Xyz school is playing its Big Match with Pqr school. The ground is full of students and old boys. A group of Xyzians chant “Down with Pqr! Down with Pqr!!”. A group of Pqrians respond to this with another chant. Then one Xyzian gets really angry and throws a stone at Pqrians. “You don’t have guts! That’s why you throw stones!” They shout and that makes the stone thrower even angrier.
“Machang, Are we Xyzians?” He asks to a response of a mighty “Yes” from his group.
“Do we have guts?” And the answer is a mighty “Yes” again.
“Will we stand such an insult?” The answer is “No”.
“If we do, are we Xyzians?” The answer is “NO!” And they ram into the group of Pqrians and start beating them. The incident ends in many injuries, police intervention and few hospitalisations.
This is obvious violence. Violence is a prominent feature of aggression. Violence could be physical like in this example. Or it could be verbal like harsh words and degrading remarks, threats to harm etc. But aggression is not only violence.
Aggression is using one’s superior power to subdue another. The Xyzians thought that they have superior muscle-power over the Pqrians in the above example. If not some other superior power, like having more people to support them, having weapons with them or being able to draw support of police. If you feel that you are inferior in power to the other party, you will never use aggression as your approach. The alcoholic husband beats his disempowered wife, not other people. At least not in that way. And come people, jokes, stories try to tell us that hurting the powerless person, beating the wife in this instance, is acceptable.
At certain instances an apparently inferior person may use aggression against the superior person. For an example a child may shout using foul language at the father who asked him why he smells of tobacco. Although it is the father who is at the receiving end of aggression here, surely he must be more powerful. But that is not the case. The son knows that shouting always subdues fathers as he is dead scared that neighbours will know that something is wrong. The son has a superior weapon here. Hence is the more powerful one in this instance. However if you remove the weapon his aggression will disappear.
Another characteristic feature of aggression is this: Once the superiority is gone, so is aggression. The aggressive robber with a knife will beg for mercy the moment you pull out a revolver. The shouting boyfriend would become silent the moment the girl breaks down in tears. The aggressive son would keep his mouth shut, if he learns that father is not afraid of neighbours finding out any more.
Let us consider another scenario. A man uttering lurid nasty sexual comments to a woman standing at a deserted bus halt, where nobody is to be seen. She bears that up for a while and then she removes her sandal and whacks him over the face. Is she aggressive? Is she superior to the man? Well, probably not. He might physically assault her now. But she did this in utter frustration. To, at least, saver her pride. This is self-defence. But the man has been aggressive. If there were people around he wouldn’t have made those comments. When they were alone, he became superior in power.
Hence a child throwing something at the mother who was repeatedly beating the child, student raising his hand against the master who was canning him, the animal trying to bite the predator killing it, at that very moment of aggression from the superior party, are not instances of aggression, but mere self-defence.
Sometimes we mix up aggression and assertiveness. Assertiveness is the approach of the really smart person. The person who is in control, of his/her life and the world around him/ her is the one who adopts assertiveness. Aggression is sometimes seen as the superior approach in some sub-cultures in certain boys’ schools in Sri Lanka believing that it is synonymous with being male. Assertiveness is an effective approach that men and women both can make use of. For a detailed discussion on assertiveness, see previous issues
Now at times we are uncertain if we are really superior over the other party in our daily lives. Even if we are, if we act violently we might lose our superiority. Then we turn to passive-aggression or veiled aggression.
Let us consider the couple having a chat about buying a washing machine. The woman hates washing, but does it believing that it is a woman’s job. But it seems the husband does not appear to appreciate that she hates washing, and happily waits while she does all the washing. He wants to buy a motor bicycle instead a washing machine. The woman suddenly gets up and leaves, and when asked why says “nothing”. During dinner time she appears gloomy and grumpy and talks only the bare minimum. The dishes seem to move with thuds and screeches over the table. When somebody asks how she is, she says “fine”.
She is not violent. If the husband claims so, anybody who witnesses this, or hears the story would say that she is not violent. However she is violent. But that violence is covered by a thin veil of “innocence”; or passiveness. Hence her way is called passive-aggression.
Passive aggression is the last approach we are going to discuss in this series. Passive-aggression is as harmful as aggression. The other party is unaware what this person is reacting to. In aggression, at least that is clear. Being extremely angry about something, just like in aggression, but reacting to it with a different way without violence , is called passive-aggression.
If this woman acted violently, and shouted at husband, he can conveniently say that over the decision to buy a washing machine or motor bicycle, she has become aggressive. And she will have to back down. And others would take his side as well. But now she has gained a sort of a control over him, although not very progressive as it is not really meaningful. The husband may actually not know why she is grumpy. But the woman believes that he does. At least that he ought to. By some magical mind reading mechanism.
The work mate who appears distant and cold after being refused a request for a favour, the daughter who refuses dinner after an argument with parents, the lover who refuses to be intimate after a wish he had was not granted, the mother who forgets to take her blood pressure medication the day their son informed they are going to visit his wife’s parents but not mother, the boy who goes out and get drunk after his love is refused by his dream-girl are all showing passive-aggression. They are extremely violent and want to hurt the other party, but their violence is disguised, and they would deny that they want to hurt the other party. Extreme passive-aggression can be frequently seen in many television series these days.
Aggression may occur in a wider variety of contexts, but passive-aggression mainly occurs within relationships. Here are few more examples:
|Situation||Example of an aggressive response||Example of a passive-aggressive response|
|1||Daughter forgets to greet elderly mother on birthday||Mother picks up the phone and shouts at her for not doing so.||Mother does not answer the phone for the next three days.|
|2||Son finds a strand of hair in his dinner plate.||Son barks “You are ignorant, mother. Can’t you be a bit careful?”||Son washes his hands and leaves the table without finishing his dinner. When asked why, he says he is not hungry.|
|3||Student expected to bring glory to school at Year V scholarship exam, gets just a “pass”.||Teacher yells at her saying it is really shameful for her to do such a thing to the school.||Teacher does not talk to her very much now and appears distant.|
|4||Novice actor is reprimanded by the veteran dramatist for being absent for a practice session due to a beer drinking session with friends.||Novice actor tries to assault the elderly veteran dramatist.||Novice actor stops coming to practices while knowing he plays an important role in the drama.|
|5||Husband notices that his wife talks to another man in an intimate wayat the party.||He slaps her.||He grumpily says he is not feeling well and they have to leave now.|
Let us discuss how we can improve our assertiveness, reduce our passiveness, aggression and passive aggression later.
Dr. Mahesh Rajasuriya
Dr. Rajasuriya is at present a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Psychological Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo as well as a Consultant Psychiatrist at the University Psychiatry Unit, Ward 59, National Hospital of Sri Lanka, Colombo.