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.
A very messed-up theory as a variant of typical karma. The basic premise of karma is: "Don't do something bad, because later on 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 a 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:
- 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 are just an excuse used by a Jerkass boss (see Bad Boss and Mean Boss), doing this For the Evulz).
- Things often worsen when the effect changes species (the boy beating the dog, when the others simply shouted at their target).
- The chain either loops back to its original source (going on from the previous scenario, after the dog bites the cat, the cat scratches the CEO's superiors), or ends with a designated scapegoat, which is then summarily killed.
- 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 note .
- 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.
- Occasionally the cycle can end with no one being killed and with the original abuser getting away with it, but in these cases there are usually no pets involved, and it's to demonstrate the character's virtue or make the character more sympathetic (for instance, instead of beating the dog, the boy goes to his room and cries.) In these situations, the character who breaks the cycle is generally the protagonist. If the protagonist doesn't break the cycle (for instance, the boy is the main character but he does beat the dog), expect them to feel guilty afterwards.
The act of abusing someone weaker or lower-ranking than you to displace frustrations because of similar treatment from someone stronger or higher-ranking than you is often known as Kicking the Dog, but that term has a different meaning on this wiki.
Contrast to Cycle of Revenge, which directly targets the person causing harm. Compare to Revenge by Proxy, Delegation Relay, and Troubled Abuser. Breaking the Cycle of Bad Parenting is an effort to avert or defy this. If you were looking for examples of people using chains to harm others, see Chain Pain.
See Freudian Excuse when this is used in a villain's backstory as an explanation for their behaviour now. Sometimes played as An Aesop (e.g. "Don't be mean to someone because someone was mean to you, or it will go on forever").
- A recurring theme in Fullmetal Alchemist is that going after constant vengeance just leads to an endless cycle of violence and the only way to break it is to change people instead of punishing them.
- Future Diary
- Yuno was repeatedly abused by her parents, which led her to murdering them and becoming similarly controlling towards Yukiteru.
- Tsubaki was kept as a Sex Slave by her cult, and her motivation for becoming God is her wish to wipe everything out of existence except herself so she can never be hurt again. She also has Yukiteru restrained and gives him a Forceful Kiss, and it's implied it would have escalated into full-on rape if Yuno hadn't intervened.
- Magical Girl Site: Kaname is Aya's Big Brother Bully who beats her up For the Evulz. It's later revealed the reason why is because his father beats him if he so much as gets a 98 on a test. He thinks Aya deserves to get beaten by him since his father never touches her.
- One Archie Comics gag strip showed a bad mood being passed down when Mr. Weatherbee gets chewed out by the school superintendent. Mr. Weatherbee chews out Miss Grundy, Miss Grundy chews out Jughead, Jughead chews out his younger cousin Souphead, and Souphead chews out a stray dog. The punchline is that the dog encounters the superintendent (who greets it in a friendly manner) and chases him down the street, biting the seat of his pants.
- 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.
- Seen in this Dilbert strip. A man calls his employee stupid, who calls his employee stupid, who calls his coffee mug stupid.
- 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.
- One comic◊ has a manager yelling at his employee, the employee yelling at his wife, the wife yelling at their son, the son yelling at the cat, and the cat shanking the manager.
- 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.
- The Ant Bully: The basis of the initial plot: A bully and his followers torture Lucas, and Lucas takes out his frustration on a colony of ants.
Bully: What are you gonna do about it? Nothing. 'Cause I'm big, and you're small.
- 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.
- In a weird partial example there's the relationship between Tony Stark and Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Howard Stark was neglectful and distant toward his son, and they were on bad terms when Howard died. The emotional baggage is partly why Tony grew up into a selfish hedonist before he was Iron Man. Now that Tony is taking on Peter as a protege he's making a conscious effort to avert this trope, albeit with mixed success. He falls into some of his dad's old trappings (communicates with Peter almost exclusively through conference calls or his assistants, is hard to reach when Peter needs him, condescends and insults him constantly, is harsh and unforgiving of failure), but also breaks out of things and manages to be a fair mentor at times (takes the time to listen to all of Peter's messages, intervenes immediately if he's ever in serious trouble, shows concern for his safety and well-being, and is appreciative and complimentary of Peter when he does things right).
Tony: (Calling up Peter to congratulate him) My Dad didn't give me a lot of emotional support so I'm trying to break the cycle of neglect.
- In Avengers: Endgame, it's revealed that Howard's father used to be physically abusive to him, meaning that he likely learned and perpetuated his own troubled childhood. It is hinted that like Tony, he did try to be a better parent even if he didn't fully succeed.
- Endgame also shows that in the timeskip, Tony's had a five-year-old daughter and that despite all the lingering trauma of his life, he's shaped up and become a doting father. The implication seems to be that seeing Peter's tragic death at the end of Infinity War helped him finally succeed at Breaking the Cycle of Bad Parenting, and devote himself entirely into being a dad. When Peter's life is restored at the end of the film, Tony runs forward and hugs him, showing a display of affection and sincerity he never was able to manage before.
- The Berenstain Bears: Tuffy beats up Sister Bear, but then it turns out to be because her parents are abusive. Sister Bear doesn't hurt someone weaker though, instead she punches Tuffy.
- 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 nobles' gradual corruption of righteous or powerful individuals, something that none of them are able to understand or appreciate.
- In the Polish novel Lalka, the protagonist is visiting 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 Midnight Tides, book five of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, Uruth, who as the Emperor's mother has a very high standing among the women of her tribe, scolds said Emperor's wife for acting foolishly. Since Mayen cannot talk back, she takes it out on her slave Feather Witch by beating the latter. Feather Witch is unable to deal with the situation in any other way and in turn, takes her frustration out verbally on fellow slave Udinaas, who's even lower than her in social status by being not only a slave but also an Indebted. The trope is then, however, defied by Udinaas who is fully aware of what is happening and quietly informs Feather Witch that he's not her doormat. Not anymore, anyway.
- Marshall Karp's The Rabbit Factory has Kilcullen explicitly refer to this trope, albeit as the Hierarchy of Pain, justifying it by pointing out that their main case is a high profile one, meaning that people higher up the chain expect results fast, and so he has to lean on the main characters to make it happen. Keep in mind that this is after he reveals that he took his bowling ball out to the shooting range and used it as a target.
- The ending of Ratburger reveals that the reason Tina Trotts calls Zoe names and salivates on her head is because her father yelled at her. Luckily, Zoe does not continue the cycle.
- 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.
- Nan Balat Davar in The Stormlight Archive releases the stress caused by his father's abuse by pulling the legs off small animals.
- Discussed (and simultaneously played out) in Blackadder the Third. Blackadder abuses a cat, the cat abuses a mouse, and the mouse abuses ... Baldrick.
- 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.
- Comes up frequently in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, usually along the lines of a former abuse victim abusing another child. The examples in this series are often more complicated than most because there's often a significant delay between each link in the chain, as this sort of thing is not about lashing out in the moment but rather the long-term damage of the abuse warping their moral compass.
- In one episode, a former abuse victim refuses to have anything to do with his infant son for fear of this trope: the older boy who raped him was in turn being abused by a sports coach, and the victim was terrified that the abuse had left him with "a switch waiting to flip" that would make him become an abuser the way his own abuser did. The detectives help him to see that what he fears is not inevitable, and at the end of the episode, he holds his baby for the first time.
- 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.
- In Succession, this could be the entire idea of the show, and of Waystar-Royco themselves. Every single person needs someone to punch down at: Logan tries to keep his children close so he can belittle them; Shiv marries Tom at least in part because she knows he's so far out of his depth that he'll put up with her treating him badly (though he finally snaps back at her in Season 2); this is even why Tom helps Greg get his job, so he's no longer on the lowest rung of the family ladder.
- 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.
- Discussed and defied in "Mean" by Taylor Swift: The narrator speculates that their tormentor was abused once, then declares that they won't turn out like them.
- tool's "Prison Sex" is about this. The first verse is the narrator remembering sexual abuse at the hands of his parent, and the second verse switches to the viewpoint of abuser, with eerily similar wording. Some have taken this to mean the victim in first verse becomes the perpetrator in the second verse.
- This is one of the central themes in The Wall. The schoolmaster's wife hits and humiliates the schoolmaster; the schoolmaster hits and humiliates the kids he is supposed to educate; 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- Fallen London: The Chain of Being represents the social hierarchy of the entire universe, from the lowliest rat to the gods themselves. In truth, it's little more than an excuse for the constantly bickering stars to wage wars against each other in secret by venting their frustrations down the chain. Even the 'main character' of Fallen London, the grandmaster of the Bazaar, hypocritically tries to allow beings of different hierarchies to live as one while also bullying and demeaning the minions and lovers on the lower end of their chain. The game's main questline is about whether to reform the chain or break it entirely.
- In The Works of Mercy, The protagonist has a brief discussion with his father in what appears to be the afterlife. The dialogue options allude to the father being abusive, but he insists he was just copying his own father- before pointing out that the protagonist themselves broke their daughter's arm.
- In Umineko: When They Cry, 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.
- Much of RWBY can be summarized as people abusing their power to hurt others, whether they know it or not. Most notably, the Gods' questionable treatment of Salem (who also already had to deal with having an Abusive Parent) is part of what motivates her to become the Big Bad (the other reason being she went Ax-Crazy from The Corruption), taking out her anger and hatred for her fate on humanity and her former lover. She initially claims that it's because the new, magicless humans are inferior, though after Ozma's betrayal, her reasoning shifts to destroying humanity because humanity is what matters most to Ozma — it's the best way to hurt him. This also indicates she just wanted to hurt humanity in the first place because they were the only people outside of her family that she could vent out her frustrations on. Cue the in-fighting in humanity over how to stop Salem... otherwise known as the entire show.
- More immediately, Salem's abusive mentorship of Cinder (who is based on Cinderella and is implied to also hail from a background of abuse) clearly frightens and intimidates Cinder... who sees Salem as a rolemodel for empowerment and tries to emulate her, most noticeably on Emerald. Emerald is unable to realize her situation is abnormal and abusive because she doesn't have anything else to compare her current position to.
- The Water Phoenix King posits an world where the chain of harm is a divine mandate; the world's Karma system, Tamantha, is an artificial metaphysical construct created by a Mad God who believed in Black and White Insanity. Every time someone breaks the rules, the entire world pays the price with curses and monsters, under the Insane Troll Logic that the higher castes would see the curses ravaging their country and either collectively punish the lower castes for their insubordination, or suffer horrifying consequences for their actions along with thousands of innocent lower caste members. Naturally, people subject to this system develop a rebellious streak, which causes more monsters and disasters to show up, and so on. To show just how badly this system runs, the god who created Tamantha died moments after it started running, and Disproportionate Retribution left the entire world in constant war until a human managed to commit deicide, which the system retaliated with by turning the planet into a Crapsack World. It's up to the anti-heroic protagonists to turn Tamantha into a smoldering ruin.
- The Apple & Onion episode "Apple's in Trouble" has the protagonists try to find out why Cheesesteak is bullying Apple, only to find a "classic chain reaction". Cheesesteak is mistreated by his boss Fried Shrimp, who is yelled at by Birthday Cake, who is upset that she isn't being catered by Turkey Leg, who is dealing with rats that disobeyed Gingerbread, whose dancing is disrupted by Root Beer Float, who is stressed out by Lemon Drop, who was upset when Apple scolded her.
- Played for Comedy in Avatar: The Last Airbender. During a (fake) argument, Katara insults Sokka by calling his ears big. Afterwards, Sokka says, "Momo, you have some big ears."
- The Horseman family from BoJack Horseman. Joseph Sugarman made horribly abusive decisions, which lead to Beatrice being abusive and BoJack becoming a self-loathing mess who himself takes his struggles with feelings of depression and inadequacy out on others.
- In The Boondocks, this is why Uncle Ruckus is the way he is. Nelly, Ruckus's paternal grandmother, abused her son relentlessly when he was young. When said son grew up and had a family of his own, he abused the young Uncle Ruckus in the same way.
- One episode of God, the Devil and Bob deals with the death of Bob's verbally abusive and emotionally neglectful father. After finding out he went to heaven, Bob demands justification from God. God elaborates that there is a "line of punches" passed from father to son going all the way back to Adam and Cain. Even though his father was no saint, the trick was "passing on a softer punch", as Bob's grandfather was relatively worse. In turn, Bob realizes he hasn't been the best father to his own son, so he learns to forgive his father and be a better one to his son.
- On King of the Hill, it's shown that Cotton was emotionally abusive to Hank for not living up to his (damn near psychotic) idea of what a man should be. While Hank himself does love Bobby and wants to raise him right, he's still pretty hard on him for not living up to his (not nearly as insane but still pretty uptight) idea of what a man should be.
- Clay Puppington's backstory from Moral Orel. As a child, Clay accidentally killed his mother by causing her to suffer a heart attack. At first, his father Arthur responded by giving him the cold shoulder, but Clay would continually provoke his father into physically abusing him because it was the only way he could get his father's attention. As an adult, Clay abuses his own son Orel, believing that if Orel will grow up to be like him, it will vindicate his own awful behavior. Orel ultimately defies the trope, as he refuses to sink to Clay's level and in the Distant Finale, he's shown to be a loving father to his own family.
- She-Ra and the Princesses of Power: The Horde is largely built on a structure of callousness, indifference, cruelty and suffering flowing down the chain. Horde Prime callously discarded Hordak; Hordak maintains a similar indifference to any underling who fails him. Shadow Weaver, one such underling, then raises two children abusively; one, Adora, manages to find a way out of the toxic environment and becomes The Hero (albeit with a huge Guilt Complex), while the other, Catra, remains and continues to lash out at others and subjects Adora to sustained physical and emotional abuse after her defection. And even the reasonably functional ones, like Scorpia and Lonnie, who sat out most of that, don't have any objection to abusing Kyle.
- The "Homer choking Bart" bit from The Simpsons is hinted to be a generational thing. We've seen Abe choke Homer before (along with pretty severe verbal and emotional abuse, up to advising him to take rides from strangers) and Abe is implied to have gotten it from his own father, and on and on.
- Near the end of Steven Universe: Future, one of these is described as being the cause of everyone's suffering throughout Future and the rest of the series. Specifically, White Diamond has an It's All My Fault moment, and admits that being a Bad Boss and domineering "sister" towards both Yellow and Blue Diamond in turn lead to them being abusive towards Pink Diamond. Pink faking her shattering at the hands of "Rose Quartz" caused her to abandon Spinel, who takes it out on Steven and the Crystal Gems millennia later, and also left Pearl with some likely psychological trauma that followed her for almost as long until she was finally able to open up about it. This also lead Steven to develop C-PTSD, because of the trauma and pressure he was exposed throught the original series and movie. All of this pain and suffering, along with the mistakes he made during the epilogue, ended up having him a spectacular meltdown, as he accidentaly corrupts himself and transforms into a Kaiju-like rampaging monster.
- The Venture Bros. goes into detail about how Doc Venture's youth as a boy adventure severely screwed him up, even though he still drags his boys along for similar adventures. Such an occurrence was lampshaded in this series recap.
Henchman 21: That's the vicious circle, people do this!
- 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 racism, classism, speciesism or sexism 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.
- Studies suggest that military, police, and military police organizations with cultures of abuse tend to commit war crimes even when the top-level leadership tries to stop them. Two excellent examples are the Imperial Japanese Army and the Red Workers' and Peasants' Army (of the Soviet Union). Both had abusive cultures, with officers regularly beating their NCOs and NCOs beating the rank-and-file, and both committed numerous war crimes against civilians. However, there were notable differences and it is worth contrasting a contemporary organisation which committed war crimes without such a culture:
- The Red Army's leadership frowned upon and tried to curb war crimes, rape being the most common, and most of which were committed by the less-disciplined non-combat/logistical arms, which employed most of the imprisoned criminals who volunteered for military service in return for reduced sentences during the war. War crimes were seen as a stain upon the Army's honor, and soldiers committing them could be and were punished wherever possible.
- The Imperial Japanese Army's leadership did not care about war crimes against civilians, including rape, and promoted war crimes against POWs, as they regarded the execution of a POW as a way to 'toughen up' their soldiers. War crimes were seen as having no effect upon the Army's honor, and soldiers committing them were never identified or punished.
- The German Army's leadership promoted most war crimes, particularly those which gave their forces practical advantages (such as the destruction of every community suspected to have given support to partisans) but disapproved of rape conducted without the use of condoms because of the risk posed by STDs. In their view, so-called "war crimes" were an insidious fiction propagated by Jews, communists, and liberals: warfare always had to be conducted with the most brutal means possible, and imposing artificial limitations upon one's ability to strike at the enemy was sheer foolishness. Ungentlemanly conduct regarding POWs or civilians of roughly comparable racial status, such as Scandinavians or Dutchmen, was frowned upon and both could be and was punished. While any and all conduct against POWs or civilians of (radically) lower racial status, such as Ukrainians or Kazakhs, was acceptable, some were punished for sexually assaulting racial inferiors without protection (because of the risk of STDs).
- 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 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.