Lex Talionis Unleashed: The Art of the Escalation

Lately, as the airwaves and data bytes have been poisoned with yet another presidential online freak out, I’ve been reading the comments from various sources. People say things like if you get hit, you hit back harder and he’s just fighting fire with fire.

It’s canstockphoto35901016emblematic of any toxic relationship I’ve ever had – from a friend or family member or romantic partner. It’s that person who overreacts to any slight, who doesn’t speak to you for days or even years after you disagree with them. It’s the one you laugh nervously with as they castigate and upbraid someone who crossed them.  It’s that person who jokingly hints if you upset them in any way, they’ll tell your worst secrets to anyone who will listen.

Sometimes they’re hard to recognize. They’re overly effusive and friendly and you slip into what you think is a comfort zone. And then you disagree with them or suggest that something they did was perhaps unkind. Snap. First a momentary chill, then fiery hot words meant to wound and hurt and dismiss. If you’re the target, you have that sick knot in your stomach and if you have any introspection at all, there’s the potential for gaslighting, so shocked by the reaction. Maybe it was me.

I’ve long ago left behind or limited relationships that contain that kind of toxicity. It’s fairly astonishing to hear that people think this is a legitimate or healthy way to conduct oneself in the world. But we see and hear this in a lot of disputes – the escalation of property disputes, road rage incidents, the excess use of lawsuits, and workplaces where employees are kept in check through vindictiveness and emotional intimidation.

canstockphoto5651571Growing up where retaliation was swift and disproportionate, intended to diminish and wound, rather than teach, I learned to be a soother. Never too offensive or loud or noticed. One hates to admit that the dysfunctional childhood lessons help in some ways, even while hindering in others. I have a radar when it comes to toxic people and a skill for walking on eggshells, which sometimes deluded me into thinking I was special, until the day I said the wrong thing.

People rationalize an awful lot of behavior in order to support a political ideology that is unable to stand on its own without tipping the table, confusing the issues with personality, and turning the public discourse into a cesspool of grudge matches. There has been a lot of talk about this last election, that people voted values, not policy. This particular value sticks out at me – the idea that no slight go unchallenged.

Some of the people who say things like hit back harder purport to be religious. The whole turn-the-other-cheek philosophy a vague lesson best left to the wussies and pacifists. I think about how little courage is required to react and lash out and allow your anger to go unchecked. And what fortitude is needed to pull back, take a breath, think about the issue at hand, and respond civilly. Or not at all.

Despite my ideological leanings, this kind of behavior can be spotted all along the spectrum – the lashing out, name-calling, and pointing out the behavior of someone else to justify one’s own. This is where I call bullshit on those who advocate bootstrap personal responsibility from everything from economics to health care, yet accept no personal responsibility for being utter wankers.

canstockphoto28704587In my world, I assume that any words coming out of my mouth, regardless of what is being said or done, are my responsibility. The justification of they did it first never worked in elementary school and it sure as hell shouldn’t work in the grownup world.


Sometimes I whinge on about writing. Sometimes I whinge on about aging. Today, I do a little of both over at Kasmin’s Redesign Life for Real Change blog with “The Writer and the Tortoise”.

23 thoughts on “Lex Talionis Unleashed: The Art of the Escalation

    1. I’m baffled about the pride shown in lacking self-control and maturity. But if I’d written more here, I would have gone on about how lashing out is often a reaction to feeling powerless – it gives the illusion of regaining power while in essence diminishing the purveyor and changing nothing. I learned early on how deflated I feel if I react in anger, so while I want to be a more peaceful person, that’s an added incentive to not “unleash”.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. “it gives the illusion of regaining power”
        I hadn’t thought of the lashing out in that way but you are absolutely right. I rarely lash back because I usually don’t see any point in it. The person has made up his or her mind and is not going to back down.


        1. You’re right about the person having made up his or her mind, but I also find that tone, heat of the moment, all of these things impact our ability to listen. And this is not to say that I don’t falter a lot, but the more we practice stepping back and composing ourselves, the better we get at it, and the better the quality of discourse on an individual and public level.


  1. Aside from the fact that enough people voted for Trumpy that he actually won, what bothers me most about what’s happening is watching others in politics and the media begin to adopt his behaviors. That’s the real damage that will be hard to recover from. I hope the next person we put in charge understands what right and positive leadership looks like, and can role model those behaviors.


    1. For all those people shouting about freeloaders and personal responsibility, they are certainly unwilling to accept responsibility for their own behaviors. Conversations about ethics, morality and values seemed to have been trampled under this idea of “winning”. There was a great piece from George Lakoff recently where he talks about moral hierarchies that I found interesting. Because for all the injection of religious liberties into law now, morality seems to have been left behind – even basic decency. I imagine I’ll keep talking about this until we have leadership with integrity again.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I sometimes wonder about that – using personal experience to talk about universal issues. I think without that aspect, it feels like a lecture. I’m always interested in where people get their perspectives or why they hold onto opinions so doggedly, so I guess I write what I like to read.


    1. It is – like any arena where things can be unnecessarily escalated. In our country, you add a lot of guns to the mix which means fairly innocuous incidents like accidentally cutting someone off leads to murder (recently had a case here). It’s as if many of us are missing out on life skills training and are just going for the throat.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Can’t help thinking that a lot of aggression is caused by the false perception that others are a threat, fostered by our peculiar culture. This sort of thing escalates quickly and we should be exercising more civic responsibility.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Are you a public speaker by chance because I would sure love to hear you giving a speech. I’m agreeing with this so much that I probably nodded like a fool whilst reading this post. Exactly, people shouldn’t blame their actions on anyone or anything but themselves. It’s frustrating that we live in a society where not taking responsibility or playing the blame game to rationalise disgusting actions or words is such a frequent occurrence.


    1. I’m always better in writing than in person!
      Personal accountability is tough to sell when we live in a society that seems to ignore, if not reward, bad behavior.
      Even in cases where life is particularly unfair, we are still responsible for what we say or do. That perhaps is one of our greatest powers – choosing how to react to challenging circumstances or words. Although I’m not suggesting niceties in the face of bullying or injustice. But there is a big difference between escalation and resistance. And it’s usually in our words.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The presidency was won by skillful marketing to enraged people who felt they had no voice in government. After the win, this particular segment of supporters found validation, convinced that not only was their rage legitimized but also the uncivil expression of it, as their leader models daily. So it stands to reason that this is the world we live in today, likely to remain so until we elect a new administration of stature, ethics and civility who sets a higher standard for us all.


    1. Gail – I missed this comment earlier, so sorry for the late reply. Although, in the months between, things seem to have gotten even worse, so your comment is still spot on. I’ve exhausted myself with anger and now must focus on activism in my community and try not to get sidetracked by the loony and dangerous antics of this administration.

      Liked by 1 person

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