Covert aggression is not the same as passive aggression
In George Simon Jnr’s brilliant book Character Disturbance, he talks a little about passive aggression and distinguishes it from covert aggression. On pp. 74-5 he says:
Passive-aggression is an often misunderstood and mislabeled personality type. The official psychiatric manual doesn’t even recognize this as a personality pattern any more. . . . Unfortunately, clinicians and lay people alike erroneously use the term passive-aggressive when they’re trying to describe deliberate (active) but subtle underhanded and covert attempts to dominate, exploit, manipulate and control.
And on page 211 he says:
Most of the time I hear people use the term “passive-aggressive” or “passive aggression” what they really mean is “covert aggression.” The term “passive-aggressive” is used incorrectly to describe the subtle, hard to detect, but yet deliberate, calculating and underhanded tactics that manipulators and other disturbed characters use to intimidate, control, deceive and abuse others. That’s what covert aggression is all about. Although this kind of aggression is often subtle or concealed, there’s absolutely nothing “passive” about it. It’s very active, albeit veiled aggression.
As Simon says, laypeople and professionals have been muddled on this terminology for a long time. Here at this blog we are immensely grateful to those like George Simon Jnr who are clarifying things for us all.
When we talk to friends, family and bystanders about what abusers are like, they often don’t get it. They disbelieve the victims’ reports, they discount people like myself and Jeff Crippen who proclaim repeatedly about the mentality and tactics of abusers. They see us as extremist, one-eyed, horribly biased and therefore not worth listening to. But when victims (and the few blessed bystanders who truly care for victims) discover George Simon Jnr’s work, or Lundy Bancroft’s work, or this blog, they find the veils lifting. Lifting for the first time after who knows how many years of confusion and stumbling in not merely circles but descending spirals that go to black holes of despair and nothingness. Integrity destroying black holes. Personality shattering black holes. Guilt and shame black holes. Depressive and suicidal black holes. Paralyzing black holes. (nuff of that, I’m depressing myself just trying to find words for it all!)
My point is: the abuser is master at covert aggression. And most people don’t like to see that – it hurts their worldview too much. It destablizes their optimism about life and the basic decency of human nature. For, while most unregenerate people have a common decency and respect for others in the way they go about their lives (albeit they are sinners), there are some people who do not have such basic human decency. We don’t want to believe this. We don’t want to think about abusers, or the morally corrupt, or the perverts in our midst, or the wolves in sheep’s clothing (which, curiously enough, is the title of Simon’s earlier book, even though it isn’t written from an openly Christian perspective).
Our culture has paid a lot of attention to overt aggression: it’s dynamic, it’s meat and potatoes for Hollywood, there is lots of drama and special effects in overt aggression to keep us enthralled. It can even be charismatic and attractive in some of its forms. But covert aggression? The slow, incremental, hard to detect, tedious and petty stuff that covert aggressors do repeatedly to their victims, stuff that is not dramatic or eye-catching because the covert aggressive doesn’t want to catch anyone’s eyes, they want to keep veiled. . .
Imagining that there is intentional malice behind a person’s outwardly ‘okay’ behavior is very very hard to do. No wonder victims stay in the fog for so long. Imagining almost any other reason for the ‘trouble at home’ is easier than imagining the truth: that this person wants to confuse, confound, hurt and disable me. Wrapping our heads around that intentionality is one of the hardest things to do.
And once we’ve done it, we often feel like we’ve entered an alternate universe. People around us don’t see what we see; and when we talk about what we see, they treat us as if we have three heads. Or are speaking Swahili. (no offense to Swahili speakers!)