The True Cause Of Cruelty
In seventh grade, I once found myself in the school gym locker room changing before class when a group of my classmates began bullying a boy named Pino for having breasts (a condition known as gynecomastia that sometimes occurs in young boys at puberty, usually resolving spontaneously). I failed to rise to his defense, too afraid at the time to have their malevolent attention redirected toward me, but remember feeling awful for Pino and wondering how anybody could be so effortlessly cruel.
It’s commonly observed how children can be mean to one another in a certain phase of their development, can bully one another mercilessly and then somehow still grow up into reasonably well-adjusted adults who leave their cruel behavior behind in childhood (regrettably, of course, some don’t leave it behind, often due to strife, cruelty, or neglect they’ve suffered themselves at the hands of their parents or other caregivers). Most of us find cruelty in children as unacceptable as we find it in adults and often attempt to quell it when we see it. And yet if we fully apprehend the true cause of cruelty, we’re also forced to recognize just how easy it is for any of us to display it, and further, that it stands as the underlying cause of both murder and war.
THE SPIRIT OF ABSTRACTION
It’s called the spirit of abstraction, a term originally coined by Gabriel Marcel in his essay “The Spirit of Abstraction as a Factor Making for War,” and is defined as the practice of conceiving of people as functions rather than as human beings. In early American history, a large segment of the population labeled African Americans as “slaves,” reducing their identity as human beings into an abstract idea only, freeing slave owners to consider slaves their property. Hitler convinced a majority of Germans to conceive of a segment of their population as “Jews,” abstracting their identity as human beings into something he convinced the German people was so inferior that he was able to wipe out 6 million of them (not to mention half a million Gypsies as well). Americans, in turn, abstracted the Japanese people into “Japs,” a derogatory term that reduced them from human beings with hopes, loves, families, and fears into the “enemy” on whom it was therefore eventually permissible to drop two atomic bombs.
NOT JUST SOMETIME OR SOMEWHERE ELSE
When George H. Bush announced the beginning of the first Gulf War in 1990, a cheer was reported at a professional basketball game, and I remember thinking that even if a war were deemed necessary how barbarous it was to enter into it with anything other than a heavy heart. I know now why that cheer went up, though. The spirit of abstraction.
Today there are the telemarketers at whom we snap and upon whom we hang up angrily for calling us at home. There are the customer service representatives we abuse for following a “no receipt, no return policy.” There are other drivers on the road at whom we swear when they refuse to let us merge into traffic (a practice of abstraction of which I’m particularly and frequently guilty). All examples of ways each of us fall prey to the spirit of abstraction on a daily basis.
The spirit of abstraction is the main reason I resist associating myself with any group. Certainly texture and interest attaches itself to different cultures and traditions, but it’s far too easy to abstract others (Americans, Canadians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, women, children, doctors, valets, hairdressers) if I attach too much importance to labels. Not that it’s wrong to value a particular facet of a person (as long as valuing it is what you’re doing), but every group—except for the largest, the human race itself (and perhaps even that’s too narrow)—by definition excludes others. We like to connect ourselves with people who share similar backgrounds and characteristics to make ourselves feel comfortable and safe, but the cost is often (though certainly not always) too high: a subtle belief in our own group’s superiority that promotes the abstraction of anyone else belonging to another.
How often do you think about even your spouse outside of the function he or she plays in your life, regarding him or her as a full-fledged human being in his or her own right whose needs, desires, and pleasures may exist completely apart from your own? How often do you think this way about your children, overcoming the tendency to conceive of them as simply extensions of yourself and allowing them to blossom in your conception as human beings with their own destinies—destinies that may be intimately intertwined with yours but are ultimately their own responsibility in the same way your destiny is yours?
WHAT CAN WE DO?
If we trained ourselves to avoid abstracting others, cruelty in all its forms would be a far rarer thing than it is today. How, then, can we improve our ability to do this more consistently?
- Recognize that, just like you, everyone has a reason for what they do. It may not appear a good reason to you (and may not actually be), but no one ever acts in a way that seems irrational to them. Aim first to understand their reason before you judge it. A negative judgment may, of course, ultimately prove justified, but if you’ve first sought to understand their perspective, you’ve already taken a step away from abstraction toward empathy.
- Observe how often you abstract others in the course of your day. When you see your mail carrier dropping off your mail, how often do you allow her to expand in your mind to her full dimension as a human being and wonder about her mother, her kids, her health problems, or her hopes and dreams? How often do you think about the taxi driver’s struggle to obtain a visa, his fear that he may not be permitted to stay in this wonderful country a constant gnawing at his gut, even as he may seem more interested in talking on his cell phone than driving you safely to your destination? When I’ve observed myself this way, I’ve been amazed at how few people I encounter during the day that I actually embrace in my mind as full-fledged human beings.
- Practice wondering about what people don’t show you about themselves. Maybe you’re one of the rare people who routinely considers the full human dimension of people who flit in and out of your life. The rest of us, however, need to practice seeing through labels, reminding ourselves that everyone was once a small, helpless baby in need of protection whom someone raised and cared about (I once attended a talk by Bernie Siegel, author of Love, Medicine, and Miracles, who projected a picture of the most adorable baby any of us had ever seen, which elicited a loud and prolonged “Awwwww…” from the audience. When he next projected a picture of a decrepit old man, the audience shrunk back. “Why so repulsed?” Bernie asked. “It’s the same person.” The real reason for the audience’s reaction? The spirit of abstraction operates with respect to age, too).
To my classmates in the school locker room all those decades ago, Pino was nothing more than a funny looking kid with breasts, an abstraction that enabled them to tease him mercilessly. To me, however, he was a gentle little boy I pitied for being unable to stand up for himself, a full-fledged human being who was terribly embarrassed by their teasing (though he pretended not to be). I wish I could go back in time armed with the courage to stand up for him. I wish I’d told him I didn’t think he was funny looking. I don’t know how hurt he was by that episode or by any subsequent episodes of bullying he may have experienced, but I find myself hoping that, if he did suffer frequently in that way, rather than scarring him it blossomed a special sense of empathy in him (as feeling like an outsider often does)—a sense of empathy that turned him into an adult who today won’t tolerate cruelty of any kind.
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What a wonderful piece! I was just discussing this very topic last night with a friend. I have always felt that to “cleave to” is also to “cleave from.” I have had moments of oceanic consciousness, and that oneness is the truth of our being.
Whether one allows for a God, or many gods, or none, each view would seem to prohibit the idea of an exclusivity. If indeed we are all God’s children, so be it.
As for Pino, I had my own: Jackie R. and Jeff C. I so wish I was stronger then and could have stood up to those bullies, but the goal of bullying is to make one shrink and hope they will not be the next victim. I always hated the bullies, and still hope Jackie and Jeff are well today. I have tried to look them up, to no avail.
Both were far better humans than any of the rest of them. They were picked on for their gentleness and naivete. I hope their strength shines through.
As always Alex, you provide a poignant reminder—a needed kick in the pants to start paying attention and practice kindness. It’s so easy to slack off & not take the time it takes to be civil to each other.
I was just reminded of this a week ago when I took a look again at book I had long forgotten about: P.M. Forni’s Choosing Civility: 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct.
Forni’s top 5—basically what you are writing about:
1. Pay attention
2. Acknowledge Others
3. Think the Best
5. Be Inclusive
Just rereading them has been a tremendous helping in changing my everyday encounters.
If you’d like to read my post:
George Washington, David Brooks, and P.M. Forni Were All In Search of Dignity—How About “Choosing Civility—The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct”?
Alex, thank you for taking the time to do this blog—I’ve been following it for maybe a month, and every new entry speaks to me about things I want to be reminded of.
I think we all have a Pino in our childhood—most children pick on the “different” kid, whether the difference is weight, a speech impediment, funny clothes—whatever it is. As a child it’s very difficult to go against that tide & stand up for the person who’s being picked on. But at least we can do that now as adults. I wonder if the bullied do not perhaps often grow up to be stronger and more confident than their tormentors, who frequently seem to be taking the offense so we won’t notice THEIR defects/weaknesses/fears, etc.
Being reminded that none of us are abstractions really helps.
As usual, another great read. Thanks for sharing that, Alex, and thanks for bringing more awareness to what I can do each day to make the world a more compassionate place.
I was rejected a lot as a child for having red curly hair and a learning disability and having to redo 2nd grade. If I had the wisdom I do now I would have never let that get to me and would have stuck up for myself and others much more.
Alex, that was a very beautiful post. I felt your radiant, altruistic energy through your words and was moved deeply. The message of the human nature, need, and desire for applied empathy and compassion between all of humanity is one that can’t be stated enough. As you mentioned, it is easy, especially in stressful situations, to compromise ourselves and succumb to the spirit of abstraction. Thank you so much.
Another thought provoking essay, Alex. I was picked on as a child, too, and even though physical characteristics served as triggers, everyone knows one guy in glasses could be Mr. Cool while another gets picked on as “four-eyes.” The real reason I was shunned or attacked, it seems to me in retrospect, was for failing to go along with the way the group saw things. I wonder if what you and Marcel are calling “the spirit of abstraction” isn’t the indoctrination our culture imposes on us in the process we more benignly term socialization, learning to get along. My view, reinforced by witnessing my daughter’s experience of having gone from one of the “queen bees” in her pre-school, when kids were still mostly their authentic selves to a picked on “toad” in elementary school once kids knew that certain clothes were “better,” certain snacks or lunches were “cooler,” and taking expensive vacations made you special, is that we train our children to behave this way because most adults operate in this same way—only a little less crudely. Abstraction is, in a manner of speaking, a way we avoid personal responsibility by allying ourselves with a larger community of people who see things the same—or mostly the same—way. Christianity, for instance, had the same precepts during slavery, or in Germany during the holocaust, but people didn’t hold themselves individually responsible to check whether their behavior lined up with those precepts; they looked to their left and their right and did what the group said to do. This is what children learn to do when they get reinforcement for picking on one of their fellows.
Like you, I have resisted associating myself with groups because of my observations of how they lead people to behave, and even as I see that being part of certain groups makes life much easier for their members. Who wouldn’t like his/her views to be reinforced by those of their neighbors’? Who doesn’t feel more comfortable working with, recommending, and giving favors to people who share similar outlooks—and foibles? You say we ought to recognize that people have a reason for what they do. Indeed they do, but that reason may be because they seek escape from personal responsibility. Abstraction is also what makes it possible to move forward—with work as well as personal relations—much quicker than we could if we regarded every one of our preconceived notions with skepticism. It’s hard to see how we’re going to face the challenge of escaping the spirit of abstraction unless we’re prepared both to embrace personal responsibility and to resist demands that everything we do be done as quickly as those in power would have us do.
I just discovered your blog last week, and I’m really enjoying it. Thanks for posting your thoughts, knowledge and observations.
Hey, Alex. I hope you don’t think I was SUPPORTING what people do when they abdicate responsibility and do what the group is doing! That absolutely doesn’t work for me, either. All I was saying (trying to say) is that one of the reasons people do it is because it makes things easier, even effortless for them. And that we unwittingly teach this m.o. to our children (or allow them to learn it) because we don’t stand up to injustice or unkindness as often as we should. We simply don’t include the people we treat unkindly in our social circle.
I guess the big question your post raises for me is whether developing a generalized appreciation for everyone’s humanity amounts to more than substituting a benign abstraction for a toxic one—not that that isn’t a good thing in itself. I think it’s very, very difficult not to abstract people if your efforts are limited to imagining their full and complex humanity, rather than actually interacting with them on their home turf. Thus, I do think it is necessary to engage my mailman on his thoughts and concerns or the grocery store clerk on her family or job frustrations. (Even people who might not like the President pretty much always stop what they’re doing and stand up when he walks in the room; their behavior changes, not the way they think about him.) But I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong about that. In any case, I don’t abstract myself into a political group either. LOL 😉
One more comment—I did not mean to defend bullies at all. It’s just so easy to demonize them (guilty) and never look at why they bully.
Happy, centered people don’t torment others.
Merely an observation & one which helps keep my own feelings in perspective: my older brother can be a bully and it’s taken me a long time to deal with that…trying to understand why has been helpful.
Peace and love.
When one group wants to maintain power over another, abstraction becomes a useful tool. I spent three days watching the confirmation hearings for the next SCJ. I lost count of how many times a white Republican used the term: “wise Latina woman” and tried to twist it into something others would fear. I replayed the part when one senator mimicked Desi Arnaz because I couldn’t believe my ears. Sonia Sotomayor has more judicial experience than anyone appointed to the SC in twenty years, but the group that used to be in power tried to turn her into an “abstraction” and hold onto whatever power they had left. I am not a Latina, but these men frightened me; they would certainly attack me in the same way. The way we live today gives us little opportunity to know the people we interact with, but if one has time and opportunity it’s really not difficult. I know my new mailman is trying to live a simpler life and just sold his high school ring. And I know more about the many taxi drivers I meet than I really care to. The one I had last week is having some elective cosmetic surgery added to the surgical procedure he’s having and wanted my opinion on recovery time. When you say you don’t want to be a part of any group, I don’t see how that’s possible unless you’re referring to a club or religious affiliation. And yet, that doesn’t protect one from practicing “abstraction.” I truly believe “no man is an island.”
Over and over again, I see enormous cruelty in the world. To help those that are bullied, I advise them to stand up for themselves, and/or to walk away. My own experience is that most bullies hate feeling weak or vulnerable, so suggesting that they are wounded in some way does no good for them, just for me. I was bullied as a child, and have only in my older years learned not to feel like a victim. I can have empathy, but I need not get embroiled in the bully’s game. And while I can accept that these folks and all of us are equal, I do not have to like them. My bliss is the recognition that I am free to step aside.
What a timely post for me to read. I’m intrigued by the concept of abstraction. It makes perfect sense to me, and can quickly conjure up so many examples. As a frontline civil servant for many years, I was often this faceless bureaucrat on the other end of the phone when some was calling. I had been “abstracted.” On the other side of this picture, I have encountered many people who paint people, who for one reason or another have to live on welfare, with the same hues…both are de-humanizing.
However, it was the most recent event in my life which poked my own thinking. I found out on the weekend that my writing on my blog had been plagarized. Another blogger poached my words…whole posts…and reposted them on his blog as his own work. I found more than a dozen pieces stolen over the past 6 months. I felt completed violated. Much of my writing comes from a holy place inside me that I seem to be able to tap into only when I’m in that beautiful flow of writing.
Many bloggers and friends came to my defense and let this person know in no uncertain terms how immoral and illegal his acts were. He pulled down his blog, tried to open another one and was forced to terminate that on. I was incensed and remained so until last night when I sat down to write him another email. All of a sudden, I began wondering about him…as a person. I became intrigued by who he was…and what makes him tick. I wanted to know what he was thinking, how he was feeling. I can see now that I had “abstracted” him. My initial thoughts were of a faceless enemy and my reaction came from keeping him in that light. I had been vicious in my attack of him and of what he had done.
As soon as I was able to recognize him as a human being, I softened. His actions I still don’t agree with. His behavior is unacceptably wrong, but he is a living breathing human. I don’t have to approved of what he did, but I can forgive him because he is a human being…
Your post, Alex, offered me a much better understanding of how my own thoughts and feelings evolved. Thank you. 🙂
I have two questions: is it fair to place a burden of forgiveness on a victim? If one seeks to perceive bullies and criminals in an un-abstracted light, should understanding necessarily lead to forgiveness?
I guess this is getting way off topic, but if Alex doesn’t mind, I’d be curious to hear other people’s opinions.
How does one place a burden of forgiveness on a victim? It seems to me that choosing to forgive is a matter of choice on the victim’s part. It’s not a right that another person has to expect a victim to forgive. Ironically if we do do this, we seem to increase their “victim-ness,” almost expecting them to “just deal with it.” And are we then abstracting victims because we may be uncomfortable with the pain and suffering that they are experiencing?
re: Julia’s question:
When we divide people into the categories of “victim” and “bully” we are abstracting them. It’s almost impossible (at least for me) not to put people into some kind of category, but in the most enlightened state I would hope that these divisions are left behind so that we are all merely people, trying to do the best we can. Given our circumstances, the best may take some of us down a bad road. Whatever damage we or others sustain as part of being human…I would like to at least try to take into account.
“Forgiveness” is a loaded word, especially when it follows “burden.” How about trying for compassion? It’s so much easier to feel compassion for the wronged person, but does that mean we shouldn’t at least try to understand the one who does wrong, or to feel compassion for them as well?
It seems like a goal, at least. (One I’m far from attaining, by the way!)
Alex, your post, and Julia, your question, are both very timely in my life as well, and you have both stated so eloquently what I only instinctively felt, but could not quite articulate until now.
As a medical student at a busy hospital, I often feel like the lowest person on the totem pole, often “bullied” by physicians, nurses, and patients alike. It was easy for me to abstract all of these people into a “them” group, who were just taking their frustrations out on me. Paradoxically, it was also easy for me to feel like I really was in the wrong, and that they were “rightly” chastizing me in various ways for that fault. This idea also made me feel guilty for making myself out to be a “victim” in these scenarios, since I’m “just a medical student” to “them.” It was a vicious cycle of abstraction.
I finally started breaking out of the cycle only recently, when I began taking it to heart, first with my patients, then with all of my co-workers, the idea that each person I encountered was experiencing their set of circumstances through their own unique viewpoint, that if I could only begin to understand, I could better learn how to respond without so much anger, frustration, or sadness. I think the simple act of trying to understand not only softened my feelings, but it really seemed to soften the people around me. Somehow each person was able to pick up on this attempt and actually felt less inclined to lash out. (Of course, it didn’t entirely prevent it, but certainly lessened it, or at least lessened my perceived injury.)
But to answer Julia’s question, I don’t think that when you’re truly able to forgive that forgiveness is a burden. It actually creates a sense of freedom, that you as the “victim” are relieved of the burden of being a victim. What about the actual damage that is sometimes inflicted (e.g. physical injury, theft, psycho-emotional)? Life often deals you difficult situations, whether it comes from a specific person or a perfect storm of random events (e.g. car accident). I think it’s important to deal with them as you would any other unforeseen difficulty, rather than wallow in blaming the other person. I think that feelings of blame and victimization perpetuate the cycle of abstraction.
These are just some thoughts I had. Alex, I love your blog. I discovered it a month ago—it is fantastic, and really speaks to my heart. This is particular post is one of my favorites—very intriguing, thought-provoking, and moving. I will have to mull it over for some time to come. Thank you.
I’m sorry, Alex, that this is a little off topic.
I love the dialogue here but I am amazed at how some of what you write is misunderstood and nothing even close to what your article or writing was saying.
Do you think people read your writing and decide for themselves what they think you meant, or is it it just an argumentative nature on their part?
For example: Where in this article is there even a hint of you saying that another person has to expect a victim to forgive? It’s just bizarre to me where this even comes from.
I know I’m not being biased but sometimes I just read the comments and think, “He didn’t even remotely write that or even close to it.” Perhaps it’s just how they see it, but whatever the case I love your blog.
“Forgiveness” is not something anyone owes to someone who wronged them. It is something that the person who committed the wrong is required to seek. I do not forgive those who do not ask it of me. I do move past the incident, but I also do not forget the harm done to me, nor do I trust that person again.
On the other hand, those who do ask for forgiveness, acknowledge what they did, listen to the impact their actions had on me, and are genuinely sorry receive the forgiveness instantly, and we start over again on our relationship. I give that forgiveness with great joy.
Sadly, I can count on the fingers of one hand the few of the large number of bullies I have had to deal with. Few are big enough people to acknowledge the harm they did deliberately. Perhaps they never move to the maturity level where they choose to quit doing that harm to others.
Thank you for including in your writing about the baby picture and the elderly man. I have worked exclusively with the elderly for a bit over 15 years now. And I have to tell you that there are so many times that I hear from them about things that have been said to them from much younger people, hurtful things. I really never know what to say to even try to explain why this happens to them. Your message certainly gives me a new understanding of why people do what they do, say the hurtful things they say. It doesn’t excuse it, but I understand it better. Thank you.
This is an interesting post. Although I was not bullied as a child (grew up in India) I have experienced bullying at work by senior colleagues and bosses. Would you please do a post on that topic? I have felt that there must be something wrong with me for being bullied and that I invited it. It would be interesting to find out how people respond when they are bullied and have no control over the situation. For me at least it resulted in loss of self-confidence and panic attacks. Your blog as always is very informative and I look forward to your posts.
I love this blog. It’s the only one I have with a widget on my homepage. The title of this article has been there, beckoning me to come and partake, but I held off until I had real time to savor what you had to say. Likewise, I find the comments both thoughtful and thought-provoking. I’m happy to have found you through a NYTimes comment.
This particular article was timely for me. I’ve found myself abstracting people who hold a world view which I believe is materialistic and shallow. But I now think that abstracting itself is a very shallow attitude. Whenever we say, “they,” “them,” or other such classifying of individuals, we are already in trouble. “You people” or “you Democrats,” “you Christians” and such is another clue that we are abstracting. Linguistically, those types of statements give a clear signal that we are stepping over a line toward behaviour we wish to avoid. So I would say abstracting and judging go hand in hand and encourage bullying and other unsavory actions.
Thanks again for this blog.
Good work! Keep it up.
But what is the root cause of cruelty? Abstractions makes it easier to inflict cruelty, but what is the cause? There are good abstractions also like, say, “doctor,” a spiritual guru, a writer, as in oh! that person is a “….”. You call it abstraction, others have called it labeling, bracketing, etc.
i was looking forward to seeing your views on root cause of cruelty. Cruel behavior in animals (once i saw a baby chimp being defragmented by other grown up chimps and eaten alive—is that cruelty?)
A comment—or addendum—of my own. It occurs to me we often abstract others in a positive direction as well: that is, we elevate in our minds others who hold important positions into something superior to everyone else, including ourselves (inevitably and simultaneously abstracting ourselves, in comparison, into something less). We do this with celebrities especially. To give full play to the humanity of others and to treat everyone with equal amounts of compassion, I think we need to be on guard against abstracting people in a positive direction as well as a negative one.
After all, everyone eats, sleeps, and passes the same gas. 😉
Re: Julia’s question:
In my opinion forgiveness is not a burden on the victim; rather it is choice that leads to inner freedom. Having experienced abuse early in life, the scars for the longest time were like a ball-n-chain on my ankles. But forgiving for me has been like a declaration of independence. I decided to stop being a victim. Holding onto the anger over the injustice kept me captive in the cycle of victim/victimizer.
The other thing about forgiveness is that it does not mean the abuser is allowed back into the circle of trust. Some types of betrayals/victimizing create breaches that will not be made whole again. What bothers me is that the “popular” interpretation of forgiveness is that the relationship reverts back as though nothing has happened. No, I do not subscribe to that approach at all. Forgiveness for me releases the negative energy that I have been holding onto, thus stopping me from using it to reinforce the abuse. It allows me to move on. I am still free not to let the person who has behaved unjustly to me back in just because I have forgiven him/her. It totally depends on the nature of the injustice—after all, trust needs to be earned not bestowed on someone without deliberation—that would be irresponsible of me. I owe it to myself to protect myself from people whose behavior is injurious to my well being.
Hope that helps.
And Alex thank you for your posts.
Interesting discussion on a worthy topic. Timothy Findley wrote that cruelty is the failure of the imagination. I just throw that into the pot—but it does fit nicely with your abstraction theory—perhaps the problem with abstraction is a matter of degree?
I tend to disagree that all bullies are unhappy—I have not personally been bullied much, but I have seen that many bullies are happy, secure and strong—maybe they need some kind of reality check or limits that are lacking in their lives.
I knew a child in grade 2 who got bullied, and one of her classmates had the emotional strength to stand up and oppose it—I had such respect and admiration for this child—and indeed he has grown up to be a worthy human being. Maybe it is a worthwhile question to ask—where to people such as him find the strength? I know it bothers me that in school I did not stand up for the victims.
Just some thoughts.
What you see as outward happiness, security, and strength in bullies is only their facade at creating an illusion to cover up their feelings of a lack of love coming and going in their lives, a lack of self-worth outside being able to physically oppress physically weaker individuals, and a deep lack on confidence in their own physical prowess against a physically equal opponent.
In 35 years of martial arts practice I have seen very few bullies stay the course of training once their present physical limitations were defined as very limited. Bullies are to be pitied for their weakness in humanity and their inner torment from lacking love in their life.
The classmate who stood up for his fellow classmate being bullied was aware how wrong the situation was and that he possessed the martial arts courage of standing up to this oppressor. If he didn’t feel confident he could be victorious he was confident that he could make a statement to the bully that his actions were unacceptable and would be challenged with force. He was blessed with innate courage. This type of courage is more present in some than in others, but through training can be brought out in anyone.
Happiness is harmony and love through humanity.
I agree with susan*s and suspect we miss something important if we fail to recognize that bullying does not necessarily come from feelings of unhappiness. Bullies are usually people who have the power to impose the way they see the world on others. This could be the group of kids who tried to humiliate Pino (in Alex’s example), but it is also what happens when, in any forum, people rely on the like-minded judgment of others to exclude different viewpoints. It’s the tendency to look for safety in a crowd (whether the crowd is actively bullying or being passive in the face of bullying) that is, it seems to me, the underlying problem. I have no doubt that the kind of bullies Greg has seen are covering up their underlying insecurity. That IS the purpose of bullying. But part of what happens when covering up of insecurity is done as a group is that individuals can escape their insecurity and feel “happy.”
I also agree that cruelty is a failure of imagination. But banding together with others who share this failure makes it “okay,” something that doesn’t require attention and effort. Imagine how different the picture would look, for instance, if we lived in a society that required us to question our judgments or examine our actions in light of what we say we believe.
Thanks for your input. As I read all the comments by other readers I am gaining more insight into why bullying happens. I would just like to add that bullies that I have come across were seemingly happy, secure people who had power and enjoyed using that power to destroy others. I agree with RDP’s comments on this. While most bullies maybe unhappy and insecure people, bullies can also be normal happy people who enjoy power.
My only power in my situation was to not accept their bullying any further and walk away from my job and keep my sanity.
One of the most powerful articles I have ever read. It gave meaning to the “why” I ask myself every day regarding the cruelty I hear and read about every day and just don’t understand. I only wish I could change the thinking of every world leader together in the blink of an eye, or maybe I shall sit down and send them a letter and include this article. Thank you. I will just do my thing, one person at a time as always I guess. Maybe I can’t change the world, but maybe a tiny, tiny piece of it…thank you.
This post and the whole idea behind the “spirit of abstraction” has fed my thinking ever since I originally read it. In fact, it seems as though it has shifted the way I’m interpreting stories I’ve been reading in the media and on blogs. I guess it confirms what I have always believed idealistically, and has made those beliefs seem more tangible and real.
I’ve always believed that most conflicts can at the very least lessen in intensity if both parties are able to humanize the other. I see just how crucial it is both on a personal level and on a more global level. To me it is THE KEY to any kind of peace…recognizing that the person on the other end of a conflict is a living breathing feeling hurting human being becoming…..? How can one remain aloof and defensive if one opens up to seeing another in this light? Once empathy kicks in, a shift automatically happens in the head.
Not that I’m saying its easy! That would be naive. But, I hold onto the belief that its possible
PS. Great comments here, too. What a wonderful dialogue. As far as how people interpret your posts? What I have found through blogging is that I could write the most personal piece and somehow I manage to hit a chord in another person. We read from where we sit and where we are in our life journey. Often their comments allow me to see what I’ve written through the eyes of another. I love that whole process!
I meant to ask you…Have you read Jean Vanier’s On Becoming Human? I loved that book, and I believe the message fits beautifully with your post.
Cruelty can hurt, but in my case, having had to don a ”dunce cap”on my head for a full day at school [4th grade] made me resolve that never again in my life would I be called a dunce again, and this small promise I made to myself drove me to excel in school from thereon. I DO HOWEVER AGREE WITH YOU, THAT CRUELTY TO ANY LIVING CREATURE IS UNCALLED FOR.
[Ahimsa in thought, word, and deed]
“…that if he did suffer frequently in that way that rather than scarring him it blossomed in him a special sense of empathy…”
That is how it turned out for me.
A good read—thanx.
Alex, I’ve been following this thread as people bring more to your original entry. I’m still new to your blog, but this has clearly touched a wide range of readers. I hope it keeps on spinning itself out into the world…it’s causing more people to think about their behavior to others, about intervening to stop cruelty when we see it—about truly LOOKING at other people as individuals rather than part of an abstraction.
Thank you for starting this conversation.
(I’m also curious—is this the biggest response you’ve gotten on a topic? It feels huge from here!)
New here, found through a NYTimes comment you made. Your post and most of the comments here have reminded me of my father’s stories of being bullied and how he reacted, but they have especially reminded me of things my mother taught me.
My mother absolutely lived (as far as I could tell, and in many ways I worshiped her) a life of non-abstraction. Though dirt poor when I was a youngster, our dirt was a tiny bit richer than others and I had a sense of being better off. My mother would carefully explain to me that due to my father’s hard work, I was a little better off materially and that meant that I was bound to share what I had with others less well off.
She also made it very, very clear that if I ever acted “better” than those around me, I’d be the one suffering, not them.
Then we moved to town, and I was the lowest of the lowest. I managed to get by and grew up not suffering too much, except questioning my judgment and intelligence. Finally, I’m over that too.
While I wave and smile at my mailman, it’s the garbage pickup people that I worried about. Frankly, they come by way too early in the morning for me to smile at them often, but I wondered how they managed to do what they did with the heat where I live and the stench of the garbage cans. At first my husband laughed at my suggestion that we should wash our cans out occasionally. Then, he said… yeah, you’re right, acknowledging the sickening smell when we put trash in an empty can.
Then one evening, when the forecast was for record-breaking heat the next day, I put a disposable cooler with iced-down bottles of water on top of the cans that evening. Honestly, I wouldn’t have done this if I hadn’t had the ice, bottled water and cooler on hand. The next day, I noticed that our empty cans were not on the street, but returned to our backyard.
Now don’t give me any kudos for thinking of doing this. Though I genuinely felt sorry for the men doing this job at minimum wage, they were still very abstract to me. It was just a smidgeon of my mother’s teachings surfacing.
Since then, the garbage pick-up schedule has changed a bit and I have had the opportunity wave and smile at the men and women—yes, women work these details too—who make my life so much easier. I don’t leave cold drinks every week and they don’t expect it. But the great thing that does happen every time I see them is that we both wave and smile. They don’t abstract me as “rich” and unappreciative anymore either.
Also, as a result of getting “know” our garbage men, we’ve become a bit more responsible for our trash. Our town has a very liberal pick-up policy—you put it out there, they’ll pick it up. Now that we’ve come to know these people, my husband feels it is important that he take responsibility for items that won’t fit in the cans. He makes sure he is there to help them toss whatever junk we’ve decided to rid ourselves of into the truck with them. It is, I think, a sign of respect that the garbage men allow him to help them.
I realize that I’m writing about a very small understanding between just a few people. But, since understanding how meaningful a seemingly small recognition of one’s worth and humanity can accomplish I have tried to change the way I behave in more day-to-day interactions with people I don’t really know.
I am still a spoiled brat and through trying to be realistic, I think that whatever behavior gets the best outcome for me is worth doing…but I have learned that is often a smile, a wave, an acknowledgment of another’s plight in life, ie, humanity.
What I have selfishly learned is that I do not gain when another is degraded, by whatever means.
Perhaps this type of understanding is not the type of thing you are proposing, but…I hope the people I deal with understand that our happiness, fulfillment, pleasure, and contentment depend on how we deal with each other and that we cannot gain at another’s expense.
I received a mailing I thought you might be interested in, as the topic is Why We Are All Bullies and Why We Don’t Have To Be.
But when I came back here to share this link with you, I got the gift of seeing Donna’s post, which made me happy as I, too have early morning interaction with sanitation workers. I regard them as heroes in our midst. And every sweltering morning that one of these workers looks over to see if I’m looking out my window and, if I am, waves to me, I think: I am in awe of the human spirit. Why aren’t we asking to hear what these people could tell us? No one else I know seems to think these folks could offer anything worthwhile when it comes time to discuss, for instance, what the municipality ‘s priorities should be. But I do. Thanks to Donna for sharing. And thank you so much, Alex, for having opened this portal to serendipity! It’s a gift that keeps giving!
The spirit of abstraction is the most insidious evil in our culture, rampant in capitalist America. We should all be revolted by the ubiquitous concept of “Human Capital.” In business organizations, it is considered normal and right to describe people in utilitarian terms, as abstractions based on functions—not human beings, but rather, human resources to be exploited. The worst cruelties eventually flow forth from that kind of thinking. If we are ever to build a compassionate, loving world, we must value the human person first and foremost.
Lovely piece and just what I needed to read today. Thanks.
I find your take on forgiveness sad but actually refreshing. I appreciate your candor.
I’ve always tended to forgive too easily. And it doesn’t take a so-called bully to inflict real harm. Sometimes it’s simply a friend or loved one, one who is too self centered to see past his or her actions.
This is a lovely blog. I hope to read future entries and post more as well. Perhaps it might just help in the healing process.
When I picked up the dead little kitten this morning, I wasn’t angry at the driver who hit him with his car. I only wanted to remove the cruel image of his lifeless body from the side of a busy roadway. After notifying the local animal shelters so they could answer any inquiries about the missing grey tabby, my thoughts went to wishing I could thank the woman who slowed down for me, allowing me to pick him up safely.
By paying more attention with less distractions, driving slower and more carefully can save lives of all types of animals, including humans. It is cruel to think your time is worth more than the life of another living being.
Since other people are giving book suggestions, I’ll give mine: Anna Maravelas: How to Reduce Workplace Conflict and Stress. I saw it in the work library when I was having issues, and walked out with it expecting to return it the next day. Kept it in my drawer, gave it to friends, memorized it. Finally admitted my “theft” to the librarian and bought the library a new copy.
She talks about the cause of a disrespectful atmosphere as: low energy and an attempt to pump people up. I can’t do it justice right now, but someone wisely used the word cycles: the core of the book contrasts “cycles of contempt” with “cycles of courage.”
[…] Mostly people abstract others in order to dehumanize them, as I discussed in an earlier post, The True Cause Of Cruelty. But we can abstract someone into something positive when it suits us as well—something […]
[…] I wrote in an earlier post, The True Cause Of Cruelty, for me seventh grade was a disaster. I was persecuted by anti-Semites and so traumatized that my […]
[…] their reasons, stir up the public, dehumanize the enemy (as I wrote about in an earlier post, The True Cause Of Cruelty), and send out their forces. The number of people actually responsible for the decision to go to […]
It’s often been my experience that doctors abstract patients, to everyone’s detriment. In a way, who can blame them—they’re trying to get important work done in a span of 15 minutes. And sometimes when they’ve never met us before.
Once I made an appointment with a new doctor for a chronic condition. I just went with who my insurance gave me. But I did some research on him beforehand and discovered that he’s from the same city as me. I wondered if we might like the same teams, so I purposely wore a team sweatshirt to my first appointment, but didn’t bring it up.
Turns out I was right—we spent part of the appointment talking about our hometown, and how the team was doing. I have been seeing this doctor for years and we have a great relationship. It’s been such a beneficial experience to see him as more than the doctor role he plays, and not to approach these ongoing appointments with total dread.
I’ve tried getting to know other doctors too, and not all of them seem interested.
[…] and a gentleness that I can only strive for. A few weeks back, he posted an article called “The True Cause of Cruelty,” which he describes thusly: It’s called the spirit of abstraction, a term originally coined by […]
Callous, stupid, willfully ignorant staff at major urban hospitals do nothing to further the cause of sympathy and good will. Some people should examine their own conduct and track record before they undertake to improve the world.
I love this post, especially the part about seeing our spouses as separate from ourselves. I wonder if you have ever listened to a song by Alanis Morrisette called You Owe Me Nothing in Return? We project our expectations and in doing so try to own our partners.
As a former child and adolescent psychiatrist I was always dismayed by the way parents failed to see their children as entities unto themselves. It’s almost as if children were viewed as property to be owned. The cruelty that results is so damaging.
Thank you for your insightful words and I plan to integrate them into my practice of living.
This is really good. Unfortunately I’m beginning to see a variation of this in the medical profession, and I saw some of it in the military, and I read about happening to police officers too. The “spirit of abstraction” makes those of us who aren’t in the profession a “patient” or a “civilian.”
I’m a medical assisting student, by the way, who is in my last term of schooling. This involves 180 externship hours. I have 160 completed. Those 160 hours have been eye-opening.
It seems that any profession that deals with the public—especially the professions that see these people at their worst—creates an “us and them” mentality. I’m guessing it’s a self-defense mechanism to detach from what’s happening to these people. It helps create separation and duality. As a Reiki teacher/practitioner, I must do my best to not forget that my patients are humans, as I am, and to stay connected as best as I can, even with the difficult ones. It’s one aspect of staying compassionate. At the same time, I am learning to separate my empathy from my compassion, so I don’t have to intimately experience what they might be dealing with.
Externship is teaching me infinitely more beyond the mechanics I learned in school.
Great post. I was bullied as a child. My older sister bullied me, then when we moved, I was bullied by what seemed to be the entire 7th grade (new kid syndrome). Bulimia ensued. Over 30 years fighting that disease, in therapy I learned that my sister was jealous of me (the “good kid,” better grades in school, the quiet one, she was the loudmouth). I changed myself, no longer shy. I did move to California and experienced a few years of success, but let my first husband spend my life savings. And I am once again, broke and depressed.
Because my trauma started in that awkward, adolescence age, I am extremely attuned to kids in that phase and my heart goes out to them. In an effort to reach out and get out of my head, I am a volunteer teacher for a program called “Character Counts.” Last month our pillar was RESPECT.
We also discussed bullying…and I told the young children about my own experiences (watered down, and simplified, they are only 1st thru 4th graders). Volunteer work is good, but does not pay the bills. It’s easy to help others, but somehow I find it nearly impossible to help myself.
A friend of mine committed suicide, and I wonder if I could have helped her by telling her that I was bullied and overcame the fears. But did I? My fears still prevent me from living FULLY, but I try to force myself to move forward…”Bash on regardless”—Winston Churchill.
I feel a glimmer of hope, I feel a weak magnetic pull to change my life and be the person I want to be… but my former self (the shy kid) feels the need to shelter my current self (a 48-yr-old woman). Sigh.
Depression nags me. Maybe I got married hastily to find someone to take care of me, and “save me” from being my worst enemy? Unhealthy marriage—unhappy marriage. June 2008 got married; his two kids hated me instantly.
November 2008 his ex-wife assaulted me, and our marriage died. She was a big bully, and I stopped living from that point forward. His passive state, to stand by and do nothing, changed how I view him. I have no love for a coward. Someone who is spineless. But am I a now a coward?
For past 2 years I work on forgiving him, her, the kids. Easily forgave the kids, the ex-wife, but stop short of outwardly forgiving the husband. Do not want to be with him. Afraid that if I forgive him, he will mistakenly assume I love him again. I do not. The love is gone. We are distant room-mates, each with our own room. Am I being cruel for staying in this? Do I allow my inner bully to control my actions? Fear of being single, and no health benefits prevent me from packing up a U-Haul and leaving.
Where should I go? I want to go, but where? Sigh. This feels like a long, drawn out, cruel fate. The economy is cruel, and I do not want to be alone to duke it out with my fear of debt, fear of being poor, fear of being homeless, fear of having no health benefits… so here I sit. Pondering how to be my own hero. Where can I find my super-powers? Will I be happy if I stopped living in a dead marriage? My 20-year-old self was fearless. My life was full of adventure (skydiving, white water rafting). Now older, I am afraid of leaving. Unemployed, my savings gone, this life I live is not living. Basic shelter, food. No love. This is cruel.
If I left him, that would be cruel.
If I stay, it would be cruel to myself, not living my authentic life.
A recent visit to a therapist: she wanted to put labels on me. She had a laundry list of pills she wanted me to take. She did not “see” me. She saw a patient, among a calendar full of patients… I am an abstract to her, not Barb. She sees yet one more object that can be “fixed” by dishing out pills. I refused, and stopped seeing her. I will not be stuck into one group, so that I am just filed away with a label.
Yet here I am, still fighting with an inner bully.
[…] they could be capable of any good. We tend to abstract those who harm us, as I wrote about in The True Cause Of Cruelty, diminishing them from full-fledged human beings into merely “our offenders.” This […]
[…] but explain this desire to ourselves in a way that justifies it (as I wrote in a previous post, The True Cause Of Cruelty, we do the same thing in order to go to war). Certainly protecting ourselves from dangerous […]
That’s the first time I ever heard those things connected—feeling like an outsider and also being very empathetic. Because I identify with both.
Even in the home I grew up in with my parents and brother and sister I felt like a misfit, a totally pathetic stupid ugly THING that wasn’t accepted by anyone, not liked by anyone. I was always the last one chosen for teams or Red Rover games. It was so utterly humiliating standing there—forced to admit in front of everyone that I was the last person anyone would want to be with. I felt ugly and stupid.
I’ve recently been scanning a lot of old family photos to share and just to have copies that won’t get lost. I’m in a fair number of them—a child from these periods of time when I was feeling so very unloved and UGLY and AWKWARD.
I’ve been surprised/amazed to find (this is probably the first time I ever really looked at them objectively) I was not ugly, I was actually nice looking and could have been really cute if my mother hadn’t tortured my hair with her incessant need to make it curly and thus me like an idiot, at least in my mind.
My entire life I have spent convinced I was ugly and now, at the age of 61 I find that among all the other lies my life consists of—I find I wasted my life hiding, feeling insecure, putting up with abusive relationships because I just knew I was ugly, something like what people look away from because its too gross for words.
Should i be happy I wasn’t ugly or should I be sad I spent my life living this lie?
Sorry, I got so lost in the memory of myself and how ugly I felt i forgot what I started to write. The connection between feeling like an outsider and empathy. Because I do have a great deal of empathy for others—which hasn’t always been the best thing for me either. I came to the defense of someone being “talked about” loud enough so the target hears but it’s all said like no one knows she hears, not sure why people do that but anyway, I felt compelled to suggest merely “Why don’t you leave her alone?” It was a question and a suggestion, not yelled and not in a threatening manner. Within seconds I was thrown to the floor of the bus and punched and beaten and my things were stolen from me and the bus driver threw me off for being a troublemaker.
So though I have, most often, a great deal of empathy, its not been in my best interests to be.
I say MOST OFTEN I have empathy because I’m not a saint by any means and there are some things for which I have no sympathy, such as someone who has nothing and “suffers” and as a result lives a life of irresponsibility expecting and demanding handouts. I have no sympathy for that kind of person whatsoever. But almost always I do, just like I said, not a saint and I can be cool and disinterested as well.
Just reading through some old posts and thought I’d add the unusual book Heart Transplant by Andrew Vachss to the discussion. A former social worker, it is Vachss’ contention that most societal ills stem from our propensity to bully, and it is that tendency which needs pruning.
I could not agree more.
Before the people of Earth can experience world peace they will need to understand the origin of internal dialog. All people, no matter where they are from first think, then act on their thoughts.
What is the origin of internal dialog?
[…] remain on guard against the impulse to label people. We tend to abstract others into functions and labels for a variety of reasons. But our mail carrier doesn’t just deliver […]
[…] remain on guard against the impulse to label people. We tend to abstract others into functions and labels for a variety of reasons. But our mail carrier doesn’t just deliver our […]
[…] remain on guard against the impulse to label people. We tend to abstract others into functions and labels for a variety of reasons. But our mail carrier doesn’t just deliver our […]
Timely and informative Alex, thank you. I came across your post as I was researching reasons for cruelty. From the time I was 5 or so I was cruel to others (on occasion). I have no idea why I was that way. I do know I was terrified of loosing control of any given situation. My behavior didn’t go without consequence however, the guilt was so incredibly overwhelming, I absolutely had to stop. In time I did but then developed self-destructive behaviors. I hate the pain I caused others. I also see my self-destructive patterns serve no good purpose for me or or those I love. I’m just trying to get a handle on the “whys” so I can make change.
You have helped me get some insight on the subject though I have a ways to go. Thank you again.
It is a very good topic that you choose. I think you should call it “The Search for Empathy”… Thank you very much for your thoughts. You are right saying that we should try to understand others rather than judge them.
[…] Mostly people abstract others in order to dehumanize them, as I discussed in an earlier post, The True Cause Of Cruelty. But we can abstract someone into something positive when it suits us as well—something from […]
[…] I wrote in an earlier post, The True Cause Of Cruelty, for me seventh grade was a disaster. I was persecuted by anti-Semites and so traumatized that my […]
This is a horrible article, nothing but sympathy for the terrible people of this world, you just don’t GET IT do you? Why should victims think of their bullies as human beings, they are not, they are evil people and deserve to die horribly. And then you compare the victims to Hitler, real classy. Were they thinking of my life when they were tormenting me for their own amusement? No! Then why the hell should I think of their pathetic lives, I hope they have terrible lives, I hope their parents beat them mercilessly and that it scared them forever, because they are evil pieces of garbage. If on the other hand you manage not to bully in your life, I have all the sympathies in the world for you, but THEY ARE BULLIES! Anyone caught bullying should be killed instantly.
The true cause of cruelty. But is it cruel if those being treated “cruelly” are agreeing to be treated with cruelty? My wife has dived full on into New Age philosophy and is now taking channeling classes. She is paying top dollar to hear from gurus who channel spirits, mother god, archangels, and spirit guides who want to contact her personally. These gurus are telling her that all the abuse she suffered as a child which includes: physical, sexual, and emotional was not cruelty. It was not cruelty because she actually agreed to it before she reincarnated into her current body. The gurus and evidently a host of spiritual beings are all in agreement. Instead of choosing a life full of healthy loving relationships my wife chose to be abused and neglected starting at an early age. I am sickened that such people would tell my wife this. Most are licensed psychologists or therapists. She has been trying to fight her way out of her state of mind for years, but since seeing these gurus (almost all of them women) she has given up and is trying to accept her fate because she probably chose to live a life in which she was abused often and readily. So, Alex, what do you say about this? I see these peoples’ beliefs as a cause for further cruelty amongst people. When people believe they have chose a life of misery and abuse, what reason is there for them to stand up against cruelty and hate? The answer there is none if you believe such lies. I would love to hear from you, Alex. I know this is an old article but I’d love to hear from you. My current life situation depends on it. Thank you.