The idea of cruelty, for most readers, calls to mind actions or behaviors that inflict suffering in ways that are especially coldhearted, depraved, or indifferent. Acts or words considered cruel seem to go beyond what is merely unkind or simply violent in a way that harms the victim irreparably. Cruelty can be physical or mental; it can be inflicted upon human beings or upon animals; it can take the form of large-scale horrors such as the Holocaust or the September 11, 2001, destruction of the World Trade Center; or it can involve only two people, as in cases of domestic abuse. The binding factor in all of these cases is the intent of the perpetrator. To willfully hurt others and to feel indifferent at the suffering of one’s fellow human beings, to enjoy or delight in the infliction of pain—these are acts of cruelty.
Acts of cruelty such as torture, domestic abuse, terrorism, and genocide profoundly alter the victims’ sense of the world, how it works, and their place in it. Perpetrators attempt to take away the victims’ humanity, to reduce them to an object in a way that simple violence does not. At first glance, the definition of cruelty might seem straightforward, but upon further consideration, determining what is cruel and what is not is not so easy. Seneca, a Roman philosopher from the first century, wrote that the factor that determines cruelty rests in the mind of the perpetrator in exacting punishment. Excessive punishment or torture was, for Seneca, the opposite of clemency, or mercy, and leaders should avoid it. Seneca wrote his treatise De Clementia to the Roman emperor Nero, to whom he was an adviser. He encouraged the cultivation of mercy in the emperor, in what was probably an attempt to move him away from the brutality of his predecessors. St. Augustine (354–430), one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity, went beyond Seneca’s theories and wrote of cruelty as a reflexive evil that destroys its inflicter and should be judged by its effect on him or her.
What is important here is that Augustine explored the connection between the body and the soul, understanding that cruelty goes beyond the physical pain it causes and alters the way both victim and victimizer see the world. In Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–74) relied heavily on Seneca’s work when he discussed cruelty, believing that “harshness of mind” in the inflicter of cruelty was the determining factor. For Thomas Aquinas, intention was all-important; in other words, an excessive punishment was certainly unjust, but not necessarily cruel. For Michel Montaigne, the French philosopher and essayist writing in the 16th century, intent was important, but it was not the only determining factor. Actions could be cruel in and of themselves even when allowed by law. For instance, many societies have allowed slavery, but as Montaigne pointed out, the fact that the practice is legal does not make it merciful.
Like St. Augustine, the 18th-century British philosopher John Locke focused on the effect cruelty has on the perpetrator. Even when the victims were animals and not human beings, Locke believed cruelty had a destructive effect on those who inflicted harm. If it seems that much philosophical thought on cruelty attempts to define it, perhaps that is because one of the central philosophical questions on the topic has to do with whether or not cruelty is ever justified. In order to justify (or to condemn) cruelty, it must first be defined. For instance, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States in World War II was without question devastating and brutal, and many noncombatants, including children, were seriously injured and killed. Whether or not we are willing to call that action cruel, however, seems to have to do with whether or not it was justified. Psychologists, however, have argued that in the minds of many perpetrators of violence, any action may be justified. Roy Baumeister, for instance, argues that most acts of violence result from mutual, escalating provocations and grievances.
This leads to a rationalization in the mind of the victimizer. For instance, people often feel victimized by other groups and convince themselves they are acting out of a justified need for a role reversal. Rapists, for instance, often claim to have been enacting a kind of revenge against all women (166). Incredibly, the Ku Klax Klan often claimed they were acting out of revenge when they burned down homes, raped black women, and lynched black men throughout the 20th century. These acts, they claimed, were in retaliation against freed slaves who had disrupted the system of white superiority and complacency (166–167). Ideology is often another justification for violence and cruelty. Even seemingly good, ordinary people who have convinced themselves they are “fighting for a good cause” have engaged in despicable acts of cruelty. The Crusades, for instance, beginning in the 1100s, were led by soldiers who believed they were heeding the pope’s call to recapture the Holy Land. In general, these were ordinary men who believed they were serving their God, but they participated in the vast slaughter of innocent human beings and barbaric acts of brutality, such as burning people alive and mutilating and torturing noncombatants.
In the Ukraine in the mid-20th century, soldiers under the orders of Joseph Stalin systematically confiscated the food of peasant farmers and their families all in the name of the “universal triumph of communism” (Baumeister 179). Ultimately, 11 million starved to death—a torturous, brutal way to die. But these soldiers, acting in the sway of an ideology, believed, or forced themselves to believe, that the ends justified the means. Indeed, many philosophers and psychologists would argue that driven by ideology, or in the pursuit of revenge, most human beings are capable of cruelty. In fact, two famous experiments seem to indicate that even being placed in a culture whereby such acts are acceptable and being given orders is enough for many ordinary people to cross the line. In 1963, the social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment that has come to be named for him. Participants were told to choose slips of paper from a hat, and they would be assigned either “teacher” or “learner.” The teacher would read word pairs out to the learner and then ask questions about what the learner remembered. When the learner made a mistake, the teacher was to administer an increasingly painful electric shock.
In reality, there were no actual shocks; all the slips said “teacher,” and the “learner” was played by an actor. Even when the learner asked to stop the experiment, 65 percent of the subjects went on to administer the most powerful shock: 450 volts. In the 1972 Stanford Prison Experiment, the psychologist Philip Zimbardo staged an experiment in which undergraduate volunteers took on the roles of “prisoner” and “guard” in a mock prison. The “guards” became so sadistic and the “prisoners” so emotionally traumatized that the experiment, planned for two weeks, was halted after six days. In both of these experiments, the victimizers focused not on the human beings on the receiving end of the cruelty, but on the rationales they had been given. Cruelty must necessarily turn human subjects into objects, and this transformation is the reason why the victims of cruelty experience such a disruption of their worldview. Victims of cruelty move from “life—to a kind of death” (Arnault 7). They feel they can never go back to the vision of life before. There can be no redemption, no happy ending.
While life may go on, the meaning of life is forever changed for them. Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is an excellent example of how cruelty disrupts meaning. The family who are murdered in the story do not resist their deaths; the moments in which they are taken into the woods and shot seem surreal. The grandmother refuses to comprehend what is happening around her, exhorting The Misfit to “Pray!” and insisting, beyond reason, that he would not kill an old lady. In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff endures cruelty throughout his life. He is, almost like a stray dog, brought home to Wuthering Heights by Mr. Earnshaw. Although he is fed and clothed, he is treated more as an animal than a human, with no one save Catherine encouraging him to have feelings. When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Heathcliff endures even greater cruelty at the hands of the sadistic Hindley. As he grows to adulthood, Heathcliff never establishes the human connections that would make it possible to be merciful. Instead, he learns that cruelty is the only way and turns that cruelty on Isabella, Hareton, Linton, and Cathy. Cruelty, and the evil that lurks behind it, has devastating consequences for both victims and victimizers.
Victimizers tend to lose their humanity, even as they force themselves to view their victims as something less than human. Victims, on the other hand, tend to enter a new, incomprehensible world, one in which they have no rights, no agency, no dignity, no humanity. Ultimately, although they may move past the cruelty physically and emotionally, they are unable to see the world the same way ever again.
See also Coetzee, J. M.: Waiting for the Barbarians; Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan: Hound of the Baskervill es; Frank, Anne: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl; Golding, William: Lord of the Flies; Hinton, S. E.: Outsiders, The; Orwell, George: Animal Farm; Poe, Edgar Allan: “Tell-Tale Heart, The”: Salinger, J. D.: Catcher in the Rye, The; Virgil: Aeneid, The; Williams, Tennessee: Streetcar Named Desire, A.