Malcolm is Not in the Middle: A Look at Passive and Aggressive Communication

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Aggressive communication and passive communication are categories, and like all categories, are limited and limiting. To think that one person communicates entirely aggressively or passively is false. If, however, one looks at degrees of aggression or passivity in individual speech acts, then one can begin to see more clearly the distinctive ways in which these communication methods manifest in the world.

The style of communication one uses can be based on a seemingly infinite number of factors: biological makeup, upbringing, news received on the train, a tuna sandwich for lunch. Combined with this is the influence of history one has with the individual(s) they are engaging in conversation with, the context of the conversation, and the outcome (if any) one wishes to gain from the conversation.

When communication does take place, there are two primary acts: speaking and listening. As examples of influences for the communicator have been detailed, so follow influences upon the listener whose response is based on an interpretive process and is subject to similar influences. At the same time, a speech act is put forth, facial and bodily communication also act to influence interpretation—to get the message across. Our mirror neurons are constantly active and give us subconscious cues that determine our interior impression out of which language flows. Each of our bodies is always listening, and, in a way, speaking. As one person puts forth an active communication the other receives it. There seems to be an endless yin and yang flow of activity and passivity. To think that the yang, the power associated with the sun, with aggression, is the most effective method of communication is to be misled. One needs to only to watch a martial arts master redirect a drunk charging towards him on the street to understand that greater aggression does not equal greater effectiveness.

This communication takes place on an individual level but can also be seen, perhaps more clearly, at a group level. In the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement was at its greatest height, there were two African American leaders who rose above the rest. They are each remembered because of their clear definition from one another, their difference in tactic. Malcolm X was an aggressive communicator. He saw that there was an incredibly long history of injustice against his people and he sought to change that by any means necessary, including (or rather it should be said especially) violence.

He sought to change others primarily through aggression, through increasing overt pressure. His speeches carry the force of a vivid anger and presumably, those listening are incited to a similar fever-pitch. As this demonstrates, communication not only influences through the speech act but through the subtle mechanisms at work behind each speech act. Interestingly, it is the same tactic used by those Malcolm X was fighting against—the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan—whose speeches stove to ignite fear and anger in their listeners.

His counterpoint, Martin Luther King Jr., took a much more passive route in attempting to change others through his communication. His second favorite book (after the Bible) was Non-Violent Resistance, by M.K. Gandhi, and this form of protest can be seen throughout the Civil Rights Movement. Peaceful protest is now largely credited with effecting the changes which led to integration and greater equality for African Americans in the latter part of the decade. While quick, aggressive, violent action is good for fast results, often slow, persuasive, passive action is more effective in the long term.

The example of the Civil Rights Movement allows us to see differences between direct and indirect communication. Take, for example, the Black Power movement, of which Malcolm X was a leader. Their rhetoric is and always has been very direct. Yet, while their reasons may be justified and their demands valid, their actual ability to give power to the African American population has been far less effective than the movements which seek equality and peace with no mention of power. When a group wishes to seek change and they do not have the military means to do so, they must seek that change through other means. Martin Luther King Jr. did not bring power to his people using direct physical force, rather, he used the same rhetoric the white founders of the country used when they sought to create a new nation. In his famous “I Have a Dream Speech” King calls upon America to honor the promise the writers of the Declaration of Independence for the basic rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all its citizens. He honors his white brothers in the speech and binds the possibility of basic freedom for whites with blacks and persuasively reminds those listening to remember the founding ideal of equality which the United States was founded upon: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”

In a sense, we have returned to the passive martial arts master, who redirects the force of the opposing party’s aggression to gain the upper hand. While a directly aggressive communication style can seem, on the surface, to be effective, passivity often brings the most lasting change. While we have seen this to be true at the level of large groups, it is also true at the level of individual communication. Though just as with the yin-yang symbol, it is important to keep in mind that there is an element of passivity at the center of every aggression and an element of aggression at the center of every passivity.