Word Wars: Online Conflict and Self Defense

Within the martial arts, the term self defense is misused and overused to the point where people, often as not, don’t know that it is a legal term, and as such not really open to personal interpretation. This is so common that as a martial arts instructor, when I mention consequences of using fighting techniques, I am always and forever hit with the question, “But what if it is self defense?

I have beaten that old dead horse so much I don’t want to discuss the error anymore. For my purposes here, it is sufficient to say that self defense is a very narrowly defined legal term, and most of what you think of as self defense is assault.

What I do wish to cover today is the strange thought of verbal self defense during online arguments.

The thought to write this came as a result of some of the correspondence I received after my last post. There were some people who went right past the point of the article, which was “be careful what you post online”, and zeroed in on the story of the Duncanville teacher who had to resign after posting some very unprofessional remarks on her twitter account. There were several people who remarked that the teacher “had to defend herself” against what people were saying about her or her comments or whatever. Others took the position that there was nothing wrong with her being outraged and venting in the way that she did because others were saying equally bad things in response to her original statements.

I will leave aside that these comments clearly show that the point of that article was missed, and address the idea of self defense as applied to online banter.

Is it really self defense?

In much the same way as what happens with physical “self defense”, people are under a mistaken belief that arguing with someone is self defense. It isn’t, but they sincerely believe that it is. In a physical conflict, people often see their behavior in the verbal escalation phase as merely protecting themselves. Their ego urges them to sooth an imagined wound, and the way that it does so is to escalate the argument. This is a mistaken viewpoint that can have really bad consequences.

Marc MacYoung gave this topic the best treatment I have read to date in his book In the Name of Self Defense. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in this topic.

The same mental mechanisms involved in face to face verbal and physical conflicts are at work in these situations of online arguments. They can be dangerous in that they get more and more hateful as time passes. People push the limits of dialogue as they try continually to “one-up” the other person. This escalation is no different in essence from when Person A makes insinuations about Person B’s mother and Person B responds by commenting on the sexual preferences of Person A. It is escalation and it is a bad road to be on, face to face or not.

As we saw in the incident mentioned in the previous post, things can get out of control. It happens so easily, and the sad thing is that even people who chose a side after-the-fact will claim that one person was “defending herself/himself”.

Neither person is innocent as both willingly escalated the event. You might feel sorry for one or the other, but in truth, neither person is right or correct or justified in their behavior. Either person has the option to simply stop participating in the escalation. And, they have this option at any time, they only need to see it, and take that option.

What do you gain or lose?

In looking at how similar the online argument is to the face-to-face argument, what advice would a self defense coach give to a person in such situations?

I like to look at it from the perspective of “What do you lose by not participating in the argument?”

In the online confrontation, you may feel like you are losing face. Maybe you are and maybe you aren’t. There is really little difference. In most cases, if you take a moment to think about it, you really have no interaction with these people outside of the website where the argument is taking place. You might convince yourself that you can save your pride by one-upmanship, but in fact you might end up suffering a huge public humiliation. People lose their jobs because of an inability to see that there is no winning of an argument online with a stranger who already has their mind made up. So, as far as gain is concerned, there is nothing to be gained.

As far as loss, well…that is a different story.

As brought up in the last post, the teacher in that story had to resign from her job of twenty years after what others want to call “defending herself”. The fact is, there was no need at all to reply to their comments. Just as I advise kids when dealing with cyber-bullying – if you stop reading what they are writing then you do not feel pressure to respond and participate in such a way as to allow the nonsense to continue.

You may feel the urge to comment on a hot topic news story. And you certainly have a freedom to comment. But you should do so with the foreknowledge that others will not agree with you. Add to this the need to be aware of the rampant immaturity in the world today and you can be aware that people will disagree with you in very childish ways. Few people actually know how to discuss differences of ideas anymore, and instead engage in ad hominem attacks from the start. Are you thick-skinned enough to handle this? If not, then it is best to not comment.

Emotion Based Decisions

If you must respond to something said online, in the full knowledge that the other person will not be persuaded to accept your opinion, then it is probably good to take a moment first.


Posting something online should probably not be done while in an emotionally agitated state. Many people make fun of the people who post all of their private business on Facebook, and with good reason. Many people seem to have forgotten that private life is private for a reason. This inability to draw a distinction between what is okay to place in a public forum and what is not seems to stem from making decisions based on emotion. In the “heat of a moment” it is easy to lose sight of bigger picture concerns. People can, and have, posted online comments that cost careers, jobs, friends, relationships, and respect.

In a moment of trying to be a big shot online, you can make a mess of many parts of your life.

This problem can become especially pronounced when the hot centers of the brain trick you into thinking that an online attack is the same thing as an actual physical attack. You will slip right into the hot centers and begin reacting based on emotion, and very bad things can happen.

Be careful about these things.