The True Cause Of Cruelty

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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.


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.


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?


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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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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