Hardwired for Aggression Part II: Norms and How They Affect Bullying

What’s Really New?

Our last post on this subject dealt with a Simon Fraser University study proving that aggression is hardwired into us, one of those “Duh! I knew that,” studies that makes us wonder why they wasted their time. What got all the publicity was the erroneous conclusion by the media that, bullying being a type of aggression, it was likewise incurable. This conclusion was based mainly on the fact that there is a whole classification of bullies that are considered confident and successful. How can this be, if bullying is an aberrant condition abhorred by society? Therefore bullying must be natural and normal.

Why Are They Successful Bullies?
The answer to this question is, for a change, fairly simple. Why do these “successful bullies” act this way? Because of the norms of their society.
The Simon Fraser study is about the “who” of bullying. The main “new” information suggests that, far from being the miserable wretches that bullies are traditionally seen as, many high school bullies are confident and secure in themselves. The study concludes that bullying behaviour is a necessary skill in order to rise in the ranks of High School society, and thus many of the High School bullies are the cream of the crop.

It is hard to disagree. We live in a society where members of the social and economic elite are admired for having “clawed their way to the top,” why would High School be any different? Kids are copying their parents; they just aren’t so good at rationalizing (i.e. disguising) their misdeeds.
I suggest that if researchers had used the same tests on the German population in 1939 they would have found a huge group of similar subjects: some of the most successful people in their society, using accepted methods to get where they were. In other words, Nazis. (If they tested the same country in 1946, they might have found different results. Losing a war is a great way to change societal norms.)

Accepted Norms
Because this is the key: what is accepted in the society. Jennifer Wong, the SFU researcher, also makes the point that it is the norms of the society that count. If bullying is an accepted social technique in your society, then there will be successful bullies. Educators would do well to look at the society of their schools and try to discover why they still contain a norm where bullying is a successful social grace. (Remembering that High School coincides with a rebellious age in the natural flow of human society. But that’s a topic for another “hard wired” study. PhD thesis, anyone?) But, as Part I argues, it’s the bullying they need to get rid of, not the competition.

What About You and Me?
And it’s the same in the rest of society. As I deal with at length in “Why Are People So Stupid?” our society is based on a society that survived two World Wars. Aggression was a needed trait, and bullying was a minor drawback. So for my parents’ generation, the solution to a bully was to bully him back. This toughened up the troops for future battles. But it also instilled bullying as an accepted way to get ahead.

Women’s Rights for Everyone
Modern views have changed, led, (thank you, ladies) by the Women’s Movement. Since bullying success is most often a function of size and strength, a higher percentage of females have always been the victims. But anything we do to help battered or harassed women helps all the other bullying targets down the line.
In any organization where you find sexual harassment, looking deeper will reveal bullying of all the other varieties as well. Bullying of a sexual nature is the poster girl of the moment, and fortunately, once the rules are changed to discourage that practice, it opens the door to changing the policies on other types of harassment as well.
I had occasion to remark, at a hearing on an employment harassment case several years ago, that if this evidence had been presented in a sexual harassment case, the verdict would have been a slam-dunk. There was dead silence in the room while everyone thought about that, and no one chose to argue the point. I think that suggestion had an effect on the successful conclusion of the hearing, and the following year, harassment language was negotiated in the union contract of the workers involved.
Assuming the above theory is so, we can safely conclude from recent news reports that there is a general atmosphere of bullying in the Canadian military, in many Canadian police forces, and in many Canadian offices and workplaces. So let’s not blame school children for emulating their elders. And let’s not take away the activities they enjoy in the errant hope it will stop the bullying. I’m sure those who enjoy playing or watching sports like golf or tennis would become quite aggressive if we were to deny them that pleasure, in the interest of reducing the aggression in our society. Well, that’s how the kids feel, too.
Properly regulated competition is the ideal outlet for the aggression and need to succeed of the more driven members of society. The more acceptable behaviours our society provides, the more the “successful bullies” will be drawn away from unacceptable behaviours. As long as the unacceptable behaviours are no longer rewarded.

Think About Hockey
The solution is not to worry about aggression. What we have to do is stop rewarding the use of aggression for nasty purposes. I find hockey to be one of the most beautiful, exciting, and challenging games to play or to watch. Throw the fighters off the ice and the game will become faster, more exciting and more enjoyable for all (and safer for the players). Stop rewarding the bullies, give aggression acceptable ways to work itself out, and society will be a whole lot farther ahead.

Next Week:
We apply the results of this survey to hunting, what happened to the late and lamented Cecil, Poster Boy Lion, and why bullying is like playing the piano.

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