Post No.: 0486
Overt aggression – which includes physical violence, threats or calling people names – is always frowned upon. But more indirect social/relational aggression – which includes spreading gossip or rumours to damage someone’s reputation, getting peers to stop liking someone, saying mean things behind people’s backs, silent treatments, specifically ignoring/excluding someone, or saying one won’t be a ‘friend’ to them unless they do as one says – is more controversial as people will take a dim view of such behaviours if they are outside of the clique (ingroup), whereas within a clique it can strengthen friendships for those who are members of that clique and aren’t the subject of the hostility. Such hostility is therefore used to strengthen ingroup bonds at the expense of outgroup members. It’s often rationalised as ‘banter’ but its purpose is precisely to divide – between those who are considered part of a clique and those who are excluded.
Strong social bonds are beneficial for our well-being, but if our ingroup bonds come at the expense of outgroup members then we’ve got to realise that there are potentially many outgroups for every single ingroup we belong to i.e. being a nasty person to ‘outsiders’ will make many more enemies than it can make friends; although one may never realise this because one will be too insularly engrossed within one’s own little fuzzy clique.
A pattern is that younger children use more physical aggression, but as they age they start to employ more indirect or passive aggression because the punitive consequences for this behaviour are far less severe and they can be more covert about what they’re trying to do. Prejudice, discrimination, ostracism or spreading false rumours are forms of hostility nonetheless and can cause real, unjust reputational damage and real psychological harm to their innocent victims.
Reactive aggression is a reaction of anger towards a frustration or pain, either because we fell short of our goals or because someone else is provoking us or preventing us from getting what we want. This hostile hot-headedness can achieve a short-term reward but decreases our status in the long term. Proactive aggression is a calculated method of reaching a goal, such as to raise one’s perceived authority by bullying and putting other people down. This instrumental cold-bloodedness may raise one’s status when in front of people’s faces and is more useful in adulthood, but it doesn’t make one likeable behind people’s backs.
At the root of all hostility is fear. Proactive aggression is still related to fear but in a more subtle way because all desires involve insecurity, which are in turn related to fear – the fear of not having enough of something or being seen to have enough of something thus something must be done about it. Contentment would be the state of desirelessness. Therefore the desire to be perceived as more authoritative or dominant than one is currently perceived to be is driven by an insecurity, or a fear of only being perceived as the person one currently is and no more. It’s a feeling of doubt that one cannot dominate, at least without being aggressive. Aggression is energy-intensive, and risky, and we don’t normally like to use more energy than we think we need to use in any situation, hence it is a sign of a lack of confidence or ability to do something in a more calm and energy-saving way. It’s a fear that one cannot rule without intimidation.
Desires, insecurities or fears do motivate us though, and if directed in the right ways i.e. preferably without hostility or violence, they can socially and constructively produce positive non-zero sum outcomes (as in ‘everybody gains’) rather than zero-sum outcomes (as in ‘I must put you down in order to raise myself up’ – learn more about schadenfreude and putting others down to feel good about ourselves in Post No.: 0425).
Passive aggression is the indirect expression of hostility by someone who is uncomfortable or unable to express their anger or hurt feelings in an honest and open way. When people have a healthy relationship with anger, they can feel it, mindfully recognise and say they’re upset, discuss what triggered it, and find a resolution and closure. But passive aggression is a symptom of the fear of direct confrontation and conflict even though one feels angry underneath. Unfortunately, this makes it much harder to reach a resolution and closure because the anger is always simmering but never rising to the surface to be confronted. The parties involved really need to first take a minute to calm down before approaching each other with the issue, then they need to talk it out (and ask rather than guess or assume what each other is thinking or feeling), brainstorm together for solutions, list the pros and cons of each idea, seek a win-win solution, execute that plan, then evaluate it after a trial period.
Micro-aggressions are small, brief, subtle insults that occur frequently in everyday exchanges. They send negative messages to people about their identities. For instance, ethnic minority members may be asked, “Where do you (really) come from?”, thus suggesting that they’ll always be regarded as outsiders, even for those who were born in their present country. Another is females being told that, “Girls don’t lift weights”, which implies that women are supposed to be physically weak.
‘Social identity threat’ occurs when we realise that others hold negative views about one or more of the groups we’re personally associated with (e.g. based on our skin colour, gender, sexuality, the income of our parents). It makes us feel like we don’t belong or aren’t being seen or valued for who we actually are as individuals. For children in school who experience prolonged threats to their social identity without adequate protective factors or social buffering (such as support from good friends or trusted adults who stand up for them or see their worth) – the chronic sense of isolation and stress will increase the risk of health problems and have a negative impact on their learning, which can therefore lead to a vicious cycle for members of minorities. The daily experience of being stigmatised, overlooked, marginalised or misperceived can eventually wear someone down and add a cognitive load that distracts and impairs work performance, lowers engagement (for what’s the use when no one seems to notice you or care?) and hinders the ability to develop strong, trust-based relationships within their schools, workplaces or local communities.
In the context of politics and racism, a ‘dog whistle’ is a coded phrase or image that appears to mean one thing to the general population but means something more specific to a targeted subgroup of people. For example, an image full of immigrants may appear to mean ‘just a bunch of immigrants’ to the general population but will mean ‘a bunch of ethnically non-white people’ to a certain subgroup – especially if the image has been deliberately manipulated or chosen to obscure any ethnically white immigrants. Because some people consciously see or hear the ‘dog whistle’ and others don’t (even though it might nevertheless be unconsciously influencing them), the analogy is akin to a dog whistle, where only some animals can hear the ultrasonic frequency – woof.
Some people will see the piece as racist whilst others won’t, when it is racist. Those who see the racist connotations will either support the piece because they are themselves racist, or wish to point out the racist bias and ‘dog whistle’ because they are not racist. Another example of a ‘dog whistle’ is that some people think that other people making monkey chants are ‘only making the sound of a monkey’, as if just calling an individual a buffoon. But to others it is known to be a racist chant and is only ever directed at black people.
Majority members of a country are therefore frequently blind to the discrimination that minority members face on a (daily) basis. They are consequently frequently in denial of any privileges they experience too. This includes things like white privilege in places like the UK and USA – some white people are completely blind to the advantages they receive, and blind even to the point of denying that ethnic minorities are being discriminated against when so many people categorically point out when and where they are. Racist comments are often denied away as ‘banter’, prejudicial decisions are denied as being racially motivated, and any victims raising complaints are explained as them just playing the ‘race card’ i.e. the victims are made to appear to be the perpetrators. Injustices have always been dismissed by a subset of people as excuses made by the disadvantaged or oppressed in all kinds of contexts, not just in racism (e.g. sexism, blaming solely the poor for being poor).
Racism has thus been continually rationalised away by, not all but many of, the privileged. There can be total ignorance of their privileges. Well the statistics clearly show that black people are more likely to be stopped by police on the streets and then hurt or worse in custody than white people, and Chinese people are more likely to get higher grades yet are less likely to get top jobs than white people, for instance, in proportion to their population sizes in these countries. Minority members, on the whole on average, need to work harder to achieve the same positive life outcomes.
The purpose of a ‘dog whistle’ in politics is to appeal to the greatest number of voters whilst alienating as few of them as possible – to most of the electorate, such a piece of propaganda will seem either innocent or factual so they will find no reason to object to it and the accompanying political policy, but others will see the manipulative racist undertones and implied associations.
In opinion polling, respondents may hear something in a question that the researchers do not; and subtle changes in the wording of questions can elicit very different results. As an example – if an ethnically black person is both a barrister and a rapper, then just calling this person a black rapper will conjure up associations with criminality and black stereotypes for this person. This person being black and a rapper is true but it’s not the whole truth. Without the whole truth, it’s like saying that a sandwich has been made freshly today, and that is true, but neglecting to mention that the cook didn’t wash his/her hands before making it! Therefore it’s never enough to claim that something is fine just because it wasn’t a lie, because people need to know the whole truth and nothing but the truth in order to make properly informed decisions. (This is a problem in commercial advertising, media and PR contexts too when marketers only express the desirable points of their own products and maybe only the undesirable points of their competitors’ products e.g. ‘low fat’ is emblazoned on the front of the packaging, with no mention of the high sugar content except in the nutritional information printed on the back that’s required by law. This commercial practice is so normal that we don’t consider it a problem of presenting one-sided propaganda at all, but it essentially is!)
Politicians must be smarter than being overtly racist nowadays. They cannot use overtly racist phrases and images hence ‘dog whistle politics’ evolved to imply the same messages. And that’s why we must all prick up our ears and be alert to these strategies and tactics.