Social Aggression vs. Asocial Violence: Why Knowing the Difference Can Save Your Life

Editor’s note: The following article was adapted from When Violence Is the Answer: Learning How to Do What It Takes When Your Life Is at Stake by Tim Larkin.

Dulce bellum inexpertis. (War is sweet to those who have never experienced it.) —Pindar

You don’t have to look very hard on YouTube to find videos of long-suffering kids reaching their breaking point with bullies and finally fighting back. The scenes vary in geography, gender, and the size and age difference of the kids involved, but each scene generally goes down the same way.

The video picks up mid-conflict. The bully is in full aggressor mode: stalking after the victim, cutting them off, pushing them, taunting them, and getting in their envelope of personal space, sometimes looming over them like a beast. The bullying victim is folded over, trying to make themselves smaller. Or they’re turned to the side, as if subconsciously hoping the teasing will just go away. Sometimes they’re backed against a wall, as if they are hoping to melt into it.

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Then, suddenly, there is a shift. The victim stops, stiffens, and bows up. There is going to be a fight. The bully is almost always caught off-guard when this happens. Bullies typically pick their victims based on the likelihood that they won’t fight back. The fight might happen right then and there, it might have to wait until after school. It doesn’t really matter, though, because once the bully’s victim has had enough and finally decides to defend himself, the decision ripples through the playground or the schoolyard like a shockwave. The other kids start getting super excited. If the fight is going down after school, it’s all anyone can talk about. They can’t wait. If it happens right there in the moment, the kids immediately encircle the pair chanting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” In the lead-up to the actual physical confrontation, the bully will often start talking trash in an attempt to humiliate or intimidate and regain the upper hand in his relationship to the victim. If the victim responds, it’s to show that the bully’s taunts aren’t going to work this time. They’re going to have it out once and for all. When Violence Is the A... Tim Larkin Check Amazon for Pricing.

Fights likes these are instances of what I call “social aggression.” They are quasi-violent scenarios that stem from conflict and jockeying within the social hierarchy. I call them quasi-violent not because I don’t take them seriously, but rather because they don’t always involve violence as we understand it — sometimes it’s just talking or threatening — and they’re less about physically destroying the other person than they are about asserting social dominance, gaining some advantage, or elevating social status. That’s why people instinctively want to gather around and watch these types of conflicts, because they want to see what happens.

Kids get so excited about these playground fights because there is valuable social information to be gleaned from them. Both fighters’ positions in the school’s social hierarchy are in flux. The bully occupies a position of power, and when his target finally fights back, that means his position is being challenged. When it’s all over, will there be a change in social standing? Will the bully get his comeuppance and be reduced to a pariah and a laughingstock? Will his victim be elevated to the position of nerd hero or defender of the meek and helpless? Or will the bully get the upper hand and the social status remain the same? This kind of aggression isn’t exactly tolerated — it’s the kind teachers usually break up and punish, after all — but it doesn’t destroy the social order in the school, either. Afterward, the kids will be talking about it excitedly in the lunchroom for the rest of the week.

And then there is the other way these playground fights and bully takedowns can go. These are the kinds of incidents that do not show up on YouTube. The victim has had enough, but he has only stiffened and bowed up in his mind. He — and it’s almost always a he — has no interest in fighting back at the center of a ring of classmates. Instead, he opens his backpack, pulls out a revolver and shoots his bully in the head at point blank range. Do you want to guess what happens next? There is no excited chanting for a fight. No one is hoisting the bully’s victim on their shoulders and marching him triumphantly around the schoolyard. There is only complete and total pandemonium. Everybody runs and no one looks back. There is no social information to be gathered here.

That is the rough outline of any number of the school and workplace shootings that have dominated our news over the last fifteen years, and become (along with ISIS-style terrorism) the scariest, most urgent form of violence we face today. I call violence of this nature “asocial.” Asocial violence is violence that has nothing to do with communication or reshuffling the pecking order. Asocial violence is nothing like that: it doesn’t try to change the order, it tries to wreck the order. It’s the kind of violent interaction we instinctively run from — the kind in which there is only mayhem, death, misery, and horror. (The knockout game is asocial violence.) At the end of the day, all violence has the potential to be a matter of life or death. The difference with asocial violence is that death and destruction are not its by-products; they are its purpose.

It is essential we understand this distinction between social aggression and asocial violence right now. Social aggression is about competition; asocial violence is about destructionCompetition has rules; destruction has none. Social aggression is about communication — implicitly with status indicators but explicitly with lots of taunting and posturing. There is no talking with asocial violence. Open your mouth and you are likely to eat a lightning-fast punch or a jacketed bullet traveling at 2,500 feet per second.

How to Tell the Difference Between Social Aggression and Asocial Violence

If there is one reliable way to distinguish between the two kinds of violent encounter, it is the presence or absence of communication. If a man comes upon you from behind as you’re walking home from dinner and he puts a gun to your head and says, “Give me your wallet or I’ll blow your brains out,” that is fundamentally an act of social aggression. It may feel asocial, because you feel powerless when you’re taken by surprise, but how you feel has nothing to do with whether a situation is social or asocial. What matters is the intent and the action of the attacker. In this scenario, his primary motive is not to destroy, it’s to dominate. He’s using the threat of violence to make it easier to get what he wants. If the situation were asocial, if what he wanted to do was destroy you, you would not hear any words. You probably wouldn’t even hear the hammer cock before the trigger got pulled and the bullet left the chamber.

Social aggression doesn’t wear off after adolescence; fast-forward twelve years to a bar fight between rival fraternity members and the outline is the same. It’s still two guys exhibiting their inner-male aggression, thrashing, ranting, raving. It’s the silverback gorilla banging his chest. It’s the butting of rams’ heads. It’s the clashing of male grizzly bears. These are all bids for a kind of social status, and they’re all meant to be witnessed.

The schoolyard brawl and the bar fight aren’t usually life-or-death situations. Rather, they’re a form of primitive communication. It’s a social display that communicates, “I’m really agitated. I’m mad. I want to run this other guy off my territory.” And the other guy is responding, “I’m not willing to be run off my territory. I’m going to stand my ground.”The intent is not to inflict grievous bodily harm. It’s only to exert social dominance.

In these situations of quasi-violence, people rarely punch their opponent’s throat or kick them in the testicles or gouge out their eyes. They rarely try to inflict permanent damage. If you were to look at such a confrontation simply from the perspective of causing bodily harm, you’d call it wildly inefficient. I have studied video of countless epic bar brawls that have gone on for ten or fifteen minutes that left the combatants bloody and bruised, but also conscious, uninjured, and able to walk away. I’ve also seen guys beat each other senseless and then hang out afterward — like it was something they just needed to get out of their systems.

Many of us know how to act like jerks and add fuel to the fire, how to turn an argument into a shouting match that turns into a fistfight. It can be scary. It can be wrong. It can be extremely intimidating. But the aggressor is not deliberately trying to maim, cripple, or kill. He’s not trying to break down the social order, to sow terror and mistrust. The goal is to dominate, not to destroy. This is social aggression.

Asocial violence, on the other hand, is brutally streamlined. It’s quiet. It happens suddenly and unmistakably. It’s one person beating another person with a tire iron until he stops moving. It’s stabbing somebody thirty-seven times. It’s pulling a gun and firing round after round until he goes down, and then stepping close to make sure he has two to the brain, just to be sure. If you’re a sane, socialized person, thoughts like those can make you physically ill. That’s because you recognize them for what they are: the breakdown of everything we, as humans, hold sacred. Indeed, they are often a breakdown of the perpetrator of the violence themselves. They are no longer in control, they are no longer thinking rationally, they are no longer thinking at all. These acts represent the destruction of the social fabric. They’re devoid of honor. They’re acts without rules, where anything goes. That is asocial violence.

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