A disturbing lesson about human aggression

The other week I was confronted in a supermarket by another customer who appeared out of nowhere, boiling with anger and screaming at me to apologise to them.

You accidentally glanced at me! You MUST APOLOGISE OR DIE!

It turned out my trolley had accidentally touched theirs, some time earlier. It happens a lot in supermarkets, but to this customer it was a mortal insult, so they came chasing after me in a vengeful frenzy in which my choice was either to accept their allegations and do what they were abusively screaming at me to do, or suffer the consequence.

I could have stood my ground on a matter of principle; you don’t bend to bullies, or to wild accusers who don’t even have the integrity to be reasonable (something that also seems to happen a lot on social media).

But this was a crowded supermarket. The moment gave me some insight into how some well-publicised brawls in supermarkets might have broken out. I did mention it at the checkout but was met with a shrug. Apparently ‘trolley rage’ is part of life these days.

You have to admit, it’s a winning strategy. Just go around beating up on strangers, putting words in their mouths and forcing them to confess to whatever you want. I suppose the people doing it feel good afterwards; they’ve used their aggression to take away somebody else’s power, haven’t they?

I see a lot of it on social media; and in terms of the ethics there’s not a lot of difference between the people who ‘flame’ or otherwise abuse others online, or who physically try to intimidate them in person. Such behaviour highlights one of the worst aspects of the human condition; and what worries me is that this aspect seems to dominate these days. Anger over the slightest issue is, it seems, the first recourse. It’s sad. We are, it seems, supposedly brought up to have a duty of care to each other; but when push comes to shove (as it were) what really happens is that it’s everyone for themselves, and anybody who questions that – well, that’s an affront that has to be avenged.

I suppose this behaviour reveals itself most in supermarkets with their narrow aisles and giant trolleys, but the same people also walk around in everyday life and the potential’s always going to be there for them to explode with anger at any moment. The idea of strangers jostling against each other in city streets and communal places, all on hair-trigger short fuses and with their rage barely contained, is a frightening one; but it seems to be where things are at these days.

My historical work makes it fairly clear to me that the generations of the First and Second World Wars, who prevailed as social framers up into the 1980s, had a very different approach. And it’s clear to see why; a statistically significant proportion of the young men of two generations from 1914 fought in the wars – an environment that was so artificial in any human sense, so soul-destroying, that the main responses afterwards was to create safe, secure home life and society – one where people really did look out for each other, most of the time.

Sure, we’re all human and the range of human behaviours was present then too, but the emphasis was different – and actively so.

Nobody behaved like Donny from Inglorious Basterds, with his baseball bat. Or Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers.

Today? I worry about where things are going. And what ever happened to simple things like kindness?

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018

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23 thoughts on “A disturbing lesson about human aggression

  1. A lot of people are stressed out these days. I had a similar incident a few years ago where a mother was blocking an entire fridge with her trolley. I carefully moved it to one side to get at the fridge and she had a mental breakdown. Stress – her toddler was running about etc. But then a lot of people are just generally belligerent anyway. I usually have a stoic air about me these days just to avoid any conflict.

    1. I try the same – it usually works but every so often somebody ‘goes postal’ irrespective – I suspect they’d do so whether it was me or somebody else, and no provocation is needed, merely existence of some target they can hit out at. I see it online too – just this week I found myself the target of some deeply personalised abuse from a group of local history enthusiasts on the back of Tuesday’s post, which apparently triggered them. The fact that they were plainly as ignorant of me as a person as they were of historical methodology didn’t stop them.

  2. Your post opens the door to many thoughts, Matthew. Now, I’m curious to check out other posts and works of yours. I think this instant rage is the result of a wide variety of factors, some that would appear to be contradictory: generally, life is easier for many allowing for more room to complain; generally, life is more stressful for many resulting in more eruptions of bad behavior.

    1. Thank you – and I agree. It seems to me that things keep ‘winding up’ like a coiled spring as society both grows and gains inter-connections. I suspect social media is part of it – both as a device for making connections but also of exposing that underside of behaviour, because suddenly we hear about a lot more of it than previously via the news media. To that it extent it may be that there isn’t ‘more’ bad behaviour, it’s merely being revealed to us; but it worries me that the fact of bad behaviour being regularly shared as news on social media can also act as a license for people to follow suit.

      1. I believe the good news is that so much can now be called out in an instant. Sure, blunders will occur but so much good can and has come of it as like-minded people can share their stories, sometimes their outrage, and really bring about significant change.

  3. Perhaps the disproportionate response to the purported act is of significance? So you bumped the other person’s buggy, so what? But that’s the point. Why blow up over something that minor?

    How about a spin on the subject? What I notice a lot of is what might be either dim-wittedness or passive-aggressive behavior. The behavior I observed consists of blocking access to a freezer/refrigerator section, while walking a few steps away from your buggy, and then slowly turning over one item after the other. If it were avocados or tomatoes one could understand. But frozen goods?

    I am compelled to add in the interests of accuracy that I may not be an unbiased observer, and may simply be lacking adequate patience with the foibles of others.

    1. It’s the disproportionate scale of response that is so disturbing, and I keep seeing more of it around – both in real life and online. Just this week I’ve found myself targeted by a small but noisy fringe group run by a former leader of our National party, who doesn’t like the way society has changed relative to race relations. I published a post on Tuesday describing the current conventional historical view of a key document in New Zealand’s history – triggering an avalanche of personal abuse from this guy’s followers. There is a complete cognitive disconnect going on here on many levels, including the intensity of the response and the emotional fundamentalism betrayed by this conduct, again in many ways (I even had scripture quoted at me). To me that reflects a deeper issue that seems to exist in society generally – somehow, small things have become triggers for intense and often inappropriately personalised hate.

      1. Doesn’t a “complete cognitive disconnect” imply that there’s some other, underlying cause? “…small things have become triggers for intense and often inappropriately personalised hate.” This reminds me of something I read the other day about the uselessness of fact-checking an obvious lie, because the lie isn’t intended to be accepted as fact, but as a signal for changing the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Which does appear to fit. The interesting thing might be the apparent spontaneity of the actions.

        1. Yes, absolutely on all counts. It’s an intriguing field. For me this week’s issue with the founding document of the NZ state meant I inadvertently ran a kind of science experiment with a specific aspect of that phenomenon – and I don’t mean that wholly ironically, the nature of the abuse I fielded helps highlight an understanding of the specific mind-set that such conduct betrays, and so gives further depth to our view of the human condition generally.

  4. This is a interesting look at how human behaviour has changed in 100 years. As an ex-forces guy, I can identify with the men (and I don’t want to upset anyone here – I am referring to the frontline infantry troops of WWI), because they all had to rely on the man next to them on the fire step in order to survive.

    Infantry companies became close friends, and of course the PALS battalion’s were recruited precisely because they did have an existing bond with their fellow troops. They were factory workers, coal miners, railwaymen and the like. Women on the home-front worked in munitions factories (risking their lives – we have all heard of the ;canary girls’ who packed explosives using trinitrotoluene or TNT), this practice was so dangerous, not only were some women blown up, some had yellow babies because of the over exposure to TNT.

    In the communities, people had to pull together. The men were gone. Able bodied women were working, there was no NHS to run to, no lawyers to sue your employer/car dealership. local council for tripping over a hazard you should have seen anyway etc. Health and safety did not exist, there were only newspapers and word of mouth to get your daily news, and people spoke to each other, and they helped each other, because there was a mutual understanding that ‘if I help you, you will do the same for me’.

    Those people, the people who fought in the first and second world wars were in perilous danger. Both on the front line and on the home front. Did they develop a collective sense of anger towards each other? No, (yes, they ‘hated’ the Germans, but the Germans were shelling them, not bumping into them with a shopping cart), these brave people got on with their lives, they practiced collective responsibility and they realised that actions have consequences.

    What they practiced is called cooperation. Today, there are many things missing from our societies. One is common courtesy, one is manners and the other is respect for our fellow human beings. Instead we are controlled by social media, which tells us we are supposed to look a certain way, think a certain way and act a certain way.

    We have created an angry society of shopping trolley maniacs, who, if they clash trolleys with someone else (which shouldn’t come as a great surprise in a narrow aisled supermarket), should perhaps pause for a moment and say ‘sorry mate’. It wouldn’t hurt to say that. Would it?

    1. Too true. I think it’s historically clear that the two World Wars, because they literally involved such a massive proportion of society – thanks to the nature of industrial technology and institutional systems – also had a fundamental shaping effect which, as you say, gave people a sense of co-operation and social responsibility to each other. It’s been lost. We’re up to the third and maybe fourth generation after the ones shaped by that period. I get concerned by the outcome in which simple co-operation has been supplanted, it seems, by the impecunious demands of the ‘me first’ generation. Common courtesy (which is costless) seems to have been lost – and one of the unspoken rules of that courtesy was also forgiveness – also now long gone in favour of violent revenge.

      History doesn’t ever repeat, exactly, but it seems to me that human nature means that outcomes often look similar. I’ve often thought it curious that there was a similar cycle in the nineteenth century, after the end of the Napoleonic wars which, themselves, were merely the end-point of and enduring on-off conflict that had been going on since the turn of the 1790s or thereabouts. The generation that followed, in many respects, also had that sense of care and co-operation – exemplified to me by the British abolition of slavery, among other things. But that was lost as the shared experience of a crisis also faded, generationally. And so we ended up, historically, with the age of ‘social militarism’ by the late nineteenth century, in which people who had not personally been on the battlefield (nor their parents) exalted the idea of conflict being glorious. We know where that one ended up, of course – and I called the book I wrote on NZ’s own First World War ‘loss of innocence’ experience ‘Shattered Glory’ for precisely that reason. (As an aside, NZ really was the over-zealous boy scout Jingo of Empire from the 1890s, at least until Gallipoli.)

  5. At least in the United States (and I realize you are in New Zealand) I think there’s an overall increase in rudeness. Is there an overall increase in violence? At least according to people who track such things, there is not. Indeed, the opposite is quite true. Globally, this is the least violent, by far, era of human history there’s ever been. So I don’t think we can quite equate the two.

    So why the increase in rudeness and anti social behavior? I don’t think that has much to do with prior generations having served in horrific wars. They did, but I think the trend is explained otherwise, or if its related in any fashions to the two huge wars of the 20th Century, it relates in a subtle fashion that might actually tie into them, rather than the opposite. Something has changed in our view on standards of behavior, and it started to change post World War Two, accelerated in the late 1960s, and then really began to break out running in the 1970s. At least from my prospective, it seems the generational shift that you noted is marked by a definite shift towards exaggerated materialism in the same time frame, which at the end of the day, focuses on consumption and “me first”. If what I want is paramount over everything, well then you should have kept your darned shopping cart out of my way.

    If, on the other hand, something else counts more than me, well maybe you count too.

    FWIW as well, I think this episode is passing. I’m in that generation that’s neither a Baby Boomer or a Gen Xer, let alone a Millenial, but the standard bearers of what was once called the “Me Generation” don’t hold much truck with Millennials, who truly have a different view of things, perhaps best summed up by this common sticker I see around here: https://lexanteinternet.blogspot.com/2017/07/mean-people-suck.html

    1. I agree with your view of the cycle and timing of attitude change. Materialism certainly has a good deal to do with it – the generations of the early twentieth century were used to managing without (because they had to, thanks basically to the world wars) but that’s been effectively reversed in the west of late where consumer goods have become plentiful and with that, evanescent and disposable. That’s also come with a ‘me-first’ expectation. I think that particular shift has had several factors behind it – not just generational change of attitude but also the fact of availability. It’s interesting. And I think cultural attitudes have changed with that – definitely there’s more rudeness.

  6. By the way, while I know that they don’t seem obviously linked, I noted that American retailer L. L. Bean sent this email out to its customers last week:

    A Letter to Our Customers

    Since 1912, our mission has been to sell high-quality products that inspire and enable people to enjoy the outdoors. Our commitment to customer service has earned us your trust and respect, as has our guarantee, which ensures that we stand behind everything we sell.

    Increasingly, a small, but growing number of customers has been interpreting our guarantee well beyond its original intent. Some view it as a lifetime product replacement program, expecting refunds for heavily worn products used over many years. Others seek refunds for products that have been purchased through third parties, such as at yard sales.

    Based on these experiences, we have updated our policy. Customers will have one year after purchasing an item to return it, accompanied by proof of purchase. After one year, we will work with our customers to reach a fair solution if a product is defective in any way.

    This update adds clarity to our policy and will only affect a small percentage of returns. It will also ensure we can continue to honor one of the best guarantees in retail, with no impact for the vast majority of our customers. To learn more, please view our full return policy at llbean.com.

    L.L.Bean has stood for quality, service, trust, and getting people outdoors ever since my great-grandfather founded our company over 100 years ago – and that will never change. Thank you for being a loyal customer and we look forward to continuing to inspire and enable you to Be an Outsider.

    Sincerely,

    Shawn O. Gorman Executive Chairman”

    Why am I noting this?

    Well, I think it illustrates my point, and then that relates back to the shopping cart incident we’re discussing above.

    This policy was in place and worked for a century. Now its failing. One of the things that’s been happening is that people have been trolling rummage sales (or whatever those sales are where people run around buying other people’s junk so that it becomes their junk) looking for L. L. Bean worn items so they can return them for new ones. That’s cheating and abusing this policy. Indeed, it’s a species of theft.

    So why is this occurring now, but didn’t occur in 1968, let’s say.

    Something has changed in us. It’s a real Me First view. And it infects everything. I get to do this as I Count First. You shouldn’t run into my shopping cart as I Count First.

    Changes in social views are a really tricky thing. They come in a big cart themselves with lots of other items. Old standards that people often seek to shrug off often exist for very strong and important reasons. Getting them back, in whole or in part, is very difficult.

    1. It definitely looks like something’s changed in attitudes. There was a similar style of ‘warranty exploitation’ here a few Christmases back with a major retail chain which had a no-questions-asked return policy. A significant number of people were buying things up to 24 December as Christmas presents, then returning them for a full refund on Boxing Day – when the same item was on sale – and re-purchasing the item at the sale price. I believe the policy was changed after that.

  7. Such an amazing post!! Sadly, yes, things like trolley rage (which have an almost comic sound to them but really aren’t) are far too common these days. I do so agree with you- people jump far to quickly to “righteous anger”- when really judging others favourably would do far better. I try to understand their perspective- less on things like road rage/trolley rage etc, more when people claim their doing something for a “cause”- but too often, the perceived “rightness” of their cause blinds them to the humanity of others and it’s incredibly sad. For instance, I just saw a self-confessed Harry Potter fan raging about Rowling’s latest perceived indiscretion and I think that maybe calming it down is in order- especially when, by their own admission, they largely agree with her on principle. But regardless of agreeing or disagreeing, a reasoned discussion where both sides listen to each other and don’t let their tempers flare, is always going to be more helpful for both parties.

    1. Reason, reasoning and reasonableness are all virtues! Especially in discussion. As is forgiveness and the notion that, really, we are all here to uplift each other. Something too often forgotten today. Sigh. I figure people need to read more and not just educate themselves but also get some relax-space time by reading (mind you, I was brought up in a house with about 5000 books in it and my own contains at least 3000 with more to arrive from storage when I get shelving space, so hey…)

  8. I’m happy you made it out alive! As a former cashier, I have witnessed the grim realities of line angst and ‘trolley rage’ first hand. My heart clenches with terror at flashbacks to the dreaded “price check.” Being in the trenches has given me perspective, and I’d like to think a hint of the determined patience of those who came back from the very literal pits of hell. Great piece!

    1. Thanks! Sorry to hear this happens in Canada too – but it doesn’t surprise me, I think all of this seems to be part of the human condition. I’d be sorry to end up concluding that the human mind-set as a species is to take any action by others as a deeply personal affront which can only be assuaged by wreaking an aggressively violent revenge-attack on whoever intruded. But that, alas, seems to be where the current trend has taken the west – not just in terms of road and trolley rage but also online where it’s easy and (apparently) costless to behave badly. It must relate to something really fundamental in the human psyche – and I’ve read that the biochemical ‘reward mechanism’ associated with revenge, in humans, is a good deal stronger than the one associated with ‘altruism’. I gotta put my thinking cap on about this (and maybe you can too… :-)) The worst of it is, kindness, uplifting others and forgiveness for imagined or real intrusions are also pretty much costless… and much more rewarding in a personal sense even if the journey to kindness is somehow less satisfying for those annoying neurochemical balances.

      1. Mmmm the brain… I believe we can use that lovely axiom “what fires together wires together” for good instead of evil in this case. Repeated altruistic acts, with conscious reflection on their positive emotional outcomes, can sway the balance of neurochemical reward. Theoretically, we could become addicted to the rush. There’s quite a bit of sociological evidence to support this idea.

        I was in line at Walmart the other day and the woman in front of me was losing her mind with impatience. I admit, I couldn’t resist telling her ever so gently to “please chill out” (because her hostility was affecting all of us) but then rather than engaging in her negativity I stood back and took quiet intellectual glee in my own generosity of patience. Of course, if I had been late or tired it might have been a different story 😉

  9. I am relieved that I haven’t met any such crazed person in our supermarkets in the USA! Phew! Most people are polite but there is always one that will run over your toes or bump a carriage into your legs. I am a small person and not intimidating. Maybe that is a plus for me. Ha! Better luck next time when you shop! 😆

  10. Sorry to read this — and not surprised.

    I think, certainly here in the U.S. now, people are SO on edge politically (look at all these shootings, for heaven sake) and economically (with millions being forced into insecure contract work) and there’s no one to strike out at in rage…the NRA? Nope. Congress? Nope. The many full-time employers who refuse to hire us into well paid jobs now? Nope. So (and it’s a disaster) people turn on one another.

    It works beautifully for those in power, less so for the rest of us.

    There has also been much written as well about the isolating effects of social media where everyone else seems to be some sort of annoying abstraction.

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