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"You're not wrong, Walter; you're just an asshole!"

For anyone who has not seen “The Big Lebowski,” the scene takes place in a diner with Walter (John Goodman) arguing with The Dude (Jeff Bridges). At one point, Walter gets irate and starts yelling and cussing, at which point a waitress asks him nicely to keep it down because “…this is a family restaurant.” Walter then goes off on a rant about his right to self-expression, the First Amendment, and his combat buddies who died “face down in the muck” to protect his basic freedoms. Outside the restaurant, Walter asks: “Am I wrong? Am I wrong?!” leading The Dude to offer this classic rejoinder.

The scene is funny because Walter is so outrageous, but also because this type of misunderstanding is common. Just think of arguing couples where one person insists that he has the right to say something cruel to his partner “…because it’s true.”

The confusion here is between the “content” of someone’s statement and the wider “context” in which it is said. These two things are logically separate and sometimes even contradict one another. For example, I remember a marital therapy session in which the wife explained that she wanted to remain separated from her husband because she felt like he continually bulldozed her and didn’t listen to anything she had to say. He replied that he was now seeing an individual therapist and had become a much better listener (the content level message). Unfortunately, for the next 15 minutes he monopolized the conversation with examples of what a good listener he had become (on a context level, he was demonstrating that nothing had changed). Hint: when there is a contradiction between the content of a message and the broader context in which it is uttered, context is always more important.

If the contextual rule is: “relationships are damaged when partners make insulting or cruel remarks,” it doesn’t really matter if the remark is true – it’s still damaging. Similarly, if the rule is: “do not yell and cuss in a family restaurant,” then whatever topic you are yelling and cussing about is irrelevant.

I remember making a mistake of this sort at age 16 with my best friend Mike. His mother had given him permission to go surfing, but just as we were getting ready to leave her live-in boyfriend objected and she changed her mind and told him he couldn’t go. Mike was angry and said, “sometimes my mom can be a real bitch.” And this is where I made the mistake. I said, “I see what you mean. She was kind of a bitch.” At which point, Mike whirled around, pointed a finger in my face, and said: “I get to call my mom a bitch. You don’t!” And he was right, of course. I had just violated an important rule: “You don’t say insulting things about other people’s family members” – even if you are just repeating what your friend said 10 seconds earlier.

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