The word 'cruelty' is often used as though it is synonymous with 'sadism.' As though the only cruel people in the world were those who drowned cats for fun when they were kids and then graduated to doing even worse to their fellow human beings as adults. The word cruel conjures up, for me, the lurid proceedings of police dramas (Luther is pretty good, but man, it's uncomfortable sometimes) and true crime stories; it's a word for serial killers and the psychopathic enforcers of drug gangs. Certainly it seems to imply that someone is getting pleasure from someone's pain and death.
But people can derive pleasure from the pain and the death of another without deriving pleasure from pain and death as such. And looking at myself and those around me and people throughout recorded history, I think that cruelty is often not the enjoyment of -anyone's- pain, but the enjoyment of a specific person's pain. We acknowledge as much when we look at things like the torturous murders James Byrd or Matthew Shepherd or Emmit Till. Hate can make people enjoy the pain of those they despise or fear or envy.
But that's not all. I think even more often cruelty is enabled only by people's ability to justify it, to convince themselves that another person deserves to suffer. But more than this I don't think it's merely 'enabled' by justification, but -created- by our judgment that someone else is worthy of being punished. We see someone as being 'bad,' and we want to see them suffer. I think we should take seriously the idea that lynch mobs felt fully justified in mutilating and murdering black men and boys not just out of simple race hatred but out of a (racist) feeling that their victims deserved it. People do not see themselves as cruel boys ripping the wings off flies, but as avenging angels, damning the wicked. Looking at our prisons today, how many horrors are met with a collective shrug and the sentiment 'they deserve it.' Indeed, Cameron Todd Willingham was almost certainly innocent of killing his family because -there was no arson at all- and people still say 'he was a bad guy who got what he deserved.'
And of course cruelty can simply be an unfeeling willingness to leave others to their fate. When society washes it's hands of the fate of the poor on the premise that 'they had their chance and blew it', that is cruel. It is cruelty by inaction.
Speaking socially and historically, cruelty of this sort is the way that society shows its contempt for underclasses and untouchable castes and keeps them in their place. It is the way that people enforce the social order.
Speaking personally and theologically, cruelty of this sort is the natural outgrowth of pride. It is our arrogance and self-satisfaction that allows us to consign other people to suffering. Within the Christian tradition, a rejection of pride necessitates a rejection of judgement -- that is why the Sermon on the Mount includes the injunction to 'judge not.' And this also necessitates a rejection of cruelty and its justifications, not merely the active cruelty of lynch mobs and the prison system, but the passive cruelty of letting people go without medical care, or a decent shot in life, or education. At least that's how I see it.
For myself, I am a naturally cruel person, prone to judgment and a self-satisfied delight in 'punishing' people. Often nothing more than my dislike of fuss holds me tongue and prevents me from lighting into people. Perhaps posts like this are a way of reminding myself to be better.