What causes a person to be intentionally cruel? Is it carelessness? A genetic predisposition involving a lack of empathy? A lack of proper nurturing? A culturally indoctrinated tendency?
The other night, I was watching a show called “Scared Straight“, in which young offenders and troubled youths visit hardened criminals in prison in order to get a taste of criminal reality. One the convicted felons said something that stuck with me because of its poignancy. He said, “Hurt people hurt people.”
There are so many ways to interpret this: I got hurt, so I’m going to hurt others. Pain is all I know, so what else can I give? I have so much pain, I have to get rid of it onto others. Others deserve to suffer because I did. I had no choice so why should anyone else? I don’t want to be alone in my hurt. I need to share it.
Desperation is the common thread.
Any feeling felt strongly enough is a feeling that imposes the desire to share it. When you are in love, you floats. You wish to shout from the mountain tops about your potently bursting feelings. The same thing happens when you are in pain, and perhaps, a potently bursting negative feeling deserves no less tribute. In any case, human beings have a social proclivity towards sharing feelings.
In the case of hatred, anger or violence, the emotion is often so horrible and powerful that the person feeling it wants to get rid of it, and since the emotion is so volatile, the expression of it tends to be as well. In addition, even if on some deep moral level a person knows that hurting others is wrong, the compulsion to eradicate the bad feelings, on a psychological level, is prevalent. The need to not feel intensely negative all the time overrides the need to walk a moral or ethical path.
In essence, I think it is very likely that the act of imposing pain on others might be merely symptomatic of overflowing negative emotions. Every person has a threshold for pain; the breaking point is when the dam of self control breaks and the pain floods out. I would go so far as to say this a survival mechanism we are born with.
Adaptationist thinking about physiological mechanisms, such as the heart, lungs, and immune system, is common in evolutionary biology. Evolutionary psychology applies the same thinking to psychology, arguing that the mind is a modular structure similar to that of the body with different modules having adapted to serve different functions. Evolutionary psychologists argue that much of human behaviour is the output of psychological adaptations that evolved to solve recurrent problems in human ancestral environments.
We are biologically programmed to survive. Psychologically, when a person feels fearful and hurt all the time (due to inappropriate neural networking, a person can feel threatened by even things and people that are no threat to them in reality), fight or flight syndrome kicks in and puts them in offensive mode.
To take this point further, if a child is born into an abusive life and learns nothing but abuse, pain, fear and intimidation, they will not only be conditioned to think that this type of feeling is normal (in other words, the nurture side of things conditions them to believe that this is the way things are), but they might also feel an even deeper conditioning based on the biological and social need to connect with others to share what they have experienced. In essence, if the method of connection is created in a chaotic mind, it often presents in a chaotic or harmful way. This is where is gets really interesting for me as a philosopher.
If human beings are deprived of meaningful social connection, studies have shown they tend to become hateful and violent, even insane. So in a way, inflicting, imposing or sharing their negative emotions on the world and those in it is a way of sustaining and connecting with what remains of their humanness. It is a (perhaps psychologically deviated) method of touching the spirituality of human being itself that in reality, a violently abused child, for instance, may have never actually experienced.
In life, I have little sympathy for people who choose to hurt others simply because they are in pain. But this does not stop me from wanting to understand why people deal with their pain by sloughing it off onto others.
I believe all overcompensations, psychological chaos, hyper-emotional states and unreasonable decisions are made due to an imbalance in the mind, caused either by bad nurturing or a lack of connection to nature. Without a good balance of both mother nature and nurture, ego is allowed to drive the bus, when it should be sitting at the back of it, forced to be quiet while the metaphorically and sometimes annoyingly cheerful possibilities of happy driving songs echo through the mind.
With the ego at the wheel, anything is possible. Without properly established boundaries, human empathy and natural connection, “anything” is usually pushed into the chaos of ubiquitous darkness. Without the emotional equipment necessary to build appropriate caring relationships, in the empty vacuum of the human soul, one will create something else. That something is typically highly emotional, as there is perhaps an even stronger emotional desire to be met, as it never was met properly, but emotional in a way that is inappropriate, hurtful or intentionally cruel. But again, underneath even the worst intentions is perhaps the simple human desire to be a part of something else: To share an experience with another. To connect.
To say that hurt people hurt people makes sense to me. But what of unhurt people who hurt people? How do we explain the fact that some people with great lives, great upbringings, lots of love and opportunities, in some cases, still seek to impose harm on others? What of all the hurtful games in society, the lying, the cheating, the bullying, media intimidation, idle gossip and voyeuristically bizarre reality television shows? Have our minds become bored with survival (as in developed countries, anyway, we have all our basic needs met), and thus, we need something else to occasionally push our minds into “fight or flight mode”, in order to feel alive?
I think it might be just that. Human beings are bored with the five-senses world and have pushed it into the heights and depths of depravity and debauchery out of boredom for something more. I believe that people lie to themselves about why they do what they do as a way to deny that they are in fact propagating the parts of themselves they do not wish to see, and further, to mask the fact that they could be much more if only they looked.
To avoid all sorts of pain, we hide behind lies as a way to avoid the fear of “the truth”, whatever that might be. We lie to hide nefarious intentions and perceived emotional insecurities and ineptitudes that we feel ashamed of and/or do not wish to face. But even without nefarious intentions behind self delusions and lying, there is insecurity. Insecurity is ego’s loud and brutish voice, which shouts to us in our weakest moments to act and react in ways that will have the greatest impact.
To lie is to hide inside of ego’s belligerent “right story”. To propagate the delusion of the importance of “me” is ego’s only purpose and it will fight to the death to maintain itself.
So, cruelty is perhaps rooted in ego’s need to survive and propagate, instead of in our “being”. But no matter what the reason, I find these types of behaviours self-mutilating. Facing the ugliness inside is not worse than lying about the fact that it’s there, in my opinion. Never mind the fact that our personal and subjective ideas about “the ugliness” we need to hide or lie about is in many cases the result of some ridiculous story that ego clings to out self-preserving desperation. Or, in the case of a person born into horrible circumstances, the “ugliness inside” was something imposed that is not truly us. Ego would have us believe otherwise, of course, but with right intention, any mind can be rewired. Every person can take the desire to be intentionally cruel and transform it into something ego cannot even touch, let alone understand.
“It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness”.**
* Confer, Easton, Fleischman, Goetz, Lewis, Perilloux & Buss, 2010; Buss, 2005; Durrant & Ellis, 2003; Pinker, 2002; Tooby & Cosmides, 2005
** The motto of the American Christopher Society (founded 1945), said by the Society to derive from ‘an ancient Chinese proverb’.
Image by Pierre Peetah @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.