s Perfect Response to anti-vaxxers, the response isn’t all that surprising or revelatory. (“I’d say to the people of the United States: we’re incredibly lucky to have that technology and we ought to take full advantage of it.” KA-BOOM?) Or, as with the model who is occasionally called fat, the response is heartfelt but not particularly controversial. (“I’m really confident and I love my body as it is.”) Or when, as in the case of Loretta Lynch’s Perfect Response to Senator Lindsey Graham’s boneheaded question about gay marriage leading to polygamy, the Perfect Response is actually kind of a nonresponse, which is precisely what Graham deserved. (“I look forward to continuing the discussions with you.” KA … to be continued.) But wait — has Loretta Lynch even seen The West Wing? She totally should have pwned Lindsey Graham!

The Perfect Responses that proliferate online, in click-friendly headlines everywhere, are always intriguing and, often enough, sort of satisfying. (That Obama zinger was pretty good.) But the Perfect Response you cheer for and re-post frantically also tends to be one that (a) confirms whatever you already believe and (b) sticks it to someone you already despise. The Perfect Response is, in essence, not a radical new perspective, but simply a person saying a thing you agree with to a person you disagree with. It’s a kind of linguistic record-scratch, a perfectly crafted gotcha that ostensibly stops trolls in their troll-tracks and forces them to deeply reconsider the sad wreckage of their wasted lives. Which means the Perfect Response is also largely a figment of the internet’s imagination.

As common as this idea has become, it’s truthfully much more common to find civilians online bemoaning some long, disjointed, and frustrating argument they had with a nutty anti-vaxxer on Facebook that ended in one or both of them pounding on their keyboard with barely suppressed rage. Or watching people duck as a firehose of insane hate-spew is loosed their way on Twitter. Troll wars are consistently fueled by people on both sides who suspect they are just one post away from finally launching that Perfect Response: the laser-targeted smart bomb of insight that will render their online nemeses silent, humbled, and chastised. Yet this never happens, ever. No online argument has ever ended like that wet-dream fantasy of Bartlett forcing the homophobic talk-radio host to rise obediently to her feet. The Perfect Response, while apparently so bountiful in theory, is actually appealing precisely because, in practice, it’s so rare as to be almost nonexistent. It’s just a fantasy we yearn for, and to which we happily subscribe, because the hurly burly of actual internet interaction can be so imperfect, and frustrating, and wearying, and hard. The give-and-take of real debate can be all of those things as well, but it also has the attractive by-product of potentially leading to change, something no Perfect Response has ever done. Which is how we ended up with the phenomenon of the Perfect Response in the first place — it’s an imperfect response to just how difficult real communication can be.

The Internet Fantasy of the ‘Perfect Response’