Cruelty constituted the great festival pleasure of more primitive men and was indeed an ingredient of almost every one of their pleasures. [...] [I]t is not long since princely weddings and public festivals of the more magnificent kind were unthinkable without executions, torturings, or perhaps an auto-da-fé [...]To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty human, all-too-human principle [...] Without cruelty there is no festival,; thus the longest and most ancient part of human history teaches–and in punishment there is so much that is festive.
Thus Nietzsche provokes the reader in his work On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay 2, Section 6. Trigger warning. This post will talk about how people get off on hurting one another.
For the next installment of “Forward Thinking”, the values development project in which forward thinking bloggers from around the internet write on a theme in ethics and have their ideas showcased on Camels With Hammers or Love Joy Feminism, I want you to think in careful and constructive terms about one of the darker and harder to eradicate sides of human nature: cruelty. More specifically, I ask you what we should do with the fact that we get a lot of pleasure out of certain forms of cruelty.
Many groups (from families to secret societies to sports teams to military units to sororities and fraternities) bond through formal or informal hazing in which individuals suffer emotional and sometimes physical torment in order to earn membership in the group. It is thought both to toughen people up, prove their commitment, and bond people together. Similarly playful mutual mockery is sometimes an expression of intimacy and even a road to it.
Enormously popular reality TV shows entertain millions of people who like to watch people manipulate each other and fight with each other and all around suffer. Millions claimed to hate Simon Cowell on American Idol while gaining enthusiastic entertainment value from watching him put down aspiring singers. And who hasn’t loved to watch the bad singers the show put on national television for the world to laugh at? Who doesn’t laugh when somebody trips? And how many of us can resist gawking with a bit of schadenfreude when the rich and famous fumble. Am I alone in considering it an annual holiday the day the Yankees are eliminated from baseball each year that they don’t win the World Series? Am I the only one who watches intently all the locker room interviews with them after they’ve lost in order to savor their every tear and pained expression of frustration?
And can we even begin to count the contexts in which our jealousy makes us happy that others in our personal and professional lives don’t get what we can’t have? Professional comedians and ordinary people alike have from time immemorial engaged with relish in gallows humor, laughing at the darkest and most terrible things. Sometimes as a way of coping with the horrors of existence. Sometimes it’s simply because there is a part of us that suddenly wakes up and takes uncontrollable delight in transgressing what is most sacred and serious. Sometimes because it’s just funny.
Also, as Nietzsche analyzes well, many of us love to be cruel to ourselves, to put ourselves down, to make ourselves miserable. And we are routinely socially rewarded for our self-deprecating humor. And if you want to hear the most vivid fantasies about people being raped, tortured, and gruesomely murdered, don’t go find sociopaths, just read or listen to what your average empathic morally attuned person has to say upon learning of a rapist, a torturer, or a murderer being caught. That morally indignant person will be a fount of unapologetic cruelty flowing with possibly the cleanest and most righteous conscience in all the world. And how much vengeful feeling is behind the post-9/11 torture apologists’ defense of the Bush administration? For a less extreme example, what about the mundane cruelty in our satisfaction that someone got their just comeuppance? Do our cruel delights taint our feelings of justice or can they be a little indulgent topping for them?
Sometimes we don’t need an actual wrongdoer. On Facebook once an acquaintance was fantasizing about how awesome it would be were someone to break into his house and he got to shoot them. When I expressed disgust at the violence in his heart he got indignant–he had every right to protect his family! But it wasn’t the desire to protect his family that I balked at, it was that he transparently relished the idea of killing someone and his macho fantasy of protecting his family gave him a noble way to long for it with not only a clean conscience but a proud one.
More widely, in the political and moral arenas self-righteous partisans and self-appointed moral enforcers are as cruel and merciless as any wrongdoers. In fact, some times they’re crueler than those whose wrongdoing is motivated much less by cruelty and much more than by desires like greed or lust or negligence, etc., even when they effectively hurt people.
And there is the BDSM subculture which finds all manner of ways to let people explore their fascinations with cruelties, both vented towards themselves and others, in ways that are maximally consensual and safe, emotionally and physically. Is anything too cruel to do to ourselves or to others, even with consent and minimal lasting damage? Is anything cruel too sick to fantasize about? Is there something inherently evil about fantasizing about doing cruel things to people as part of one’s private sexual thoughts–or in one’s private thoughts in general? Or are these thoughts only wrong as paths to actions and never as mere indulgences of the mind? Is it wrong to take a cruel, vicarious satisfaction in the murderousness of horror film villains or laugh with glee at gory depictions and ideas? Without even going to the extreme of gory murderers, what about our love of villains in general? Is there something morally questionable about so many of us for loving the Joker or Cartman or Hannibal Lector or countless others so much?
And these are just a number of the forms of cruelty socially acceptable to one degree or another, in one context or another. Then there are the forms of cruelty we have blanket rules against: like the hardcore sadism that delights in others’ anguish even or especially when it is non-consenting and harmful in seriously impactful ways. There are bullies, rapists, torturers.
We all have cruelty in us. We are all subject to relishing the suffering of others. Sometimes in a clean conscience, sometimes in an ambiguous space in our minds where we go on excursions outside of good and evil, sometimes as a guilty pleasure. We are sometimes self-aware about it, sometimes self-deceived. No one says to us, “Moral people should be cruel.” If you ask people straight up, in simplistic terms, “is cruelty good or evil?” Most will flatly say it is evil. But is it flatly evil?
Would we be better off rooting all the socially accepted cruel practices I enumerated out of human nature for good? Are at least some of our cruel pleasures good for being pleasures? Is it fair that we be cruel and enjoy some of those pleasures since others will get their turn to take pleasure in our own suffering too? Is the world better on balance with some cruel pleasures or does the damage done by cruelty either always or too commonly do more damage than the increases in pleasure can justify? How much more pleasure than pain must the world net from cruelty for a given kind or instance of it to be justifiable? Some philosophers claim that cruel pleasures shouldn’t count as good at all when we weigh the value of an action by how much pleasure it creates. Is that true? And even if we have to put others through certain rigors that will hurt them, for their own good, is it morally despicable to feel cruelty when we do it or, as long as it has to be done anyway and we don’t make it worse than it has to be, is a little fun in doing so permissible? If so, when and why and what are the limits? How do concerns for larger issues of social justice affect what is acceptable or not in our cruelty?
So, I ask you, since we do not live in a world in which simple platitudes like “Never be cruel” can cover the complexity of our psychologies or their needs or pleasures, what should be our guidelines for dealing with the human love of cruelty in the most ethical and constructive ways? How do we harness this side of ourselves for the most good and for the least destruction? Feel free to focus on specific spheres of special interest to you in which we give play to our love of cruelty as things stand.
Write a blog post and remember to send it to me at camelswithhammers at gmail dot com. I need to keep them all in that place, so just tagging me on Facebook or Twitter or just posting never telling me is insufficient. In the meantime, Libby Anne has our bloggers’ thoughts on the purpose of public education up. Check them out!
And for some of my own thoughts on the topic of acceptable cruelty see my post On the Ethics of Teasing and Mocking People in Groups, in Friendships, and in Debates and Satire. My own failure to deal very well with some hazing as a kid is chronicled in my post My Experiences of Bullying Growing up as a Weakling and a Physical Coward.