Aggression and the illusion of power

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If a person bugs you, ignore him, and he’ll stop. This was the standard advice that adults gave me as a child. I suppose it was comfortable to them because it was non-violent and sounded vaguely plausible. It was also spectacularly ineffective, so I found it less comfortable than they did.

I once read a book about a mean kid who continually pushed other kids around, until a nice boy cheerfully acquiesced to all his demands, and the mean kid, who was just lonely, you see, meekly became the nice boy’s friend.

I’d like to imagine that the author of this book was an adult who had never seen actual children and couldn’t remember being one. Alas, I have heard similar advice from many adults. So it’s a widespread idea.

Recently, I’ve heard schools advise children to surround themselves with friends, because people in groups are less likely to be picked on. This is socially realistic, but it doesn’t explain what to do if we are not surrounded by friends, or if we have no friends.

Another book advises kids to act cool. Bullies don’t pick on cool kids, even cool loner kids. You should walk cool with your head held high. It’s not clear what you do if someone is un-awed by your coolness and attacks anyway. Act cooler? I don’t know.

Now, here’s a question for adults. Suppose someone calls you a nasty name and throws their drink on you. Do you stare at the ceiling and pretend you didn’t notice? Smile amicably and hope they’ll be nice? Run over to your friends? Strike a cool pose? I doubt most adults would do any of these things, which makes me ask why they advise them to kids.

We, as a society, have very confused views on power, aggression, and violence. We have a vague pacifist sentiment, but no clear idea of how to apply it. So unclear is this philosophy that, once threatened, we’re apt to toss it aside and fall back on the behaviours that we refuse to teach our kids. We continue to foist on them a message of non-aggression. Yet, as we provide no model to use it, and keep our actual methods hidden, we do them a disservice.

But I’m not arguing for violence. Our working solution is barely more functional than our advice.

The old Charles Atlas ads said that if you were a 90-pound weakling and got sand kicked in your face by a muscular man, the answer was to become an even more muscular man and kick sand in his face. That works to some extent, at least until an even bigger man shows up, and then you’re back where you started.

Violence isn’t the issue. I once saw a video in which bullies made fun of a kid for being different. The kid challenged them to a contest, using his unique traits to win. After that, they left him alone. A non-violent solution, it still had the same assumptions as sand-kicking: if people bother you, you must challenge them and win.

The trouble with both the passive and confrontational approaches is that they place all agency in the hands of the aggressor, either by assuming that we have no control or requiring us to have more control than is possible. Bullying is less about physical violence than about demoralizing through attacking the ego, and violence itself may or may not have this effect. Bullies can recognize someone whose self-esteem is easily affected by other people’s words or actions. Threats of violence or insults are arbitrary methods to play with people’s insecurities. Even annoying noises or facial expressions can suffice: if you feel that these hurt you, and you feel a need to  stop them from happening, you hand over power to the person making them.

Thus we have some people needing to avoid all potential aggressors and other people needing to fight anyone who challenges them. Both are at the mercy of their intimidators.

The crucial illusion is that these intimidators have any real power beyond the credit we give them. To studiously ignore them doesn’t work, because it signals submissiveness and implied acceptance. To crush them, crush them all is excessive and also impossible. To view them as harmless idiots and treat them as such is merely accurate. But to do this, we must be able to distinguish between genuine threats and perceived injuries.

Don’t mistake me. Bullying is a serious problem. But it is part of a deeper issue. We are a culture with confrontational, egotistic values, attempting to become non-violent. We have no idea how.

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