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October 29, 2011

Where Does the Cruelty Come From?

It's not news that the people who run the U.S. have created a gruesome culture of cruelty among those who have everything (or aspire to) towards those who don't. Digby runs down some vile examples here, including a foreclosure mill law firm that had a homelessness-themed Halloween party.

The interesting thing is this happens everywhere with everyone: people with money and guns and power ALWAYS hate and fear everybody else. My historian grandfather Lewis Hanke spent his whole life researching the European takeover of North and South America, and as he put it:

The hostility of those who have power toward those who can be called inferior because they are different—because they are others, the strangers—has been a historical constant. Indeed, at times it seems to be the dominant theme in human history.

So America's dumbasses with their dumbass contempt for the people they're brutalizing is about as surprising and interesting as the sun coming up every day.

But why isn't it surprising? Where does it come from? Wouldn't you expect that people with a weird compulsion to be cruel would be less effective and replaced by those who didn't have it?

Stan Goff, who used to be a U.S. Ranger and was stationed in El Salvador, once wrote about this based on his own experience:

In the street [in San Salvador], I saw an old woman dragging herself down the sidewalk with a gangrenous leg, a crazy man shriveled in a corner, bone-skinny kids who played music for coins with a pipe and a stick.

On the bus one day in downtown San Salvador, a blind man came begging, and people who could ill afford it gave him a coin. These people were callused, very modestly dressed, with Indian still in their cheeks.

To the slick, manicured, round-eyed, well-to-do, the poor and the beggars were invisible, as invisible as the blackened carboneros, the worm-glutted market babies, the brooding teens with raggedy clothes, prominent ribs and red eyes glaring out of the spotty shade on street corners...They have to be subhuman so they can be killed.

I was reminded of the goats at the Special Forces Medical Lab. When I was training to be a medic, we used goats as "patient models." The goats would be wounded for trauma training, shot for surgical training, and euthanized over time by the hundreds for each 14-week class.

Nearly every student upon arrival would begin expressing his antipathy for the caprine breed. "A goat is a dumb creature, hard-headed, homely," we'd say.

A few acknowledged what the program was actually doing without seeking these comfortable rationalizations. A few even became attached to the animals and grew more depressed with each day.

But most required the anti-caprine ideology to sustain their activity.

So it's actually not that complicated. It's not that normal people start out hating everyone else and then brutalize them; they brutalize everyone else as part of their job and then they HAVE to hate them, or they can't keep doing it. If they can't keep doing it, they drop out of the Special Forces or the foreclosure mill law firm or Goldman Sachs, leaving behind only people who've managed to generate enough cruelty within themselves that they can.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at October 29, 2011 04:05 PM

I guess seeing goats as sub-human doesn't seem like a major violation of categories to me.

Posted by: seth at October 29, 2011 04:55 PM

You can also do it by dividing your world into "things that are the way they're supposed to be," which are real, and "things that are mistakes, malfunctions, exceptions, edge cases, anomalies, or someone else's fault," which are less real so you don't have to register their existence.

When I ride the subway, teenagers of color and retirees are far more likely to notice my cane and offer me a seat than buff young men in business suits. The latter are also more likely to elbow me aside when we're both trying to enter or leave the car. They don't show any sign of premeditation or guilt. It's not that they think I'm less deserving of a seat; their model is "you get on the subway and sit down." If someone later doesn't get a seat, that's an anomaly, a malfunction, and it's not their fault. Likewise, they don't intend to elbow me aside when they're getting on or off the car. I just happen to be in their travel path. What they don't have is a sense that we are all equally real; that overcrowded cars are as real as cars that are merely full; and that in a crowded situation, one's travel path isn't a simple geometry problem.

You know those inspirational/motivational posters that pointy-haired bosses put up in break rooms? I've found it oddly enlightening to view them as quotations from a single body of thought. They're all about making decisions as an individual in pursuit of a goal. When social relationships are mentioned or implied, the message is usually telling you to ignore them, because they'll only get in the way of achieving your goals.

This is a dysfunctionality of capitalism: it pretends that all interactions are between individuals, and that the ones that are off the map aren't real. It's what produces the bizarre landscapes of suburbia, where everyone who matters drives a car, and the world is divided into two kinds of territory: intentional destinations, which are real, and the inconsequential no-man's-land you drive through to get there, which isn't. Prestigious areas emphasize that they're destinations by making it difficult or impossible to use them as a pass-through when you're on your way to some other place. Powerless areas get dissed and degraded by being used as thoroughfares: not a destination. Truly unfortunate ones may suffer the imposition of a freeway, which is the ultimate statement of that worldview.

This is not Frank Capra's planet.

The next station along the path is exclusionist rhetoric and policies. Once you've accepted the more real/less real dichotomy, it's only logical to defend what's real against the monstrous, fractal chaos that is Other People's Problems. You have to draw the line somewhere, don't you? And so they people assent to having the line drawn, reassuring themselves as they do so that it's being drawn far down the ladder from where they're standing. They don't understand what a profound error it is to let that line be drawn at all, and that a system that allows it will allow other lines to be drawn in the future.

Which loops back, strangely enough, to the defining statements of the the republic; most immediately:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed ..."

The Founding Fathers had the benefit of having seen aristocracy in full flower. It moved openly in the public sphere, and didn't hesitate to let its nature and its power be shown. We have to look closer and observe more. It's nowhere near as easy to make out as it used to be.

Back during the debacle of 2000, I kept explaining in one forum after another that People Who Don't Believe in Counting Votes Are Not Your Friends, and Never Will Be. I didn't get far with that. If I could think of a better way to explain it, I'd keep trying forever.

Posted by: Teresa Nielsen Hayden at October 29, 2011 07:41 PM

Teresa, thanks for this. I agree with almost everything you say, especially "the monstrous, fractal chaos that is Other People's Problems." That's exactly how it looks to them.

However, I believe that it's literally impossible for human beings not to draw the line somewhere. Let's say we had a planet that was fantastic for all human beings with zero environmental impact. There would still be horrible suffering via animal-on-animal violence, involving monstrous, fractal chaos that is Other Mammal's Problems. I'm only partly joking.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at October 29, 2011 08:00 PM

Every blog post needs a nitwit to show everyone how badly he's missed the point. On October 29, 2011 at 04:55 PM, someone named seth stopped whatever he was doing and rushed here to be that nitwit.

Posted by: bobs at October 29, 2011 08:09 PM

It's a funny thing about human nature that people feel the urge to rationalize their selfishness.

You don't see many bankers boasting they're blood sucking assholes and proud of it. No, they'll tell you that what looks like selfishness to the untrained eye is really altruism at its most sublime.

Just the other day, Bloomberg was berating the OWS losers for failing to understand that bankers pay the taxes that provide the money that the losers need. I thought Wall Street bankers were just greedy vampire squids, but apparently I was wrong: the only reason they try to make so much money is so that they can pay more taxes to help the less privileged. So much altruism. The only thing that really bothers bankers is the incredible selfishness of the homeless who somehow never get around to paying any taxes and doing their part for humanity.

Posted by: bobs at October 29, 2011 08:32 PM

You must read this:

The very short synopsis, from that site:

"The Misconception: You do nice things for the people you like and bad things to the people you hate. The Truth: You grow to like people for whom you do nice things and hate people you harm."

The evidence is very convincing. Enjoy!

Posted by: Steven B at October 29, 2011 09:08 PM

I had my faith in humanity restored last night. I saw that Baba Wawa interviewed a gaggle of billionaires. They're jus' folks like you and me. Thankfully, it was the perfect antidote to this post.

Posted by: Happy Jack at October 29, 2011 09:30 PM

Jonathan, I fear you're right. It's a postlapsarian world out there.

StevenB, you're right too. It's easier to make a friend by letting them do you a kindness than by doing one for them.

Posted by: Teresa Nielsen Hayden at October 29, 2011 09:31 PM

That guy Lewis Hanke was smart. He has smart grandkids too.

Posted by: N E at October 29, 2011 10:25 PM

SOME heartless bastards gots a mean streak too, that's all. The world's full of them, more so in the financial industry these days.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at October 30, 2011 03:25 AM

The stories in this post (and Theresa's great comment upthread) remind me of the Milgram experiments and also many stories about torture and abuse. The dehumanizing and abuse really do reinforce themselves in a very vicious cycle. Compassion is sorta the emotional version of imagination, and having a wide range of life experiences, including at different levels of power (especially very little) sure does seem to develop more empathy. While some people are bastards by nature, being cloistered and the urge to rationalize cruelty (and cruel indifference) certainly make things far worse.

Posted by: Batocchio at October 30, 2011 05:36 AM

Well, Jon's already alluded to it in the goat reference, as has Steven B., but this is basic human psychology. Some time ago Jon cited a bit from Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner that illustrated it, and then there's the joke the Irish tell, which I believe I also first came upon on this here blog:

Patrick: Why do the English hate us so much?
Michael: Well, it's because they can't forgive us for what they did to us.

It is absolutely vital for the mental health of people who kick the poor out of their homes that they mock their victims. Psychologically it works in two ways: by rendering one's victim subhuman, as already mentioned, and in restyling your conformist complicity in the exercise of plutocratic thuggery as a form of bravado. It's brave to be so openly contemptuous of the suffering of others, particularly those whose situation you have made worse. It shows steely resolve, lack of sentimentality, and - and what a tell the use of this word is - realism.

But it's perfctly normal. There is nothing, unfortunately, exceptional about these people, positive or negative. It also has a venerable heritage, as anyone who has read Jefferson's Notes on Virginia can attest, or has read Locke's huge codicil to his work on the rights of man, i.e. all the stuff he wrote detailing the rights of conquest. Racism became such a widespread intellectual shibboleth in the 18th 19th and 20th centuries because of the prior existence of slavery and imperialism, not vice versa. The great minds of the Enlightenment, the great defenders of freedom and political rights, the Lockes and Jeffersons and J.S.Mills, had to explain why their political philosophy did not prevent them from carrying on business as usual. And allowed them to look in the mirror without throwing up.

It's resistable. It's just the kind of convenient self-delusion that everybody is prey to. If the foreclosers didn't need the job, or think they do, they wouldn't need to be such dicks about it.

Posted by: weaver at October 30, 2011 07:56 AM

Cruelty is the path taken when a government wants democracy to die.

Posted by: Dredd at October 30, 2011 08:22 AM

"It's a funny thing about human nature that people feel the urge to rationalize their selfishness."

I been around enough greedy people to know that's it's not an urge;it's a sociopathic front. They think EVERYONE rationalizes selfishness, and by god, I'm more more clever at doing so. They can't conceive a world in which anyone but suckers have genuine altruistic motives. A base that Jonathan didn't cover is that a prominent belief among the cruel and thoughtless is, "If THEY were me, THEY would be doing the same thing."

Posted by: Paul Avery at October 30, 2011 12:58 PM

Isn't this National Typo Day?

Posted by: Paul Avery at October 30, 2011 01:02 PM

On a related note, Jon, don't forget Molly Ivins.

Posted by: John Caruso at October 30, 2011 02:33 PM

"There would still be horrible suffering via animal-on-animal violence, involving monstrous, fractal chaos that is Other Mammal's Problems. I'm only partly joking."

That reminded me of this--


Presumably if we solve the humans being cruel to humans problem this will become the moral dilemma of the 22 or 23 or whatever century.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at October 30, 2011 02:38 PM

Didn't Golda Meir make a similar accusation against the Palestinians -- that the worst thing they'd done was to make the beautiful Israelis have to kill them? It's an enduring theme in Israeli culture:

In an essay on Israeli "kitsch", Hebrew University philosopher Avishai Margolit points to the egregious example of The Seventh Day. "The clear but unstated message of the book," he observes, "was one of rueful moral self-congratulation: we are beautiful, but we must shoot to kill -- but not before we go through an agonizing search of our tormented soul." We may now add that the "soldiers' talk" of the "group of young kibbutzniks" was as unoriginal as it was revolting. Indeed, as Dostoevsky long ago recognized, "the most refined shedders of blood have been almost always the most highly civilized gentlemen", to whom all the official terrorists "could not have held a candle." (Norman Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel Palestine Conflict, 120)

I liked Teresa's report of who gives up their seats to her on subways. I see the same thing on Korean subways, and I greatly enjoy offering seats to others. Part of the pleasure is interacting with people, noticing each other in a huge impersonal city. (Most other Americans I've observed in the Seoul subway do their best not to interact, it seems, though there are a few exceptions.)

I have to disagree with "It's a postlapsarian world out there" as a reaction to violence between non-human animals. Not unless you're a creationist, it isn't. We're products of the same evolutionary process that among other prodigies produced cats torturing mice, and the Ichneumonidae. If Gaia existed, she'd be a goddess of wrath. The Cambrian Mass extinction isn't an excuse for us, but it still wasn't our doing. (I'm often struck by the number of devout atheists who are as thrilled by Gaia's wrath as some Christians are by contemplating the suffering of the damned.)

Posted by: Duncan at October 30, 2011 06:33 PM

In "Burmese Days", George Orwell made the point that the British had to look down on the locals (in this case the Burmese). He said basically that you can't easily steal from someone unless you believe that they somehow deserve it.

Posted by: stuhlmann at November 2, 2011 10:10 AM

I felt like someone had to say it: Nielsen Hayden, I appreciate your post, but despise your anti-Caprine ideology.

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at November 3, 2011 01:36 PM