Feeling irritable, feisty, hostile, even? Feel like getting into an argument? No problem at all! Just hop on the social media platform or comments section of your choice, and within seconds you can be caught in a raging dustup with a total stranger—or several total strangers at once! Isn’t the internet fun?!
But how did the argumentative ever get by before Twitter wars and other contentious online interactions? Needling people in casinos, roadhouses, and cocktail lounges? Ruining holidays with screaming matches over the centerpiece? Many a barfight and family feud might have been averted had Monty Python’s brilliant idea for an argument clinic existed in real life. In principle, it seems so civilized.
But in the sketch itself, as you can see above, visiting the argument clinic turns out to be a lot like visiting the comments section—only without the racist and sexist slurs and occasional spam. Mild-mannered Michael Palin stops in to have an argument. He first stumbles into the room reserved for “abuse,” where Graham Chapman yells nasty things at him. How familiar. When he reaches the argument room, 12A, he meets John Cleese, who proceeds to flatly contradict everything he says.
Perhaps you’ve had the same experience: Palin patiently explains what an argument is supposed to be, “a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.” To which Cleese replies, “no it isn’t!” It’s like arguing with a child, an especially childish adult, or an internet bot with a very limited set of responses. Or—as you can see at the top in the recreation of the sketch by two vintage voice synthesizers—like an argument between two rudimentary machines.
One of these machines will sound very familiar—the small, black DECTalk Express has provided the voice of Stephen Hawking for many years. The other—the older Intex Talker—is a cruder instrument, and much less intelligible. So it’s rightly cast in the John Cleese role. Can machines think? We’ve yet to satisfactorily answer that question. But we know they can argue—if argument means spitting out abusive phrases and contradictions. However, if we define an argument as Palin/DECTalk Express does—as “an intellectual process”—the machines have likely got ways to go. As do most humans.