You Can Argue Without Getting Ugly
There was an Internet controversy recently when the new Duke Nukem game came out, after having gotten delayed for 37 years or so. The game got fairly bad reviews, but, you know, that happens. Not everybody is going to like everything. But those reviews made Jim Redner angry.
Wait, who's Jim Redner? He's a public relations guy, and one of his clients was 2K Games, the makers of DNF. Well, he was. He was recently fired because after reading the onslaught of "venomous" reviews, he got on Twitter and ...
... fucking blacklisted bitches!
In other words, he got pissed off because everyone was hard on the game, and instead of confronting them about why he felt they were being treated unfairly, he decided to punish them by making it so they couldn't review 2K's games any more (or at least, not with advance copies so that the reviews are up when the game hits shelves). And for that, he lost his client.
What Did They Do Wrong?
The thing to note here is how many steps down the line Jim could have gone and still kept his job. Reading the reviews, taking them personally, even up to the point of getting angry -- all fine. In fact, if he'd taken to Twitter and just said, "Some of these reviews are really unfair, guys," he'd have kept his job. The difference between acceptable and unacceptable here was all in how he chose to approach the conflict. It all seems to come down to whether you're looking for peace or victory.
Yeah, that's what I thought, corpse. I win again.
I remember vicious arguments I got into with my ex-wife, for the same reasons as Mr. Redner (in fact, I bet 80 percent of couples arguments start this way) -- it started with a simple criticism, said in a hostile tone of voice. As it turns out, simple inflections in tone or the slightest phrasing problem can have that effect. I felt attacked, and I responded by verbally swinging back. It didn't much matter what I said, as long as I "won" the argument. It sure as fuck wasn't about trying to reach some understanding or compromise.
And there's the constant problem. Once you treat it like a war, then everything you say is calculated, not to do what words are supposed to do (that is, convey information) but to beat the other person down. You push their buttons, you go right for what you know are their emotional weaknesses. Why did Mr. Redner talk about pulling advance copies from reviewers? Because that was the only source of power he had over them -- it was the only card he could play that would let him "win." This is why, in an argument with your boyfriend or girlfriend, they'll pull out some incident from six months ago ("I'm not the one who pulled out his dick at Olive Garden!") that should have no relevance to what you're talking about. It's just ammunition, meant to intimidate the other person into submission.
"No, I totally agree -- you have a good point there."
And if that doesn't work, what do they do? Say it louder. Much, much louder. You turn the talking into a physical act, hoping the sheer, scary volume and tone will make the other person back down. You turn into a dog barking at passing kids keep them out of the yard.
So, the point isn't that you should never have confrontations -- you constantly hear that arguing is actually good for a relationship. It's that you have to recognize the huge difference between "arguing" by strongly stating your side, and simply trying to bludgeon the other person into silence with brutal slaps from your word-dick.
Think About Other People for One Goddamned Second
If you've ever spent time on an Internet message board, you are familiar with the concept of the Internet Witch Hunt. Basically, some offense is committed by a random stranger -- this can range anywhere from "saying something stupid on YouTube" to "a soldier killing a puppy live on camera" (yes, that happened, Google it). What happens next is the Internet flies into action and digs up the offender's personal information -- home address, phone number, work info -- to see just how much damage can be done in the name of "justice."
It happened when Reddit.com decided a college student raising money for cancer research must be running a scam, and responded by digging up her Facebook page, home address, etc. Suggested means of retribution ranged from reporting her to the FBI, to sending dozens of unwanted pizzas to her house. All of which might've been justified ... had they actually been right about the fraud. Which they weren't.
"Oops! Our bad!
This happens so often that Reddit admins had to specifically make a rule forbidding it, and have to frequently remind users of the rule.
What Did They Do Wrong?
That's a great example of the splash damage you get from runaway anger. They so badly wanted an excuse to get angry (in the name of "justice") that nobody took much effort to make sure the right person was being targeted. This is why revenge movies are so much fun to watch, half of us secretly hope our kid gets kidnapped so we can go on a rampage like Liam Neeson. But in real life, we're far more likely to just take out a bunch of bystanders instead.
When I was still married, my then-wife came home in a really bad mood, and we ended up getting into an argument over some bullshit that started badly and ended worse. At the time, our kids were playing in the yard, totally unaware of the war that was going on in the kitchen. It ended abruptly when I just decided I'd had enough, and walked away. Nothing was resolved, and in the end, both of us were still fuming.
The universal sign for "Shit's about to get all kinds of slappy up in here."
So later, the kids came inside, and one of them spilled some milk on the carpet. I would normally just tell them to be careful and have them clean it up. But in the state I was in, I jumped all over them. The kids, who had just moments ago been in great moods, became angry in turn, and before we knew it, they were fighting with each other instead of playing. You can see how my inability to keep a lid on it wound up just rippling outward, like the shockwave of an atomic bomb made out of human shit.
This is why a lot of anger management programs have a whole section on empathy. This is the more academic way of saying, "Learn how not to be such a selfish dick and think about how the way you act impacts other people, asshole." If I'd taken one second to remember what it was like when my dad blew up for no reason, it'd have been a hell of a lot easier to slam on the brakes. Shame is a good circuit breaker for anger.
Shame and cupcakes. Oh, shit, I just found a name for my next band!
This all sounds so obvious, but goddamn is it hard to find anyone on the Internet actually exercising this kind of control. We get so wrapped up in the idea that we're right that we can't fathom the idea that maybe we're the dick here.
In fact, let me leave you with this final technique: Grab a post-it note, write down the phrase, "Am I being the dick here?" and stick it to your computer monitor. Or, even better, get it tattooed on your palm. Glance at it every time you're about to reply to an email or article comment, or when you're about to make a call to tech support. See if it helps.