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”.