Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Is There Really a Difference between Violence and Agression, or Are We Just Splitting Hairs?

Violence, aggression, and hostility are words that many people tend to throw around as if 1) they meant the exact same thing and 2) they can fit one's own agenda with ease. One of the things that I find truly interesting, possibly because of such vast misunderstandings of these topics, is that many parents would much rather expose their children to "violent" or "aggressive" situations (movies, games, experiences, ideas) than talk to their kids about basic biological sexuality. Incidentally, these are sometimes the same parents that think it is "cute" or "adorable" to dress their little girls in clothing that covers maybe 25% of the skin. But enough soap-box pontificating. Let's take a look at the actual meanings of these words concerning violence, beginning with a little foundation work: harm and hurt.

Harm: (n) physical or mental injury or damage; moral injury, evil, wrong. (v) to cause harm, to do harm or damage; to injure physically, morally, or mentally [one could interchange mentally for emotionally]. 
          So, with harm, we are looking at the end result. Was the subject changed in a negative manner? Did the individual suffer any kind of deficit in their normal body or mental functioning, whether permanent or temporary? If so, then they experienced harm. Notice that there is nothing in this definition about intent. We are only looking at the end product of an action or failure to act. Note that we are also looking at the action involved that leads to the detrimental result.
Hurt: (v) to cause bodily or mental injury, distress or pain to someone or something; to damage or decrease the efficiency of some material object by striking, rough use, improper care, etc.; to cause harm or adversely affect someone of something; to cause mental pain, offend or cause grievance to someone; to feel or suffer bodily or mental pain or distress. (n) a blow that inflicts a would; bodily injury of the cause of the injury; damage; the cause of mental pain or offense such as an insult or a slight. (adj) physically injured; offended, unfavorably affected; damaged.
          It would appear that hurt is a more all-encompassing term that adds a layer of causation and intent. Like harm, it is both the action that leads to damages as well as the resulting damage. However, hurt tends to indicate a longer lasting effect, especially when using it to refer to the psychological realm. We rarely, if ever, talk about "harmed" feelings, but we often use the phrase "hurt feelings" to convey emotional upset or pain. Even our egos and pride are hurt, but rarely harmed. Hurt is much more intentional by nature and typically more lasting, more difficult to heal or undo.
Force: [NOT using the physics definition] (n) physical power, strength, energy, intensity; power to influence, affect, control; strength or power exerted upon an object or person such as through physical coercion or mental/emotional manipulation; physical violence. (legal noun) unlawful violence threatened or committed against persons or property. (v) to compel, constrain, oblige oneself or another to do something; to drive or propel against resistance; to bring about or effect by force; to overcome the resistance of someone or something.
          Here we see pure intent. In order to use force, one must have a desire for a particular result. That result does not necessarily lead to harm or hurt, but it does represent the conquering of some kind of resistance. Force is the exertion of one's will, often through physical or political or personality strength, in order to obtain one's own goals. It's very one-sided and does not have to involve physical actions, though the threat of physical actions often leads to a successful use of force, successful meaning the achievement of one's aims.

So, now we have some clearer ideas of the negative results of some behaviors and potentially what some of those behaviors might be. It is not time to explore larger concepts, specifically: aggression, hostility, and violence. One of the main differences between theses terms is the level of intent and/or the purpose to which they are applied.

Aggression: (n) the action of violating by force the rights of another; any offensive action, attack, or procedure; an inroad or encroachment; offensive action in general; overt or suppressed hostility, either innate or resulting from continued frustration and directed outward or against oneself.
          This actually seems pretty simple, especially in comparison to some of the other terms in this post. Aggression means that one person violates the rights, personal space, property, liberty, etc. of another person or another person's property. The point of aggression is to get what one wants and to show that one is the dominant person. Often times when an animal shows aggression it stops--i.e. does not continue with violent actions--once the object of the aggression acknowledges its abilities to cause harm and thus backs away. Unfortunately, aggressive behaviors in humans usually generates more aggression from the targets or creates victims whose rights are constantly trampled. The other thing about aggression is that it does not have to be physical or obvious. I'm sure some of you have heard of passive-aggressiveness or similar terms. Passive aggressiveness occurs when an individual appears to be passive by "giving in" to another's demands, but in reality is using this passive show to manipulate the other into doing exactly when they (the passive-aggressor) wanted. The goal can be achieved immediately through the use of such techniques as a guilt trip: 
"No, that's okay, you can go have fun. I'll be all right here all alone."[passive]
"Well, I don't have to go out tonight. I can stay with you." [response]
"Only if that's what YOU really want." [passive success]
The passive aggressive can also achieve their goals at a later time through manipulation, building up a sense of weakness so that other individuals never notice when the passive aggressor silently nudges them into the corner they wanted. What makes these behaviors, though passive, aggressive is that they still violate another person's rights and allow the aggressor to gain the upper hand and whatever they desire.
          Animals typically use aggression to assert their dominance over territory, resources and mating, and to protect their genetics. Humans don't always fit into this model. There are a number of psychological theories and hypotheses that attempt to explain human aggression. Sigmund Freud believed that aggression was an instinctive drive that all of our ids possess. Along with our instinct to create, the aggressive nature in humans is something that we will spend our lifetimes attempting to control as we try to progress beyond our animalistic natures.The frustration-aggression hypothesis indicates that all human aggression can be traced back to some form of frustration--the blocking of a goal. We only act aggressively if we can't get what we want or need through other means. Another thought on human aggression is that it is almost completely a learned behavior. An individual who experiences or witnesses aggression while they are younger will see aggression as an option, possibly the best or only option, to get what they desire. There has been some modification to this particular theory in that some researchers now believe that there may be a personality predisposition that would modify someone's tendency toward aggressiveness. The biological hypothesis is that aggressive behavior is the result of either too much testosterone, an excess of fatigue, or too low blood sugar (being hungry). According to this school of thought, a person is much more likely to behave aggressively until their body returns to a state of homeostasis. Sometimes taking a step back, grabbing a snack, or taking a nap can be quite calming. Beating up that punching bag can also help use up excess testosterone and other stress hormones.

Hostility: (n) a state, condition, or attitude of enmity, antagonism, or unfriendliness; a hostile act; opposition or resistance to an idea, plan, project, etc.; (plural) fighting, warfare.
          Again, this seems pretty simple. Hostility is dislike or tension created by someone. Often one person's hostility will generate a mutual feeling from their target. Note, also, that hostility does not have to involve actions, but rather focuses on the atmosphere and feelings experienced. Yes, violence and aggression can lead to hostility, but so can petty jealousy, vanity, or envy. This is a state of mind in which one conveys that someone or something is not welcome and that someone becomes well-aware of this state.

Violence: (n) swift and intense, powerful, untamed or devastating force; the use or an instance of rough or injurious physical force, action or treatment usually intended to inflict harm to the target; an unjust, unwarranted or unwanted exertion of force or power that may be used to violate rights, break laws, or overawe or intimidate others; rough or immoderate vehemence, great strength of feeling, as in the use of strong language; damage through distortion or unwarranted alteration.
          Here we see a clear case of intent. Except in the case of natural violence such as with a storm or natural disaster, violent actions are intentional behaviors that go to excessive lengths beyond those necessary in order to achieve some goal. The word "overkill" comes to mind. The point behind violent acts is not only to achieve the goal, which may be the damage itself, but to also leave a lasting impression on the victim and witnesses of the violence. There is obviously the expectation of physical damage wrought through violence. Is it possible to experience psychological violence? The answer is "Absolutely!" Have you ever heard the phrase "fighting words" used? These are words which are spoken for the primary purpose of enraging or causing fear in the target of the words. It is possible to be guilty of violence against another person by using harsh language or a tone of voice that produces anxiety and/or anger in that person. In that instance, one would have used an excess of rough treatment to achieve one's goal, probably to upset the target or get them to do something you wanted. Sticks and stones are violent, as are a verbalization from a barbed tongue.

If it helps, one way to distinguish, correctly, between these three methods of harming others or property is to look at them as part of a continuum of intent and damage. Hostility creates an uncomfortable environment. It may include actions and words, but it can also come about with something as simple as a wayward look or discouraging body language. It is typically sensed and processed at a semi-conscious level by the target. Aggression is goal-directed. An individual tends to engage in aggressive measures when other avenues leave them falling short of their desires and needs. Most aggression is short-lived; it tends to cease once the goal is reached. Violence, on the other hand, is not only designed to intentionally cause harm or hurt, but it is meant to have a longer lasting effect on its target by using means the go above and beyond what is necessary. Violence continues even after the goal is met, just to make sure the path stays clear longer than if mere aggression were used. Leaving lasting damage also leaves memories and learning, which typically produces fear of a return to the violence.
          Unfortunately, with all three of these--hostility, aggression, violence--we see a pattern of behavior in which one human has little regard for the negative effects of their behavior on another. They each show a self-centered obsession with getting what one wants despite the costs involved. The other problem with this maltreatment is that they tend to generate endless and/or escalating cycles. Person A is hostile to Person B, so that breeds hostility in Person B and their friends toward Person A and their friends. Next, Person A starts pushing around someone from the Person B camp because the Person B stands in the way of Person A. Person B then gets a group of their B people and pushes around some Person A people. Before you know it, the damaging behavior escalates further on both sides and people start to lose sight of the origin of the conflict. It's a common plot device. Unfortunately, it's also all-too-common in reality as well. Only when someone breaks the cycle will things calm down and we can start treating each other as equals, as fellow human beings.