Because aggression and passivity have severe costs along with whatever benefits they carry, and because the world is never strictly black or white, people are rarely polarized as purely passive and purely aggressive. Bullies have often been victims of bullying or abuse themselves, and the fears they have about being victims if they are not aggressors tend to come from experiences being the victims themselves. In addition, people often are aware that aggression is not socially acceptable, so they work to hide their aggression to make it more “politically correct.” Finally, people are not always capable of being assertive in all situations, as many times the environments have unfair power imbalances that force passivity onto people. Because of this, people often see one of two sets of patterns emerge where passivity and aggression are blended: passive-aggressive behaviors and cycles of passivity and aggressiveness
The first of such mixes is what is known as being “passive-aggressive.” Passive-aggression in its pure form is when someone purposely uses inaction or censors their own thoughts and feelings (passivity) in a way to exert control over a situation (aggression). This can manifest in intentionally forgetting to do things, stubborn refusal, intentional inefficiency, the use of sarcasm to express beliefs, and other forms of inactive defiance. This can also manifest in learned helplessness, where a person refuses to use the abilities they have because they fear they will not work, and they resort to the passivity to get others to do things for them. Finally, there is the emotional passive aggression. This is where a person self censors by denying a negative feeling (passivity) while simultaneously shaming (aggression) someone for causing, or likely not preventing, that same negative emotion.
Even though passive-aggression is not the ideal way to handle a problem, it is also not always negative. In situations where there are stark power differentials that do not allow for the oppressed group to assert their rights, passive aggressive actions may be the only way to resist abuse or facilitate change. When the assertive answer is not offered and not possible, passive-aggression becomes the best choice of all the bad options. Humor and sarcasm, for example, are also passive-aggressive. In the hands of the oppressed, they are ways to point out their oppression without suffering severe consequences of a censoring hierarchy. In the kings court, as is said, the jester is the only one who can speak the truth. In the hands of the oppressors, the people who have the power to act assertively, they act to reinforce the abuses being committed while simultaneously avoiding the responsibility for that abuse. Jokes about rape provide the clearest example of this effect. In the hands of those who enforce the disastrous status quo, jokes about rape reinforce the mentality and promote the behavior of rape and ultimately promotes the aggression of rape. However, in a world where women are being told they are responsible for preventing their own rapes while less than 6% of rapists will ever see jail time, jokes about rape have also been made to point out these double standards and have become an incredibly powerful tool for building empathy with the struggles of the gender most at risk. It’s not hypocrisy because the difference in gender treatment in our society creates an imbalance of power. If the power situation were equal, if women weren’t being raped more than 5x the rate of men and then being blamed for their own rapes, it would be a different story. But because the ability for women to assert their rights and be heard and taken seriously is limited due to the gender inequality, this passive aggressive tactic is appropriate.
But passive-aggression still relies on aggression and passivity. Though it can be a powerful tool for change in the hands of the oppressed, it is still not the best tool, but rather the best choice of a set of bad options. When passive-aggressive tactics start to arise, it either means that one group has been so disenfranchised that they don’t have ways to assert themselves to have their needs met, or it means that a group can assert themselves, but they know their need is not appropriate. In the former, the passive-aggressive behavior is a symptom of a larger problem in the environment. In the former, the power imbalance is such that people cannot successfully use assertive techniques, and so the system needs to be modified to give people back their equal standing so that there are better options beyond passive-aggression. In the latter, however, the people employing passive-aggressive behaviors have the power to be assertive, know they have the power, but are choosing to be aggressive instead. Because they know they are being aggressive, and that aggression is not accepted, they mask it with passive-aggression to avoid responsibility. Answering the latter involves tearing away that mask to point out the aggression.
Passivity and Aggression cycles
Where passive-aggressive behaviors can sometimes be the only way for the disempowered to act, the cyclical behaviors of passivity and aggressiveness are generally both self-destructive and destructive to others. The passivity and aggression cycle occurs when a person becomes passive until a problem, frustration, or resentment builds up to the point where that person then explodes in a cathartic but aggressive act of physical or emotional violence. The person can be self censoring (“I should not be upset” or “I am bad if say what I think or feel”) or they can feel the censorship is imposed (“I can’t say that because it is not politically correct,” or “If I hit him/her now, I will go to prison, so I have to suck it up.”) Because the problem does not get addressed, this creates a cycle of passivity and resentment that builds until the person cannot take it anymore or can find a reason to justify an aggressive response. The person lashes out releasing the pent up resentment and frustration, and that release becomes more important than the actual problems that cause it.
For some people, this is the case of the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The blow up is then regretted and leads to a sense of shame that causes the person to repress their feelings more. This feeds the cycle, and the person represses and blows up and represses again. This person becomes bitter, angry, and high strung. In many situations, there are real issues that are oppressing this person, but instead of addressing the very real problem, they repress and avoid it. The problem is left to fester, and they end up destroying their relationships and hurting others as they continue to avoid the problem. When addressing bullying in schools, this is the pattern that Stuart Twemlow saw in many teachers. The teachers were themselves being being bullied but administration, pressured by parents, and regularly dealing with student defiance. They let the the resentment build up until they found a student or instance of class wide misbehavior, and then would unleash with ridicule or other forms of targeted aggression. The teacher had real problems he or she felt powerless to address, and would “suck it up” until he or she reached the point of explosion. The problem never got solved, many children were abused emotionally, and other children were taught by example that bullying behaviors were acceptable.
This pattern becomes darker when the liberation or narcissistic gratification that came from the blow-up is itself rewarding. Lashing out can give people a sense of control and power. Lashing out becomes its own tool with several secondary gains including the ability to be aggressive and controlling while avoiding responsibility. This is the cycle of “gotcha” aggression. In gotcha aggression, the person knows the aggression they want to enact is not appropriate or acceptable. Because of this, the person actively seeks out reasons to unleash their attacks onto the target. In their minds they cannot be held responsible for their aggression if they can blame their target for the violence unleashed upon them. “Ha! Gotcha! Now I can do whatever I want to you!” This is the aggression seen often in domestic violence, where one partner waits for reasons to attack another just so they can make the controlling aggression the victim’s fault. The broken plate or spilled coffee is met with a beating because it never was about the plate or coffee, it was just about absolute obedience. The recent gamergate fiasco is a perfect example of this as well. The controversey was fabricated by an angry ex who wanted to exert control over his ex girlfriend. The men involved had a history of highly sexist and woman hating speech on internet message boards. The target was a woman who was starting to become powerful in the gaming community. The result was a campaign of death threats, rape threats, and doxing, all justified by a conspiracy that was all founded on the accusations of an angry ex. The accusations were fabricated, but even if they were true, they did not justify the abusive level of aggression that was used in response. But that is because with aggression, it never is about the problem or solving the problem.
*Update 10/2/14 – Aggression by Proxy*
After I first published this post, I realized there was a third way people blend passivity and aggressiveness: aggression by proxy. Aggression by proxy is a symbiotic aggression and passivity collusion. In this dark partnership, one individual enacts the aggression, and others cheer on his or her action. Those cheering on the aggression get all the rewards of the aggression, such as the feelings of power and control, the cathartic release of resentment and frustration, etc, but they bare none of the responsibility for the actions that are taken on by another. The aggressor, meanwhile, enjoys the protections of the masses who will come together to absolve the aggressor of his or her crimes.It’s not just the bully on the playground beating the kid in many situations because there is also often a throng of accomplices who hoot and holler, egging on the violence without directly enacting it. Modern cyber-bullying thrives on this form of aggression. The primary bully is the one who posts the humiliating video, but every person who shares and makes a humiliating comment feeds the efforts of the primary bully and does so without fear of reprisal.