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Cruelty: A Book About Us
Cruelty is like pornography; we know it when we see it, we can be equally repulsed by and
attracted to it. It is dazzlingly difficult to talk about. Cruelty: A Book About Us, though grounded in
multiple scholarly disciplines, invites honesty about our personal and observed experiences, guides
us in investigating the troublesomeness of the topic, offers a starting answer to what cruelty is, why
that discovery matters, and walks us into continuing the conversation together. Cruelty is part of our
personal, public, national, and global conversations now as much as ever—if not more so--
from playgrounds to online bullying, by children and adults, from torture, human
trafficking, genocides, serial killers, animal cruelty—sanctioned and illicit—and mass hatred directed
to or experienced by any species.
Cruelty’s relevance in each of our lives makes it overwhelming to think too hard or long
about without feeling helpless, angry, or depressed. This demands strategic writing and deliberate
conversational strategies for discoveries because opposite our necessary faith in humanity are
answers to why and where cruelty’s perverted and inexplicable power comes from. This
conversation urges us to acknowledge the importance of giving this peculiar kind of wrong our
dedicated attention: recognizing that it stands in a remarkable relationship to one of our most prized
virtues—our humanity. By confronting the categories “cruelty” describes, we can come to
understand more deeply what threatens the “good” of humanity, what it takes for a creature to
flourish, and ways to cultivate that flourishing.
Despite cruelty’s ubiquitous presence, most scholars and practitioners have remained
understandably hands off of this intimidating crux between humanity and inhumanity. I attempt to
draw from three decades of scholarly and informal conversations. If we can speak together about
this mostly inhuman topic, we can better understand our own humanity and how to avoid, respond
to, and recover from experiences of inhumanity. Readers should come away from the book able to
identify instances of cruelty more accurately, better equipped to explain its impact, and, better able
to avoid making their own contribution to its ubiquity. Looking at “humanity” through the lens of
“cruelty,” is simultaneously necessary, un-intellectualizable and emotionally intractable.
I ask earnestly, with transdisciplinary breadth, “What is cruelty?” The payoff is twofold.
Raimond Gaita sums it up: “…humankind understands itself partly by the crimes it knows itself to
be capable of.” First, naming and defining such trespasses has its own special healing power.
Second, studying cruelty teaches us more about the virtue of humanity. “Humanity” has ripened
in the vaults of academia for millennia. In contrast, the perversion of human flourishing, cruelty,
has been seriously neglected. Cruelty and humanity are partner concepts that are so often used it
seems as though their relationship must be blatantly obvious in both scholarly and non-scholarly
work. Not so.
Scholarly investigations into cruelty are sparse, inconsistent, and rarely in conversation
with each other. Unlike most issues in ethics, psychology, law, education, in which the
maturity of a concept is forged by competing views and grown strong from testing, theorizings
about cruelty have largely remained siloed, neither maturing nor dying. In the humanities and
social sciences direct treatments of cruelty rarely exceed a paragraph or two. Even then,
cruelty is almost never the subject of conversation, disagreement, or elaboration. Therefore,
both academia and the general public are deprived of the maturation of thoughts about
cruelty implicitly promised to us by academic commitment. This deprivation contrasts
strikingly with the extraordinarily diverse academic attention devoted to the concepts of
Eudaimonia, or happiness, human flourishing, and the moral importance of being human.
I aim to re-engage our conversations about what we really mean when, instead of calling
something like an act of bullying “bad,” a mean comment “rude,” or an incidence of torture
“illegal,” we call each “cruel” or “inhuman”--when we want to express that something about the
act or actor has gone worse than bad, worse than wrong, or beyond illegal.
This book offers and makes accessible and relevant scholarly work in the area, and
explores artistic, literary expressions, and confessions in order to deepen our insight into why
such acts and actors trouble our usual ways of articulating wrongness, and how, finally, we
might rethink what we mean when we say they violate a shared, but implicit, understanding of
Our moral valence of “humanity” is also shadowed by a kind of schizophrenia
concerning how we belong, which for many of us confuses what we hold dear about being
human: the conviction that our moral relevance is rooted in some bent towards goodness. In
the wake of thinkers like Paul Bloom, we can’t assume empathy is a redemptive capacity. This
book’s take on cruelty challenges the assumption that the core of humanity must be either
good or bad, that a lack of humanity is defined by a lack of empathy or compassion, and that
the safety net that legal or punitive systems are capable of shaping our behaviors into the
kind of expected “good” that our collective use of “humanity” implies.
Interrogating cruelty makes visible that human moral relevance is rooted in a
dynamic interaction between our capacity to learn and the activating of our perceptiveness in
the presence of another living being + our awareness of our ignorance of the nature and
needs of another living being (an inherent vulnerability), and our compulsion to be responsive
to the expressions of harm or need of another living being. This proves to be a subtle but
possibly alarming shift from conventions in philosophy, psychology, law, and even from
literature and art.
Upshot: we are fundamentally creatures of learning; our mechanism of existence is a
perpetual deficit of knowledge: therefore, our “humanity” involves not just our capacity to
respond to other living beings, but also our fundamental need to. We must value our
ignorance to nurture one of the aspects that defines us. In acknowledging that, we nurture
the capacity to be responsible to others—irrespective of cultural, conventional, or ethical
divides: the capacity to learn what makes another sentient being (human or non-human)
flourish and the compulsion to be responsive to their expressions of themselves. Then we can
begin to answer the question of how we belong in the world.
I offer a formula for understanding what about any act makes it “cruel,” and to refine
questions lurking in conversations about “inhumanity” concerning our needs and
assumptions about human moral relevance.
The Lost Cantos of The Ouroboros Caves2015
Awards and Recognition
- Mellon Foundation Grant
- Franklin Foundation Grant