What is harassment? Harassment is a kind of aggression. It is a kind of human relationship as well.
The Greeks were the first to describe the utbreak of a springtime phenomena, avian civil war. Imagine: a pair of lucky house sparrows strives to cement ownership of a prime nesting site. The female snips succulent tid-bits of greenery for the trousseau, while the male stations himself at tree-top level, “With an enthusiasm that puts the human posturing of his neighbours to shame,” he swaggers and taunts potential competitors with his distinctive and challenging song.
According to Debra Niehoff, Ph.D., “Most rivals get the hint. But one upstart decides this choice space is worth a serious confrontation. He lands on a branch just above the nest and defies the male to dislodge him. The enraged resident charges the invader, shrieking and screaming.” Bird watching inspired the first systematic studies of aggression in the wild. “Behavioural scientists following in Darwin’s footsteps suggested that personal space is one critical reason why animals fight.”
Other bird watchers believe animals resort to aggression to defend resources and reputation rather than space. In a famous study conducted by the Norwegian scientist Schjelderup-Ebbe, the classic “pecking order” was discovered, by comparing the number of times a chicken received pecks from other members of the flock to the number of times it administered pecks to others.
A famous legal case, Durham v. the United States, had a profound impact on public opinion of biological explanations for human aggression. “A judicial system that had once punished all but the most obviously deranged now seemed to accept every anxiety or blue mood as an excuse for murder,” according to Dr. Niehoff.
Lawyers and psychiatrists report that juries are “surprisingly skeptical” about attributing violence to mental illness, but when people are acquitted it represents an event that one forensic psychiatrist calls “aberrations that skew the public perception,” due to sensationalized media coverage.
Unfortunately, “These aberrations have convinced the public that biology favours the violent at the expense of victims, and that forensic psychiatrists are poised to throw open the floodgates of our passions.”
These misconceptions also foster wrong ideas about the potential violence of the mentally ill. A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communicatiions showed that the psychotic killer on a mad murder spree is a very common element of TV programming. In fact, 70 per cent of the mentally ill people portrayed on TV were also portrayed as violent individuals.
“This violent-maniac stereotype translates into widespread discrimination and distrust,” despite the fact experts estimate that no more than 20 per cent of the mentally ill ever commit a single violent act.
Recent media coverage in Canada acknowledges the disabled and the mentally ill are more likely than other citizens to be victims of crimes of violence. The significance of crime-fueled victimization of the mentally ill has not been lost on behavioural biologists.
“Millions of people think that criminals are perhaps born that way, crime is in the blood, the genes, the bones.”
Niehoff says, “As a result, biologically inspired legal initiatives have not only enraged conservative Americans but have also fueled the worst fears of modern anti-eugenicists, that biological explanations for violent behaviour will be used to isolate, discriminate, and persecute.”
“If genes rule, people are little more than genetic puppets, their behaviour and their moral judgment tethered to the double helix,” she adds in her book, “The Biology of Violence.”
“The inevitable consequences of eugenics and psychosurgery, killer instincts and selfish genes, caged animals attacking dolls, and murderers bartering for a hospital bed instead of a prison cell has been a profound distrust of behavioural science and the motives of biological researchers.”
Yet harassment, aggression, attack, defense; and violence in general has deep biological and genetic roots. Researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health have studied electrically induced changes in behaviour, biochemistry and gene expression after “kindling,” an experimental technique in which repeated small doses of electricity are used to “turn on” cells deep in the temporal lobe of a lab rat’s brain.
“Daily intermittent stimulation for a mere second is enough to destabilize the cells surrounding the electrode. A few days of such stimulation, and the irritable neurons fire back.” The rat freezes, locks in place, its snout, mouth and facial muscles twitch, its forepaws jerk and tremble spasmodically. If the repetitive stimulation is continued, the excitation reaches a critical threshold, and an uncontrolled surge of electrical activity rampages through the brain as the rat rears, goes rigid, and topples convulsively into a full-blown motor seizure.
The critical part to understand from the point of view of harassment, is that up to a year later, the merest hint of electrical stimulation readily rekindles a recurrent seizure. If seizures are kindled often enough, they begin to take on a life of their own, erupting spontaneously even in the absence of stimulation.
Essentially harassment stimulates the anger centers of the brain, the fear centers, the anxiety centers, and can in fact cause long term changes in personality and behaviour in the victim. And this writer knows from personal experience that the equivalent of a “seizure,” what we might call an emotional meltdown, can occur at the slightest hint of fresh or new harassment, years later. And even in the absence of any harassment, the
feelings of anger, depression and paranoia are easily rekindled in the victim of harassment. In a sense, the effects of harassment may become habitual to the victim.
This is also manifested throughout what is known as “gene expression;” what this means is that we adapt continuously through our lives. If I begin some weight training exercises, then my muscles will begin to grow—they could not do this without a genetic ability to do so. Yet the brain also experiences changes over the course of our lifetimes. Normal replenishment, i.e. the fact that every cell in our body will be replaced about every seven years also contributes to meet the changing needs dictated by external, environmental factors. Changes in the physical makeup of the brain can take place quite quickly under intense stimulation. This is most obvious in the development of children, but adults also change as well.
Over the course of living, everything we see, hear, learn, experience and do intersects with the person we are already. That’s why the aggressor/victim relationship is just that—a relationship.
The brain has entire circuits dedicated to processing information and stimuli related to survival. While you are being harassed, your brain is being re-wired, whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, whether you are aware of it or not.
During kindling, electrical stimulation causes cascading protein activation, which prods transcription factors, this is the way information is encoded at the cellular level, to “tinker with the neuronal genome in a way that greatly increases sensitivity to subsequent stimulation,” according to researchers. Harassment triggers survival mechanisms deeply embedded in the central nervous system, a genetic adaptation to temporary environmental factors—such as harassment.
So essentially your first reaction to an initial incident of harassment may be quite muted. There are good reasons for this, for one it may be the first incident. It is not obviously harassment until it goes on for some time; you may just think of it as an unpleasant thing that happened and quickly forget it. Trouble is, you might need to document it later, in order to protect yourself, so unusual little incidents begin to take on new meaning, especially once it becomes apparent that there is a problem.
That being said, if the initial incident is serious and traumatic, a real shock to the system, then the resulting behaviour changes can be dramatic.
Also, due to the nature of the brain itself, your responses to those stimuli will begin to change over time. Harassment is very often an attempt to provoke or elicit a response, and the people who show aggression towards others that does not result in violence do so for a reason: if an assault occurred, the authorities would almost certainly be called, thereby putting a stop to the behaviour of the aggressor. The aggressor, who gets some kind of reward from the behaviour, does not wish this to happen. The aggressor may in fact be “savouring your suffering.”
This writer once heard a person tell another person, within hearing of course, “I like to watch him suffer.”
And it is also likely that most tormenters simply cannot stand up directly to the perceived “threat,” for in the game of “blame the victim” it is always the fault of the victim: “If they would only change something, everything would be all right.” Yes: if only we could become someone else.
Victims of various kinds of abuse or torment, including harassment, can be surprisingly cooperative with the abuser. But the victims have as much or more to lose from a major confrontation as the perpetrator, including their life, home or livelihood.
That’s why the cycle of torment can go on for years, decades even. It is a kind of psychological warfare, the goal of which is to make the victim suffer. For whatever reason, the goal of harassment is very often punishment. The tormenter may be punishing another person for something bad that happened to them, or something in their own life that they feel they cannot change or escape from. The victim is a kind of symbol to the tormentor. Victims are usually selected very carefully, in that they are often isolated, and for various reasons unable to fight back effectively. Another very important thing about the victim is that they are available.
Simply put, it’s no fun to harass some guy in China, if you can’t observe, and enjoy, the effect of your efforts! And since the tormenter knows absolutely nothing about that person in China, he has no reason to begin, and no handle to use. That’s because the art of harassment is all about sending messages, and these messages are attempts to push the victim’s buttons. We all have our little insecurities, our “buttons,” that can be pushed.
Harassment is very seldom random. The perpetrator has to know something, and usually quite a lot, about the victim. Perhaps it’s time we learned something about the aggressor.
Vietnam—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
What is the best Sylvester Stallone movie ever made? It’s not Rocky. With all due respect to other Stallone fans, it would have to be “First Blood,” the story of a disturbed Vietnam veteran who just wants to be left alone.
In the Army “John” operated million-dollar machinery, but in the real world, he can’t even keep a job at a car wash.
Complex behaviours like aggression require inputs from the inner world, and from the outer world. In 1871 Jacob DaCosta, an attending physician at a Philadelphia military hospital wrote about Civil War veterans who were incapacitated by chest pains, palpitations and exhaustion brought on by battlefield experiences. His hypothesis was that the men’s symptoms originated in the nervous system, not the cardiovascular system, quaintly describing that “the heart has become irritable from its overexertion and
frequent excitement, and that disordered innervation keeps it so.”
During the 1940’s Abram Kardiner described “physioneurosis,” a series of physical symptoms due to an emotional reaction to combat. This was rampant among WW I veterans. Colloquially dubbed “shell shock,” the afflicted soldiers startled easily, suffered sleep disturbances, and overreacted to sights, sounds and events that reminded them of the trauma of combat exposure.
While the report piqued little interest among his peers, military authorities began to draft policies designed to limit or reduce psychological casualties in subsequent conflicts, with results that were described by experts as “resoundingly unsuccessful.”
In the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, an epidemiological study of more than three thousand Vietnam veterans, up to one-third suffered symptoms similar to those noted by Kardiner.
Vietnam veterans resented efforts to ignore or trivialize the debilitating anxiety that persisted long after their return home. They forced the government, the public, and the mental health community to acknowledge and recognize that the behavioural and emotional devastation caused by combat trauma was not a character defect, but is in fact due to long-lasting physiological changes in the wake of an extraordinary emotional experience.
It also opened eyes to similar pathological stress responses in people who had experienced other kinds of trauma, such as natural disasters, domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse, torture, and violent crime. And harassment is a crime of violence even if no violence takes place. That’ because it involves the use of fear, anger, frustration and other negative emotions. Your own biochemistry is being used as a weapon against you.
Scientists were prompted to broaden their perspective on the biological mechanisms of violence to include victims. In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association came up with a new diagnosis, a new disease: post traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms are grouped into three classes.
Re-experiencing symptoms include acute physical discomfort when confronted with reminders of the traumatic event, as well as nightmare, intrusive memories, and flashbacks, called “waking dreams,” which re-enact the original trauma.
Avoidance or aversion symptoms represent efforts to avoid activities, emotions, or interactions that are associated with the trauma.
Hyperarousal symptoms, symptoms of overreaction; include insomnia, irritability, rage outbursts, and exaggerated startle responses.
These reflect an enduring sense of imminent danger, feelings that can be described as the “constant expectation of harm.” Symptoms of PTSD can follow seeing as well as actually experiencing a threatening event, and may not manifest themselves until months or even years after the trauma.
PTSD research and the long-term physiological effects of stress have inspired renewed commitment to the diagnosis and treatment of stress-related disorders. The new research uncovered a surprising number of congruencies between the neurobiological mechanisms underlying stress disorders and those underlying aggression.
Fear and anger share pathways and signaling mechanisms in the brain and nervous system. This commonality shows there is a relationship between aggressor and victim, this link is as fundamental at the relationship between gene and environment.
Extended observations carried out in the lab demonstrate that aggressive encounters are not random combinations of behaviours; they follow a characteristic pattern and sequence. Aggressive behaviour tends to occur in bursts; even in human aggression the pattern is similar.
The abusive spouse who comes home in a rage at the end of the work week, the boss who terrorizes his staff before a critical deadline, the serial killer who stalks, strikes, then disappears for months or years; like harassment they tend to be intermittent.
Some behavioural researchers feel that associative frustration-aggression behaviours prove that aggressive behaviours are learned behaviours. In the late 1930’s researchers at the University of Illinois showed that other stimuli, such as pain, could cause angry reactions. Literally dozens of studies were published demonstrating fierce fighting after electrical shocks were applied to the feet or tails of lab animals. Pain is so effective that shocked rats and monkeys could be induced to attack a doll, a cloth-covered tennis ball, or even a rubber hose if no other suitable victim was close by.
Another famous experiment involving lab rats went as follows: a rat was introduced into an enclosure, almost immediately a light at one end was flashed rapidly, and a door was opened in the other end of the space. The test animal would invariably flee through the door in an effort to escape, but then it would receive a strong electrical shock.
When some person constantly harasses another person, of course they are looking for a reaction.
When the animal was put into the box again, and the light was flashed, the animal became fearful and angry. Over time, the more often this was done, the anger and aggression became greater, even in the absence of further shock or pain. It was the reminder, the resultant fear that caused the aggressive behaviours.
Based upon observations of laboratory animals, Scottish biologist S. A. Barnett constructed a criminal profile of rat aggression in colonies trapped and housed together in large cages. This profile consisted of characteristic postures, sounds, and maneuvers, such as the threat posture, boxing posture, and the attack posture.
Like an intruder trapped with a dominant aggressor in an inescapable enclosure, a rat confined to an electrified cage cannot escape the painful shocks. Due to careful mapping of posture patterns, the researchers concluded that pain-induced aggression was an act of self-defense, this was because while an attack occurred, the complete set of “body language terms” was different and corresponded exactly to defensive postures adopted by submissive rats.
Criminal harassment is violence. The perpetrator has simply found a better way of doing physical harm to another person, often a victim who feels powerless to escape and may find it difficult to get proper help with the situation.