What, Exactly, is Harassment?

(And, when I say exactly, I mean, exactly.)

In the previous post, I touched on the idea that harassment, the term, is used to convey a construct. It serves, as such, to wrap a bunch of other concepts together in a label. So, what is this beast we throw around as the word ‘harassment’? What do we mean when we point a finger and identify this or that as harassment? What does the thing we’re pointing to look like?

An obvious place to start is the dictionary. Where does the word originate?  How is the word defined?

“The word is based in English since circa 1618 as a loan word from the French harassement which was in turn already attested in 1572 as meaning torment, annoyance, bother, trouble [1] and later as of 1609 was also referred to as the condition of being exhausted, overtired” and “harasser allegedly meaning harceler (to exhaust the enemy by repeated raids)”

From Cambridge Dictionaries Online, harassment, a noun, is defined as ​

behavior that ​annoys or ​troubles someone

From Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, harass, a transitive verb:

Simple Definition
: to annoy or bother (someone) in a constant or repeated way
: to make repeated attacks against (an enemy)

Full Definition
a : exhaust, fatigue
b (1) : to annoy persistently
(2) : to create an unpleasant or hostile situation for especially by uninvited and
unwelcome verbal or physical conduct
: to worry and impede by repeated raids

Extracting meaning from these definitions, we can first say that harassment is behavior. Further, it is observed as repetitive behavior. At a minimum, we can say that harassment is an action that occurs more than once. This suggests, that in general, it isn’t a singular event. Building upon this understanding, the behavior is deliberate and intends to be perceived as undesirable or unwanted by the person the behavior has engaged.

Or, put another way, harassment is recognizable when someone repeatedly acts in a way that is intentionally annoying to another person.

Ok, great. So what is annoying? I’d say that someone’s behavior is annoying when it is unwanted by the person affected and persists.

It is important to note that people express annoyance by what others are doing quite often and in wildly diverse contexts. So, harassment cannot be considered synonymous to annoyance, but the meaning does contain the existence of an annoyance, one that is deliberate and a consequence of an act that intends to annoy.

And, with regards to identifying harassment, this brings us to another critical component of its’ meaning. The person the behavior intends to affect perceives the actions as they were intended to be perceived. The behavior, in fact, is annoying.

Fabulous. So what is annoying? What does that mean? To annoy is to cause a person to feel persistent, petty unpleasantness. An annoying action disturbs another person by “intrusion, interference, or petty attacks”. To bother is to intrude upon.

From Wikipedia’s harassment policy, we get some help with this from their defining the types of behavior that may be considered harassment (context is nontrivial here)

Harassment is a repeated pattern of
making threats,
annoying and unwanted contact, (ed. I’ll accept annoying to mean behavior
that is unwanted and is known to be unwanted but continues anyway)
personal attacks (ad hominem insults?),
intimidation, or
posting personal information (aka doxing)

(Most of these actions are primarily if not entirely verbal in nature. So, harassment is behavior that involves the use of words, in this sense, as opposed to other direct actions towards another person.)

Harassment is also characterized as behavior that is
…of an offensive nature.
something is  offensive when it “causes someone to feel deeply hurt, upset, or angry.”

So, if like the concept of harassment, we do not accept as fact that external stimuli can directly cause a person to feel anything other than what that person permits themselves to feel, this is not going to help understand the original behavior.

To clarify this further:
It can be argued that other people’s word, actions, existence, fashion choices, etc. do not and can not have the power or the ability to act directly on our internal state as to effect feelings within us.

It can be further argued that we experience feelings in response to and as a function of our own thoughts. Sometimes the thought may occur too quickly for us to have a cognizant awareness of it, but, we can presume some thought or series of thoughts was involved when something in the environment results in our experiencing a change to or a development of emotion.

Emotions are not random biological events that can strike at any time. We are not hapless victims of emotions that are thrust upon us by external, uncontrollable forces.

It is easy to understand how this can be mistaken as being the case. It’s very common to assign cause to proximity. Something in our immediate environment happens almost simultaneous to our experiencing a change in our internal state. We naturally associate one as causing the other. However, there was something even closer to the emotional state of the person than what is happening externally in the environment: their thoughts about the environment.

It is true that something has occurred in the environment that caused a reaction, but the reaction it caused was the thought formed about what we were experiencing. In order to engage our emotions, something first has to be identified and recognized in the process of thought that may, indeed, be immediate and too brief to notice, but it is the thought, first, that informs our emotions. It does this by the connotations associated in the thought that are formed by the beliefs we hold as true, our capacity to understand what we experience, the manner in which we interpret events, our tendency towards abstract or concrete thinking and the quantity and quality of information available to us at any given time.

As infants, human beings use emotion instinctively to effect the changes required in the environment in order to survive. By expressions of raw displeasure such as crying, an infant is given the ability to attract attention to its state. The person responding is left to determine what needs to change in order to relieve the distress. There are a finite set of possibilities, as an infant’s needs are simple.

Even at birth, emotion serves as device that informs a person about their experience and at no point is relegated as a subferior product of the mind that is vulnerable to external hijackings and exploitation. We manage to do that all by ourselves with our unverified assumptions and unexamined beliefs.
Essentially, it seems to me, that nothing in the universe has direct access to what our minds are up to. The best we can do is communicate what we think is going on and hope we’re understood. But, it’s not likely. And, we can only hope that whatever someone communicates to us about what their mind is up to is both truthful and accurately understood. But, that’s unlikely, as well. (See Wiio’s laws of communication)

So, again, this means that we have emotional responses, positive or negative, because of what we think and the value assignments we attach to these thoughts. This is why your t-shirt that says “Fuck the Pope” is offensive to Mary but is amusing to Carl and has no effect on the guy who doesn’t read a word of English.

Mary reads your t-shirt, and, because of Mary’s beliefs about what is good and what is bad, she thinks people shouldn’t say things like that and since you are wearing a shirt that is doing something Mary thinks is bad, Mary responds to her own thought by feeling ‘offended‘–hurt, angry, upset, etc.. That’s not your T-shirt’s doing. Mary has done this all by herself.

Ok, so, Let’s try again…
harassment is behavior that intends to upset someone (and online, this is usually associated with the use of words), succeeds in that it results in a person being upset, and is characteristically repetitive. Again, holding that we don’t buy the idea that our feelings are thrust upon us from outside forces we can change this to behavior that we associate with beliefs we have that when we think about them we feel disturbed or upset. And the behavior in question is repetitive.

A successful harasser, then, is one who can correctly predict how we will respond to their behavior based on what they presume we believe, value and know. Here’s a tip: if someone like a potential harasser understands your beliefs, cognitive abilities and limitations and values better than you do, that is probably something to correct.

Question: What if I don’t interpret your comments as harassment? If you intended that I would have a negative emotional response but I did not, was I harassed? I don’t think so.

A most objective definition would be that harassment is any unwanted behavior directed towards another person that is repeated for the purpose of tiring or overwhelming that person because of their expected emotional response.

Quiz: What controls your emotions?

If the emotional response expected doesn’t  happen, what then?



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