Saturday, September 3, 2016
The Atavistic Power of Bullying
Just as the animal kingdom innately fears the introduction of the unknown and/or the different into their environment, skeptical as a survival mechanism, so has bullying often defined the hierarchy (the “pecking order,” if you will) as who the alpha male is in an animal cohort. Taking unknown risks in the animal world can get you eaten! Racism (the different) is born in these deep atavistic roots, undone by experience – contact with the unknown and/or the different with benign or positive results – and, as far as people go, education… using your brain to unlearn these no-longer-useful, vestigial reactions from our ancient ancestors’ psyches.
Such atavistic reactions can also be used to justify frontal assaults against the unknown and/or the different… and when the unknown and/or the different react to defend themselves, the dominant animals use those responses to affirm why they reacted with fear in the first place. A vicious circle that, at least in humans, is defeated with knowledge and understanding.
Bullying, that battle for male dominance in the animal kingdom, has adjusted in the American political system where women can now battle just as fiercely as men for senior leadership positions… now including being president of the United States. You’d think we’ve evolved to the point where bullying is no longer relevant, where brains and education should be an easy substitute using fear, harassment and intimidation to prevail… assuming you even believe in evolution. But we have not.
In our closest evolutionary relatives, gorillas and chimpanzees, alpha males usually “earn” their position through being outrageously aggressive against other males. All-too-often, natural selection pushes the biggest bullies to the top of the tribe. Alphas mate more, eat more and pretty much get what they want. “Bullying is not easy to define, namely because there is no one way to bully. It comes in many forms, from physical playground scuffles to verbal attacks and, nowadays, online harassment… It is pervasive in human society, having been reported across many different cultures. Psychologists frequently devote whole papers to its causes and consequences.
“There is no legal definition of bullying. The UK government defines it as repeated behaviour with the ‘intent to hurt someone either physically or emotionally.’ Similarly, in a 2014 report, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the US defined bullying as: ‘any unwanted aggressive behaviour(s)…that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times.’.. By those definitions there are many ape and monkey bullies. In fact, any hierarchical society is likely to have bullies in its midst…
“To get to the top, alpha males often bully any chimp who stands in their way. ‘Chimps are 'natural bullies' and I have seen it often,’ says Richard Wrangham of Harvard University in Cambridge, US.
“Bullying starts early. ‘Every male reaching adolescence starts his rise in the dominance hierarchy by teasing females,’ says Wrangham. Once a chimp has shown his power to all the females, he can challenge and fight other adult males.” FastCompany.com, August 23rd.
In humans, bullying and its effectiveness seems inversely to track the relative sophistication of the parties involved. Less sophistication, more vulnerability to bulling and the more likely to follow the dictates of that bully… noting that a well-armed bully with the proclivity to use brute force might prevail even against the most intelligent subjects. What happens when the bully attacks the most vulnerable suggests the incredible impact of societal norms on that cohort.
“This is strikingly obvious to anyone who has worked with rhesus macaques, a species of monkey with a rigid hierarchy. They engage in a behaviour that the primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, calls ‘scapegoating.’
“An unfortunate monkey at the bottom of the hierarchy is repeatedly attacked and picked upon by those higher up in the group. They are sometimes beaten up every day, says de Waal.
“‘It seems to release tensions among the higher-ups,’ says de Waal. ‘That reinforces their bonds, as they have a common enemy.’ It seems to be an effective way to unite the more dominant macaques.
“Removing the victim or ‘scapegoat’ does not prevent the behaviour. The dominant macaques would simply turn on another low-ranking monkey. ‘When you're at the bottom, you're at the bottom, you get beaten up, that's how you live in that society,’ says de Waal.” FastCompany.com.
We like to think we’re above this behavior. But every act of cyber-bullying, every junior high school “beat-up” of a nerdy boy or girl, suggests that we really haven’t lost that proclivity to bully. That those who admire the bully or readily accept maltreatment are generally earlier in their educational process or, unfortunately, generally within under-educated segments of society tells us a lot about how bullying really works. Smart, educated and confident people are neither attracted bullies nor likely to follow their demands, unless the bully is willing to use that brute force.
Donald Trump’s bullying, scapegoating campaign rhetoric has resonated particularly well with middle-aged and older unemployed white males. Muslims and Mexicans. To others in the so-called “values” segment of GOP, that negative cast extends to the LGBT community as well. Each of these elements finds pretty clear parallels in the atavistic practices in much of the animal kingdom, dissipating as education levels rise.
So what’s new? Why are we sliding backwards towards those atavistic standards? It is a failure of our educational system? The wrong lessons being taught by parents to their children? The relative newness of social media and our obvious failure to tame its reach? The attraction of established media to the photogenic visceral reality, the underlying showmanship, of political bullies? Will the American body politic evolve beyond this rather primitive battle? Or will our nation fracture and devolve as alpha beings butt heads and fight tooth and nail for that precious if not primitive dominance?
I’m Peter Dekom, and perhaps we need to take one giant step back and understand that overcoming atavistic values requires a real effort and a better educational environment for us all.