Disagreement as a Personal Attack

I’m not sure how we got here and I’m not sure how we get back, or if that’s even possible. All I know is that I’m tired of people who take any disagreement as a personal attack. Your choosing a thing that they don’t necessarily like is somehow a criticism of them because they do like it. Or vice-versa, if you don’t like something that they enjoy, or value, or otherwise hold dear.

While this can lapse into politics, it’s not exclusive to it. At least in politics I can almost see it. Beliefs can be a major part of personal identity, so a perceived attack on an ideology can feel like it was targeted specifically at you. I also get the nuance of subtweet as proxy dig, both online and in real life conversations. This isn’t about pulling a Regina George with an oblique burn, either.

Disagreement as a Personal Attack

Here are some examples from my own life, to point out the level of ridiculousness I’m talking about. I used to have a friend who did not like dice pool mechanics in roleplaying games. In assessing the best way to model something for a game I was working on, I decided that a dice pool system was appropriate. He stopped talking to me, after informing me that he took my choice personally. Haven’t spoken to him since. Seriously, that was the deal breaker for him. He felt that I chose a dice pool system not because that’s what fit the project, but because I knew he hated them.

There was another person who stopped being my friend because I was also friends with someone he didn’t like. Note that I never hung out with these two people at the same time. I was never present when these two interacted — if they ever did. Friend A seemed to dislike Friend B based solely on the latter’s internet presence. I never got an official ultimatum, an explanation, or a chance to discuss it. The whole thing came down to “You know I don’t like them, so if you choose to be friends with them I can’t be friends with you, goodbye forever”.

A more recent example: The Black Box Manifesto. It’s less of an in-your-face proclamation, and more of a public statement of design principles put together by my friend Daniel with some of my input. The part that most people latch onto is the assertion that roleplaying game books don’t have to be 600 page, heavily illustrated, full-color coffee table books. While Daniel has gotten some interesting and thoughtful feedback, the most common type of comment I’ve seen has come down to “But I like games with lots of artwork“. Their takeaway isn’t that there’s another way to do things, or that graphics-heavy isn’t always the best choice for a project, especially for cash-strapped creators and consumers. But by going against conventional wisdom people somehow hear something we never said, which is that their preferences are wrong and we’re mocking and belittling them as a result.

Willful Misunderstanding and Gaslighting

Not that I believe the hurt feelings 100% of the time. I recognize gaslighting when I see it. Taking personal offense to something that is neither personal nor offensive is a way to judge and attack my own choices. The most notorious example is the person (an American) who, when Katie told her we like living here in Finland, replied “Nothing could ever make me hate my country!“.

This person already had issues with us relocating here so Katie could attend graduate school. Plenty of guilt had already been piled on around the things we were presumably missing out on because we weren’t in the United States. Treating a statement about how we like where we’re at in our lives as a criticism of her liking where she was, and implying that liking one thing means we hate something else, is so transparent. If that’s not a straw man argument, it’s at least straw man-adjacent.

It’s Not About You

There is a certain level of narcissism to it all. I think that’s a reflection of the culture, at least American culture, as it stands right now. My choices are about me. Your choices are about you. As long as no one is hurting anybody, all choices are probably valid. It sort of smacks of zero-sum game thinking, where there are only so many opinions to go around, and my disagreement somehow diminishes your opinion. It’s like the logic that giving other people rights diminishes my own rights. It’s not pie!

The only way for this to change is for the culture to shift. That means people need to be kinder. They need to have empathy for other people. There’s a degree of critical thinking required. Given the state of the world at the moment I can hope, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

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