The Chain of Harm

Blackadder: It is the way of the world, Baldrick. The abused always kick downwards. I am annoyed, and so I kick the cat, the cat [loud squeak] pounces on the mouse, and finally, the mouse—
Baldrick: Argh!
Blackadder: Bites you on the behind.
Baldrick: And what do I do?
Blackadder: Nothing. You are last in God's great chain, Baldrick. Unless, of course, there's an earwig around here you'd like to victimize.
Blackadder III

A very messed-up theory as a variant of typical karma. The basic premise of karma is something like this: "Don't do something bad, because later something bad will happen to you." This, on the other hand is quite different.

As a scenario, a man running a company is under a great deal of pressure from his superiors to produce the product faster. He's just been yelled at. Obviously, he can't talk back to his supervisor since he'd get fired, so what does he do? He yells at his normally best worker on something small. Well, the target man doesn't want to be known as the guy who beats his wife, so he shouts at her when something wrong happens. Because of the marital strife, she screams at her kid all the time. The child has no weaker human to take it out on, so the kid beats the family dog, which bites the nearby cat. And so on. The strong harms the weak, who gives similar treatment to the weaker, who in turn harms the next weaker.

This theory has a number of assumptions:
  1. There may or may not be an original source (in the latter case, it is because the source is oddly cyclic, or the superiors in question just an excuse used by a Jerkass boss, doing this For the Evulz).
  2. Things often worsen when the effect changes species (the boy beating the dog, when the others simply shouted at their target).
  3. The chain either loops back to its original source, or ends with a designated scapegoat, which is then summarily killed.
  4. The scapegoat in question is often not human and an animal viewed as a pest. In the above example, this would probably continue on from the dog, to cat, ending with a rat being killed. It's worse if the animal has some productive use (such as rats clearing the street of insects), since their normal prey will now come along with a vengeance.
  5. If it doesn't end with the original cycle, this harm will continue until it degrades the quality of the world, or until it reaches the original abuser, who will then receive their punishment.

Contrast to Cycle of Revenge, which directly targets the person causing harm. Compare to Revenge by Proxy, Delegation Relay.

Freudian Excuse is when this is used in a villain's backstory as an explanation for their behaviour now.


Comic Books
  • This trope kicks off the main plot of the Sin City story, "The Big Fat Kill." After having a run-in with Dwight McCarthy, the new boyfriend of the ex he'd been abusing, Jackie-Boy is on the receiving end of a vicious Freudian Threat and a Swirlie, which succeeds in driving him off. Unfortunately, Jackie-Boy doesn't take humiliation well, and he rounds up his boys and takes them out for a stroll, where he hopes to take his rage out on a woman. Unfortunately for Jackie-Boy and crew, they picked the wrong neighborhood to go trolling for women to take it out on. And unfortunately for the girls of Old Town, this asshole happens to be a hero cop, resulting in everything going straight to hell when they kill him.

Comic Strips
  • Seen in this Dilbert strip.
  • For Better or for Worse illustrates this in several strips. One Sunday comic shows the trickle down effect with a frustrated and exhausted Elly yelling at Michael over some slight, followed by him going after their dog Farley. Farley barks at Elizabeth, who throws her stuffed Bun-Bun down as the punchline.

  • In Cosmic Warriors this is inverted, where the villain takes out his frustration on the innocent. In the first chapter Jadeite causes a nearby helicopter to explode after his hunt for the Silver Crystal is being interfered with by Tuxedo Mask.

  • In Romy And Michele's High School Reunion Heather is surprised to learn that the protagonists, who she'd resented at school, were in turn looked down on by the "A group". She's delighted to learn that she herself had consistently made another girl at school feel miserable.

  • Good Omens has Crowley rely on this, having shut down mobile phone service in London for several minutes during busy hour, which he expects to produce a lot of angry executives who take it out on subordinates and so on. He views it as a much more efficient method of spreading pain and misery than the usual demon noble's gradual corruption of righteous or powerful individuals, something that none of them are able to understand or appreciate.
  • In the Polish novel Lalka, a rich factory owner visits large stables. The stable owner gets angry at one of his underlings and chews him out. A moment later, the protagonist sees a stable boy running out onto the street and kicking a Jewish kid.
  • In Stranger in a Strange Land, this trope, exhibited by monkeys in a zoo, causes Michael Smith to laugh for the first time and allows him to start to understand humanity.

Live-Action Television
  • Discussed (and simultaneously played out) in Blackadder III:
    Blackadder: It is the way of the world, Baldrick: the abused always kick downwards. I am annoyed, and so I kick the cat; the cat pounces on the mouse; and, finally, the mouse bites you on the behind.
    Baldrick: And what do I do?
    Blackadder: Nothing. You are last in God's great chain.
  • In the Korean Drama The Grand Chef, used on (at least) two occasions. The first is when a nearby butcher turns in Lee Sung-Chan (the protagonist) for selling goods nearby his store, when it turns out later he's getting harassed by local thugs. The second involves Min-Woo (the Big Bad of sorts of the show) getting forced to kneel by a chef he previously fired, and later taking it out on one of his underlings.
  • In How I Met Your Mother this is known as the Chain of Screaming. When someone screams at a subordinate, the subordinate must scream at someone lower, who in turn screams at someone else, and so on until someone screams at the original screamer and the cycle is complete. Marshall's attempts to break the chain do not go as well as he hoped.
  • In an episode of Scrubs, J.D. witnesses Dr. Cox getting humiliated by Jordan and decides to make a quick exit, saying "Anger like this has a way of being passed on to whoever's closest." As soon as he's out of the room, Carla comes in to ask for Cox's help. He angrily snaps at her, she gets angry and snaps at Turk and so on. Ironically, the chain eventually reaches J.D. anyway.

  • The traditional Jewish song "One Little Goat" starts with the goat (that Father bought for two zuz) and ends with God killing the Angel of Death.
  • This is one of the central themes in The Wall. The schoolmaster's wife hits the schoolmaster; the schoolmaster hits the kids; the kids take it out on the younger ones.
    • This is made explicit in The Movie: The schoolmaster is depicted as a puppet which the wife beats, causing it to strike the child.

Mythology and Religion
  • Another reason the original Jesus story, and the Messianic Archetype in general is so powerful. We have the Roman government, which is hated as a general rule, taking it out on the its subjects (which includes the nation of Judea). The Jewish leaders in turn as kings and Temple officials exert authority on their subjects, and basically everyone is miserable from this trickle-down. Finally, at the end of this cycle, you have this healer/prophet who is used as a scapegoat. Rather than deny it, he takes the punishment.
  • This is, in essence, how bad karma works in Buddhism, although it's explicitly outlined that it will bite you in the ass one day.

Video Games
  • Oracle Of Tao is the trope namer of this. Oddly enough, despite being given an explanation of this, it is not actually carried out in the game.
  • In Red Dead Redemption, Abraham Reyes describes the sorry state of his country in a private conversation, and suggests that the apparent Big Bad of his own struggle, Colonel Allende, is not actually fully responsible for everything that's happening. In sharp contrast to his rather vacuous public speeches, he says that the spiralling cruelty of government troops is a result of this trope. Unfortunately, this uncharacteristically reflective moment gets derailed rather suddenly when he compares it to "a father who beats his son, so his son takes the dog outside and rapes it." Marston wondering why such a specific example might occur to Reyes puts something of a damper on any more meaningful discussion between them.

Visual Novels
  • In Umineko no Naku Koro ni, it's mentioned that the way humans in general deal with hatred is by pushing it onto another person, and it's explicitly stated that Maria is special because she is able to find happiness and break the cycle. Unfortunately, even she can be pushed too far.

Western Animation

Real Life
  • This actually seems to happen in Real Life with cycles of abuse, though probably not to quite this extent. There's some suggestive evidence that it happens not only from individual to individual (such as abused people becoming abusers) but also across whole demographics (a slightly marginalized group's leadership and cultural attitudes "punching downward" against even more marginalized groups, such as misogyny or homophobia within a specific group, which can eventually filter down into individual abuse by the abused). Further specifics aren't really needed here, for obvious reasons.
  • The inverse of this (in terms of order) sometimes happens in spraying pesticide. Rats eat plenty of bugs, which then snakes eat plenty of, which birds like hawks eat. The hawks usually end up sterile. This is known as Biomagnification and has been known to happen with natural and spilled mercury in marine life as well, which has caused some scares for populations that eat a lot of fish.
  • This trope is so common in the real life military that the aphorism "Shit rolls downhill" sums it up quite nicely. The captain's problem is the lieutenant's problem is the platoon sergeant's problem and so on down to the private, who has no one to pass it off on to. Expect this stock phrase to be used in many other organizations with a similar hierarchical structure.
    • Which, depressingly, leaves the private with no release for all this stress and they end up shooting themselves occasionally.
  • Older Than Feudalism: a scapegoat was originally a literal goat which was sacrificed in order to soak up the blame for all those problems.
    • It's also the reason that scapegoating in general exists — far easier to take it out on an easy target than to actually try to deal with whatever has hurt you.
  • The great-grandchild of L. Ron Hubbard, the creator of the Church of Happyology, exposed in a poem about the damage his great-grandfather inflicted on the grandchildren and great grandchildren he never met with threats to his son, the patriarch of the family, and how when the poet tries to explain to psychiatrists that mental illness does run in his family via the leader of a cult, they accuse him of delusions and compromise his credibility.