Looking a little further into this notion of cruelty and some of both the traditionally accepted motivations, we find some interesting findings.
In a piece in The New Yorker by Paul Bloom, November 20, 2017, entitled “The Root of All Cruelty? (subtitled) Perpetrators of violence we’re told, dehumanize their victims. The truth is worse”, we read:
As the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss noted, ‘humankind ceases at the border of the tribe, of the linguistic group, even sometimes of the village.’ Today the phenomenon seems inescapable. Google your favourite despised human group—Jews, blacks Arabs, gays, and so on—along with words like ‘vermin,’ ‘roaches,’ or ‘animals; and it will all come spilling out….Such rhetoric shows up in the speech of white supremacists—but also when the rest of us talk about white supremacists….What about violence more generally? Some evolutionary psychologists and economists explain assault, rape, and murder as rational actions, benefitting the perpetrator or the perpetrator’s genes….On the other hand, much violent behavior can ben seen as evidence of a loss of control. It’s Criminology 101 that many crimes are committed under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and that people who assault, rape, and murder show less impulse control in other aspects of their lives. In the heat of passion, the moral enormity of the violent action loses its purchase. But ‘Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships’ (Cambridge) by the anthropologist Alan Fiske and the psychologist Tage Rai, argues that these standard accounts often have it backward. In many instances, violence is neither a cold-blooded solutions to a problem nor a failure of inhibition; most of all, it doesn’t entail a blindness to moral considerations. On the contrary, morality is often the motivating force: ‘People are impelled to violence when they feel that to regulate certain social relationships, imposing suffering of death is necessary, natural, legitimate, desirable, condoned, admired, and ethically gratifying.’ Obvious examples include suicide bombings, honor killings, and the torture of prisoners during war, but Fiske and Rai extend the list to gang fights and violence toward intimate partners. For Fiske and /Rai, actions like these often reflect the desire to do the right thing, to exact vengeance, or to teach someone a lesson. There’s a profound continuity between such acts and the punishments that—in the name of requital, deterrence, or discipline—the criminal justice system lawfully imposes. Moral violence, whether reflected in legal sanctions, the killing of enemy soldiers in war, or punishing someone for an ethical transgression, is motivated by the recognition that its victim is a moral agent, someone fully human.
It seems there might be a significant shift from a conventional and detached notion of the perpetrators of cruelty to dehumanize their victims, in order to make it feasible for them to inflict their pain, some theorists suggest that it is the fully human, the moral agent, even the young child in a parenting situation, or an adherent in an ecclesial situation, that is the target of cruelty.
Families, schools and churches, taken together and also separately, and the individuals in each, again together and separately, have a responsibility to consider the use of power (force, cruelty, alienation, isolation, abandonment, excommunication) and the motivation for such deployment. Cruelty, as was noted in the piece on everyday sadism, (acorncentreblog.com, November 28, 2022) is ubiquitous, and not only on social media. Normalizing this cruelty, and even idealizing its “power” and the adrenalin high (approximating the orgiastic) has become an integral component in the entertainment menu. The American ethos and culture seems to luxuriate in the deployment of force, including the sophisticated methods and tactics in both the military and the justice system.
Indeed, the American national identity archetype is the “strong ALPHA male” that seems to be the defining image for all public discourse. trump rode to the Oval Office in his perversion of the archetype. And one of his central stump arguments was that he was “fixing” the “carnage” and “draining the swamp,” both phrases that struck the hot buttons of fear and resentment, first of street crime and the dangers of criminal immigrants, and second the alleged tyranny of the Democrats and the government generally.
In a culture obsessed with, if not addicted to, some external “pill” as the “fix” of whatever might be perceived as a personal, or a social illness, replete with agents ready, willing and able (at least in their own mind) to provide the right remedy for the right pain, both literally and metaphorically, we have, as James Hillman has noted, created two buckets of addressing human behaviour that does not comport with our (whomever might be in charge of the discernment of the specific non-compliance): the first bucket is a “medical” bucket, the second is a “legal” bucket.
With respect to individual persons who have contravened some law, rule, regulation or organizational norm, we consider the “problem” based almost exclusively on a series of observable, empirical symptoms that need to be sanctioned. And the sanction is allegedly for the purpose of “correcting” the offender, as well as to warn others against a similar offence. “Teaching them a lesson” is the underlying echo of justification. Similar to the Buddhist “anger/frustration—compassion” model, this “teach them a lesson”, modelled by those in high places of authority and responsibility, in our corporations, our military, our governments, our churches and our health and social systems.
In the criminal justice system, we hear the word “rehabilitation” bandied about, as the primary publicly-stated goal of the system. Nevertheless, we all know that the statistics of rehabilitation pale in comparison to the graphs of numbers of incarcerated men and women who regress into even more criminal and abusive behaviour.
We all, as life-long-learners, have a portfolio of comments, remarks, criticisms and cautions from our parents and mentors, bosses and peers. The tone and the attitude of those individuals were implicitly and explicitly part of the context of whether and how we “heard” and “listened” and integrated those moments. If they were provocative of an attitude such as “I will prove you wrong” in your assessment of me, we undoubtedly determined to negate the criticism. If they came from a bitter and self-loathing, or a highly needy source, we grew to turn down both the volume and the relevance of what had become cruel projections.
And, indeed, the act of a cruel comment, is often if not almost always, coloured and heard in and through the relationship and the attitude of the perpetrator. It is the surprising source of an allegedly loving parent or spouse, whose need for power and control, even if camouflaged in that chestnut, “for your betterment, I am going to teach you a lesson”….
And here is where and when one’s personal experiences play a role in the interpretation we place on those acts that might be considered cruel, hurtful and debilitating. And, there is and can be no single note struck by any cruelty; sometimes, it is worthy of consideration, even if it hurts at the moment. Trouble is, for most of us, we are neither schooled nor experienced in recognizing this thing called “projection”*.
Not only do we live in a culture (in North America) in which we have an apparently desperate need to be “fixed”, we also live in a culture in which we almost absolutely refuse to acknowledge our errors, especially errors in judgement, perception, interpretation and especially in the management/supervision/mentoring of other people.
Starting from a perverted concept of a “fallen human being” (original sin) perpetrated and propagated by the church(es), and then enduring a traditional process of ‘being reined in’ in the school system by pedagogues whose need for control exceeds most others in the community (this scribe bears considerable regret and responsibility for this blindness), we also live in a corporate culture in which both efficiency and profit have supplanted effective relationships and long-term human satisfaction, growth and well-being. People in power, thereby, are empowered to exercise “teaching” and “mentoring” concepts that favour the least time (and cost to the budget) and the most available ‘stick’ (and carrot for the occasional reward) in a classical conditioning model of organizational dysfunction.
And, given that millions have acceded to this cultural dynamic, in order both to earn a living and to ‘fit into’ the demanded patterns, we now suffer from a vacuum of health leadership, mentorship and the implicit ‘authority’ and ‘respect’ that is unconsciously awarded to such dysfunctional leadership.
The blatant hypocrisy, in the cry, that we are doing this (imposing cruelty of any form) to teach you a lesson, belies the lesson that is needed to be taught to those cruel leaders. Power and authority, without care and compassion, is, by definition another of the many self-sabotages humans perpetrate on each other and ourselves, every hour in every day at every level in every sector. Rather than considering care and compassion an inordinate cost, they are both highly instrumental in enhancing the bottom line of all for-profit enterprises. First, in order to consider care for workers, one has to get to know them on more than a functional level. They are must more than a “careful front-end-loader operator” for example. They are a brother/sister, a wife/husband, a father/mother, a hobbyist/athlete, an aspirant and idealist/mentor for colleagues…in short, each of us is far more than a widget in the organizational cogs and gears.
Compassion, too, as separated from empathy, offers consideration from a detached and professional perspective, and the benefits of such an approach devolve to both the agent and the recipient. Again, far from being an excessively soft and redundant manner in which to perceive and to operate a leadership post, compassion signifies a healthy, mature, integrated and aspiring leader’s fundamental character. (The “hard-power” of the alpha male model, too often adopted too by ambitious women executives, in the false belief that in order to climb the ladder of the hierarchy, they have to “out-male” the men.)
Impunity for cruelty, the glossed-over eyes, ears and attitudes that too often greet blatant acts of cruelty, (we do not wish to get involved in anything that might be messy, legal, or demanding our witness) seems to have rendered many acts of human-to-human cruelty to be referred by some ‘outside’ third party, as if it were resolvable only through a simulated court hearing. Admitting we are wrong, as something we each have to account for, and also to atone for, is not a pathway to chaos. It is a pathway to begin the restoration of the dependence we all have on the truth.
Indeed, shirking responsibility is just another way of deceiving both ourselves, and in our wildest dreams, the other who might punish, sanction, admonish, or even discipline us appropriately.
Critical parent-malignant child modelling of relationships among and between supervisors and their mentees, is not only malicious; it is profoundly counter-intuitive. The model itself, smacks of cruelty, blindness and narrow and narcissistic self-interest on the part of those in power. There are a myriad of nuanced positions between the extreme of ‘critical parent-child’ and “buddy-and-friend” that offer multiple opportunities for both mentor and mentee to grow and flourish.
*Projection is when someone tries putting their feelings, flaws, and other quirks toward someone else, usually someone they argue with. Someone who projects will shift the blame to ignore their problems. A politician, for example, will use projection to distract from their flaws and shift the blame….the biggest reason, conscious or unconscious, that a person projects is that they can’t admit they were wrong about something. (from mytherapist.com)