Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Against the mindless provocation

Published on 20 January 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

In this short film, an ermine (actually, the stoat in winter coat) is playing peek-a-boo from his home in a rotting tree

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Now you may just exclaim: How cute! And move on, or wonder about his behavior.

I am not an expert, but I suspect that he is engaging in deliberate provocation of his enemies. Small as it is, the ermine has few chances against predators. His changing coat may ensure an amount of mimetic protection from passing marauding animals. It is of little help, if the predator is stalking it.

What to do? One is hungry, and one wants to go about the business of life. Playing peek-a-boo – deliberately provoking the stalker – the prey aims to trip the stalker into an inappropriate move, forcing it into revealing itself. Having lost the first round, the stalker is faced with the choice whether to begin anew, with the waiting game or move on. From the prey’s point of view, provocation is a clever move: he is concentrating wholly on outwitting the predator. Once outside and foraging, his attention will be split between searching or gathering food and recognizing foes – it is at a disadvantage.

Note the subtle “social interplay” between predator and prey. Both have the same goal: getting food before they starve.Available energy and time budget are their constraints. Both have to decide whether to invest time in a waiting game. Given the basic imbalance between the two, the prey tips the balance in its favor by tripping up the predator and confronting it with the economic calculation of the consequences – a massively heightened cost of capture. Usually, the first move is decisive: unless captured at once, the prey is hardly worth having.

The ermine’s behavior is quite common in nature: it is a declination of the Handicap Principle.[1]

“Even partners in the most adversarial relationships, such as prey and predator, may communicate, provided that they have a common interest: in this case, both want to avoid a pointless chase. (…) in order to be effective, signals have to be reliable; in order to be reliable, signals have to be costly.” (pg. xiv)

I may now spin an analogy to the role of provocation in human affairs.

In nature, provocation is an instrument of communication. It aims at forcing the opponent to reveal information about intent and commitment to its goal. Like all communication, it has to be fine-tuned. We are operating here at the limit between useful and the counterproductive – the ambiguous line where blowback blows. Too much or too little provocation – and the battle is lost.

Should the ermine self-righteously – I’d say, mindlessly – assert its “right” to go about its feeding business unhindered, it would soon end up dead – its right crashing against the predator’s might. The same goes for human affairs: my right to self-expression – the hailed non-negotiable freedom of speech – needs balancing against the right of others. For both sides to live together in harmony, rather than destroying each other in a battle of brawn, compromise is needed. How ironic: those, who assert transcendental values, in the end put everything on a scale of utter power as will is pitted against will. Power will decide between non-negotiable values and principles.

This is an abstract and rational world. Ideas, however, always have emotional consequences. Unlike the natural world, in human affairs, provocation offends. It triggers a reaction of hate and revulsion, because it breaks the bond of reciprocal trust on which the social group rests. Pope Francis put it in an easily understandable fashion:

If my good friend Doctor Gasparri [who organizes the Pope’s trips] speaks badly of my mother, he can expect to get punched. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit.”

The fact that we can’t establish a limit a priori does not mean it does not exist. It is a case of “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” is not just an empty bromide.

In nature, finally, provocation may turn to goading. Monkeys, safe up in the tree, may disparage the lion in the grass – usually, there is an inverse relation between distance and stridency. Provocation here is not an attempt to communication with the beast, but a rallying cry among the monkeys. Beyond mutual warning, it generates pleasing endorphins from feeling safe in danger.

Woe to the monkey falling from the tree.


[1] Amotz ZAHAVI – Avishag ZAHAVI (1997): The handicap principle. A missing piece of Darwin’s puzzle. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

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