In the final scene of Some Like It Hot (1959), Jack Lemmon, who is so good at female impersonation that he has provoked a proposal of marriage, is trying to explain to the man in love with him why a union between them won’t work. He offers a series of arguments, but each is rebutted by Osgood (played by Joe E. Brown) who continues to smile serenely. Realizing that that the only thing left to him is to deploy the one argument he regards as irrefutable, the Lemmon character (Jerry) rips off his wig and declares, “I’m a man.” Unfazed, Osgood replies on the half beat, “Nobody’s perfect.”
With “Nobody’s perfect,” Osgood seems to have found what everyone who enters the arena of argument seeks: a reply that clears the decks and leaves the guy (or gal) on the other side with nothing to say. Of course, Jerry had thought that he was in possession of just such an argument, but his triumph lasts less than a second. What defeats him is not a counter-argument that refutes his, but a declaration that nothing he says or might say will be of any force. “Nobody’s perfect” is an all-purpose retort that nullifies in advance any objection Jerry might raise. It is the non-sequitur aspect of the declaration—it doesn’t meet Jerry’s “I’m a man” head on but outflanks it and renders it, and any subsequent argument for not marrying, irrelevant—that makes it unanswerable. This may be the ultimate example of what we mean when we say, “I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
In American literature the best practitioner of this strategy—let’s call it “winning the argument by refusing to engage in it”—is Herman Melville’s Bartleby (“Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street”) who when asked by his employer to do something—anything—replies, “I would prefer not to.” Not, “I won’t because…” or “That’s not in my job description,” but just a flat unwillingness either to perform or to explain why he will not perform. In the days that follow, Bartleby’s employer tries maneuver after maneuver—including asking, “Tell me where you were born”—in order to get a rise out of his clerk, but nothing succeeds. “I would prefer not to” is always the answer. “I would prefer not to” is the perfect response to any suggestion put to one. It invites no counter–response and, in fact, repels it in advance by advertising itself not as a reason, but as a preference, and there’s no comeback to a preference. What can you say to someone who has been offered chocolate ice cream—the only kind you have—and who says, “I prefer vanilla”?
Right now there’s a pop-culture version of this “strategy” in a radio ad for a firm offering a home appliance repair contract that covers everything. The firm makes its case by dramatizing a conversation between a consumer whose appliance is not working and the administrator of the warranty she thought she had. She is told that she is covered for earthquakes and zombie apocalypses but not for the failure of her air-conditioner. Distressed, she points out that a zombie apocalypse will never happen. “Yes,” is the nonplussed reply, “but if it does, you’re covered.” Or in other words, “Nobody’s perfect” and “I would prefer not to.”
The trick common to these examples is to act as if you were engaging in a dialogue but to say things that short circuit it. According to the philosopher Richard Rorty, this is what happens when in a conversation about a disputed matter one of the participants supports his position by citing the Bible or a command he has received from God. After that, Rorty complains, there can be no further conversation (“Religion as a Conversation Stopper”). It’s like a preference for vanilla ice cream. What can you say in response? “I don’t care what the Bible says” or “God didn’t say anything to you”? The “I read it in the Bible” or “God told me to” move has the effect of saying, “Don’t ask me for reasons,” while presenting itself as the best reason—or argument—of all. Rorty condemns this move as a conversation stopper, but isn’t that what we all hope for when we lay down our trump card, our ace in the hole, and hope that others will find it as unanswerable as we do? Don’t answer that question.
The author of Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn't Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom and How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, Stanley Fish is a literary theorist, legal scholar, author, and public intellectual. He is currently the Floersheimer distinguished visiting professor of law at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City.