Feeling Our Way

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Misunderstandings of Aggression

Hostility and assertiveness have the same roots and parallel effects.

A friend writes, “When you are direct, bold, provocative, edgy, ambitious, courageous, and challenging, that is very different from being hostile, mean, dominating, or sadistic. I think that people who have a hard time with that first set of adjectives often confuse the two (and also express their own ambitious energy in indirectly hostile ways, but that is another story!).”

I guess I don’t think that direct and courageous are so very different from hostile and mean.

I don’t think the problem is that some people who have a hard time with hostility confuse it with assertiveness and courage; I think the problem is that these people recognize the hostility intrinsic to assertiveness and courage and react accordingly. In fact, I think the only difference between assertiveness and hostility is the preparation of the audience. In martial arts training and tournaments, whacking someone with a sword is assertive; in most other contexts, it would be hostile. Invading another country and killing its inhabitants was hostile when the Germans did it and assertive when the Americans did it (in World War II; it was hostile in Vietnam). Neville Chamberlain is shamed by history for not being more assertive with Hitler, but being more assertive with him meant threatening to kill and then killing Germans. Corrective criticism is challenging when the student wants to get better at whatever she’s studying; it’s hostile when the student wants to be validated for already being good at whatever she’s studying.

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Further, I believe that the first, endorsable set of adjectives and the second, oft-rejected set of adjectives come from the same place (call it the will to power, aggressive instinct, status dynamics, or the reinforcing effects of other people’s obedience).

Skinner points out how many of life’s rewards are brought by other people, so that certain social experiences become secondarily reinforcing through conditioning, in an exact analogy to the way money becomes a conditioned reinforcer. He lists attention, affection, approval, and obedience. The first three become conditioned reinforcers only if social relationships are benign, on balance. If other people’s attention is preparatory to rebuke, if affection leads to crippling expectations, if approval is for an agenda that serves the approver but not the individual—then none of these three will become reinforcing. But you can always count on obedience. Other people doing what you want them to do, even if what you want them to do is to surprise you, is bound to feel good.

So, even aside from the fact that we are the most innately aggressive mammals on the planet, bending others to our will is bound to become a major force in human affairs given how social we are. The essence of enlightenment values is the recognition of this fact (“power corrupts”; “if men were angels, no government would be necessary”), and the construction of a system that takes it into account.

I think that the employer who calmly “lets go” a difficult employee is tapping the same energy as the employer who feels like beheading that employee. It’s the similarity between the two that leads some employers never to consider firing anyone. If we are not comfortable with our fantasies of beheading people we will resist letting them go unless we can, as my friend implies above, let them go in a way that is so passive-aggressive that it escapes our own detection of hostility. If we are comfortable with our aggression, we are more likely to engage bad employees in a dialogue of frustration, to hear their own frustrations, and to find a solution (which may be to fire them but is almost certain to be firing them if we react to their own frustrations as if they were bomb threats).

So my view of the gender issue is that girls in our country are much more likely to be punished for aggressive behavior than boys are. Punishment never changes the tendency to engage in behavior, but it can change the tendency to disguise it. In my childhood, most boys learned to settle their differences with fists, and this led to settling differences with debate. Most girls were punished for using fists (“unladylike”), and this led to settling differences with backbiting, moralizing, and cutting remarks. Especially moralizing.

I was at a case conference not too long ago to decide whether a mother was unfit to raise her children or whether to pursue reunification.

 

Me: She’s a bad mother.

Female State Social Work Administrator: That’s judgmental.

Me: I thought we were here to judge her parenting.

FSSWA: We teach case workers to talk about clients like they’re human beings.

Me: Only human beings are bad mothers.

 

It chills me to think that people would sever a mother’s relationship with her children without even a hint of anger on the child’s behalf, like the high school principal who dully and calmly tells you he’s going to expel your son. To me, that’s inhuman.

[By the way, Webster’s also includes “healthy self-assertiveness or a drive to mastery or accomplishment” in its definitions of aggression. And its definition of assertive ends, “syn see aggressive.”]

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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