A dip in the reservoir of rage

Years ago a friend of mine from high school was arrested for swimming in the reservoir up in the Bronx. At the time it didn’t seem fair, to arrest somebody simply for dunking his dirty ass in everyone’s drinking water. After all, the reservoir is huge in comparison to one person’s sweat and funk — they drained it years later and the sanitation trucks parked on its vast, dry bottom looked like tiny matchbox toys. There was a principle involved, I realize now, when cops pulled my hippie friend from the drinking water of everyone he knew and charged him with a misdemeanor.

Arguments can always be made for every possible position, that’s the thing to keep in mind. When you take someone to court, it is not essential that you believe your argument is better than your adversary’s, that you will almost certainly win. All you need is what lawyers call a colorable claim — you know, theoretically it is possible, if the court can be persuaded, to interpret this particular law this particular way to prove — or, if not prove, at least credibly allege — that the person I’m dragging into court is a fucking asshole!

Growing up with an adversarial father, who framed our arguments around the dinner table as a war that my sister and I would inevitably lose (how right he was!) I came to recognize specific techniques he used over and over to browbeat his overmatched little adversaries. A big one was reframing. It is such an important technique, and so ubiquitous in daily life and in politics, that I feel obliged to lay it out clearly today, for whatever use seeing it in black and white may have for you.

Framing an issue the way you want gives you a distinct advantage in any argument since it lets you choose the precise battlefield you prefer to fight on. A good frame provides the instant moral and strategic high ground. It is easy to do. Just tell your adversary “while you may feel that we are arguing over (choose whatever is actually bothering the person) what we are really talking about is (substitute the larger, different, more important issue that you want to discuss).”

You feel hurt by what you claim I did to you? Well, you hurt me much more than I ever hurt you! Do you hear me whining about your incessant, blind, “innocent” cruelty? No, what we’re really talking about is your need to always play the victim, your prudish readiness to be morally nauseated, your petulant penchant for punkish whimpering. Your essential weakness.

You may not “win” the argument, assuming there are dispassionate observers to assign a final score based on the soundness of each side’s claims, as in a high school debate tournament, but, well, there are rarely, almost never, neutral parties who will decide who won or lost a given debate. Much will depend on how well you frame and reframe the discussion, how calmly you seem to argue versus how upset the other person seems. As a general rule, the person who winds up screaming in frustration is considered the loser.

Your adversary will not like having their concern reframed into what you prefer to talk about, not at all. Use this natural aversion to being misrepresented to your advantage. When you see them becoming upset by your framing and reframing you will know you’ve gained the upper hand. In politics this is often referred to as “triggering” — you frame something in a provocative way to get the indignant squeal that proves you’re right. Well, maybe “prove” is too strong a word, in this context, as is “right”, but, who cares? Fuck the enemy, right?

A good preemptive blanket framing technique is to characterize your opponent a certain way and stick to that characterization, no matter what is said. Have your talking point ready — my opponent is a (fill in any derogatory term you like) and frame everything in the context of what that kind of person will predictably say and do. The main thing is to keep hammering this one note hard and steady: what would you expect from a (blank)? If this is done correctly, everything they try to argue must be seen through the lens of a (blank) arguing (blank) because they are so completely, idiotically (blank).

The reservoir of human rage is impossibly immense. We cannot imagine the limits of it. The quiet waters we swim in can easily be sucked into this bottomless reservoir by enraged actors, always lurking nearby. Once you are swimming in rage, the limits of what you may have believed you are capable of will be expanded to things you may later shudder to revisit. Such is our life here, among our fellow “wise apes”. May your better and better ability to not get sucked into anger be a blessing to you, and to the people you care about.

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