It’s a very rare individual who has not been the target or witness of cruelty. This evil act and state of mind has infected human relationships since time immemorial. Our history, literature, psychology, and human relationships have dealt with it for as long as humanity can remember. Religious texts are filled with examples of cruelty. Political entities employ it as an effective tool. Our prisons are filled with people who have used it. Scholars have studied it for ages.
What good does it do for me to write about it? Perhaps nothing at all. So many others have pondered it, philosophised about it, preached against it, and written about it that
it seems like only a futile effort. I think that to criticize cruelty is as primal an instinct as it is to commit cruelty. It would be very irresponsible not to share my sense of frustration and outrage about cruelty.
The world is awash in cruelty, it seems to always have been the case. It is the control against cruelty that nurtures civilization. When cruelty erupts to the surface and becomes socially acceptable, civilization is debased and dies. Cruelty is the main tool of superstition and fear. In turn, fear is the strategy of dominneering, self-centered people. There is plenty of fear in politics and religion, perhaps that is one reason those two subjects are impolite topics of dinner conversation.
Martin Luther King, Junior once wisely said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.” He was right. Our history books and current media are full of examples of when good people failed to speak out and act against cruelty. Cruelty in the forms of harming animals, racism, homophobia, misogyny, police brutality, war, and never-ending greed, festers and grows when “good folks” choose not to get involved.
When we seriously investigate cruelty, we find its disturbing, personal roots. We find that much of what fuels cruelty is socially acceptable. Competition is glorified in today’s world. There’s no getting away from it. Jealousy is the fuel of competition. I might find myself envious of your newer car, fancier house, beautiful family relationship, career.
Jealous competition manifests in greater society, as well. Our sports team competes against its rivals to attain the championship. One corporation goes against another for dominance in the market. One nation subjugates others in the pursuit of international dominance. Sentimentality and emotions thus enable cruelty.
In my ponderings, I’ve come to the conclusion that cruelty is the most detestable of human sins. Cruelty that is justified by political and religious goals is certainly the worst of the worst. I’m certainly in good company when I rant about the use of ignorance by power hungry people. We have become enslaved to superior weaponry to serve their ultimate cruelties.
Today’s newscasts are dominated by reports of terrorism, more stupid wars, prejudice, racism, homophobia, domestic violence, and other acts of mayhem and murder. All this aggression, bigotry, and cruelty are excused in the name of one ideal or another. After awhile, we become worn down by it all. We only want to hear “good news”. We escape into the bread and circus world of entertainment. We want to put on the rose colored glasses and let someone else deal with the cruelty.
All forms of cruelty are wrong. Whenever we see cruelty take place we must never succomb to the temptation to be silent. Silence only encourages cold-hearted people to express hate speech and commit ever more heinous acts of cruelty.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca famously said that all cruelty springs from weakness. Those of us who have been victimized by cruel people want to agree with this judgement. This statement seems to fall apart, however, when looked at more critically.
Was Ghengis Khan a dithering fool? Was Maximillien Robespierre really a wuss? Was Adolf Hitler really weak? These historical figures were quite clever, influential, and very harmful people. Their use of cruelty was enabled by the massive power they owned. I still need to ponder longer about Seneca’s statement.
I think cruelty stems from many sources. Most insidious is group conformity. When we were children, we fell under its influence in school. It further manifests in most of our other institutions, from the sacred to the secular. The results are mental, spiritual, and physical cruelty towards anybody who doesn’t fit in. James Russell Lowell reflected on conformity in a backhanded way. He said, “There is nothing so desperately monotonous as the sea, and I no longer wonder at the cruelty of pirates.”
What do we do about cruelty? I don’t have any big solutions about this ages-old evil. Personally, all I can do is be mindful of my own inclinations towards envy and moralism. I can also write and speak out about cruelty when I witness it taking place or starting to take root. I know I risk disapproval by some friends and family members in doing so. This is far better than rationalizing my own inaction.