Us versus them delineates the border of one’s safe group. Within the group, individuals can count on affection and adherence to group norms. Outside the group, interactions are riskier and individuals have to be more vigilant. The form that the hostile behavior takes toward those in the outgroup depends on what is in your toolbox, which depends in part on your genes and in part on what you pick up from your culture as the right way to do things. You model yourself after those you admire. Much simplified, in many cultures boys bash, girls shun.
When I was in ninth grade, a rather homely and forlorn girl with whom we had all been acquainted from the first grade began to be visibly pregnant. Being slow in class, she had generally been shunned as “retarded.” She failed to pass through the grades and struggled to learn to read. Dorothy was, so far as the girls in their tight cliques were concerned, essentially a nonentity. How had Dorothy become pregnant? She had no boyfriend, and in our village, everyone knew who was dating whom. As we all came quickly to know, one of the local lads, a logger, had taken her out and “had his way with her.” Beer was likely a factor. Did we feel sorry for her? Did we offer condolences for what was surely rape or the next thing to it? Were we dismayed by the lad’s taking advantage of a simpleminded girl?
Not a bit of it. We wallowed in our superiority, we basked in our wholesomeness and how grand it was that we were not Dorothy. We thought that her predicament was the sort of thing that happened to a girl like her; certainly not to girls like us. Such contempt was not an emotion generated when each of us was alone; then, individually, we were pretty scared by what had happened to Dorothy. Somewhat ignored before, Dorothy now was completely ostracized. Disgraceful though our behavior certainly was, the contempt quickly, and yes, joyfully, bubbled up when three or four of us assembled. Such scorn was part of what kept us so tightly bonded together. Hate binds, and social bonds are a joy.
At about the same time that we scorned Dorothy’s predicament, a chore befell me at the farm. Our white leghorn hens, generally a sociable crew, had ganged up on one miserable hen that had somehow acquired a scratch on her neck. The flock would not leave her alone. Swarming around her, the other hens pecked at any sight of blood, opening her wound further. They would have killed her, but my father told me to remove her and make a special pen to put her in until she healed. She still had a year or so of good laying, not yet old enough for the stew pot. Why, I asked, do hens behave in such a horrible way? “Well,” came the reply, “I don’t know. They just do.” The analogy with Dorothy was not lost on me. I regret to say, however, that it made not one whit of difference to my behavior.
Many years later, my friends and I looked back on the Dorothy episode with unequivocal self-loathing. Having matured, we assessed our adolescent behavior with something akin to disbelief. How had we allowed ourselves—even encouraged each other—to be so mean? Could we really have been like that then? Will our daughters be like that?
Wiring for Aggression
How does aggressive behavior serve animals, including us? Ultimately, aggression, in all its themes and variations, is about resources, sustaining life, and passing on one’s genes. No surprise there. So, used judiciously, aggressive behavior can often benefit an animal. For predators, aggression against prey brings food. For prey, aggression is defensive, along with fleeing and hiding. Thus, a wolverine is both intensely aggressive in the hunt, but also in protecting food and driving off intruders. Unlike voluntary cooperation in social animals, aggression is very ancient.
If you are engaged in predation or defense, you have to be “up” energetically. You cannot be in “rest-and-digest” mode. As neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp observed many years ago, energy is delight. Feeling energetic feels good. It feels exciting.