When we think of cruelty, we usually think of extreme cruelty. But cruelty is more subtle and pervasive in human behaviour. Kathleen Taylor in her book `Cruelty – Human Evil and the Human Brain’ defines cruelty as `unjustified voluntary behaviour which causes foreseeable suffering to an undeserving victim’. A simpler definition would be `doing something unnecessary to someone that they do not want’. Or a more exacting definition might be ‘deliberately not rendering a possible kindness’. It can be cruel to unnecessarily deny a child an ice cream.
The potential for cruelty lies dormant in the human condition. We are all capable of it. Studies of the Nazi concentration camps show that camp guards perpetrating regular atrocities were not some specially bred monsters – they were former teachers, bankers, shopkeepers. The scope of this potential for cruelty in human behaviour, what the mystics called the dark side of the human soul, is demonstrably immense.
It can self-generate as an equal and opposite reaction – we are bruised either generally or specifically, and we are psychologically primed to bruise back, to deny delight where we feel denied. Nature is often hostile and cruel, either in the way the climate treats us, or in the predation between the animal species. We see this and feel it and are part of it.
It can be sheer latent sadism – from mild curiosity to perverse delight at seeing suffering. It can arise from a power urge – the microcosm of fascism within us. Or we may feel constrained by the social structure we are in to act cruelly. Cruelty is social phenomenon and personal behaviour in symbiosis. Cruelty can be initiated in individual personal behaviour which spreads as a model social norm. Once established as such, it can exert itself and impose itself on other actors, especially in cases where it gets incorporated in the law, as it was for example in the horrific practices of hanging, drawing and quartering of criminals, or burning alive of heretics in the medieval English legal system.
If we want to challenge cruelty, then we need to do so both at the personal and social level. A personal challenge questions whether my own attitudes and actions are cruel, ie whether they could be more kind. This may require some diagnostic which I may be capable of myself, or may value help with from a friend or counsellor.
The social challenge requires us to be aware of how attitudes associated with human beings can be assimilated into the artefact of society, how the metaphysical of ‘society’ which is on the one hand entirely dependent on its physical human constituents, but at the same time capable of its own characteristics and behaviour, can determine individual attitude and behaviour. Not everyone accepts this metaphysical view of society – its ‘reification’ – propounded by the French sociologist Ēmile Durkheim, but we have all felt the power of ‘crowd psyche’ and the peer pressure in society to conform to the social norm. Experiments have shown clearly how individuals can be persuaded to act cruelly against their individual conviction by such peer pressure. As always, awareness of the condition and its process is the important first step to its mitigation.
But is cruelty in decline? Certainly, gross atrocity has become exceptional and widely condemned, rather than regular and legalised. It is still present in warfare, though not in peacetime civil society. Nevertheless it is astonishing how fast the Germany of Beethoven and Brahms could morph into the Third Reich. We need constant vigilance, both personally and for society, both in its condition and in its processes. We can best do this by determining to practice kindness, the virtue which is the opposite and the antidote to cruelty.