"Human Nature" is a poor excuse for cruelty

One of my pursuits in life is to understand where and how humans are motivated to be mean, cruel and even nice. I pursue this mostly through reading, writing and introspection. I do nice things for other people because I enjoy being nice to others. I have been mean to others in the past, but I can tell you from personal experience, it wasn’t worth it. I simply could not sleep at night knowing I had slighted someone. So I comport myself in such a way that I can sleep at night knowing I did the right thing.

It is only through maturity and experience, that I have come to a sort of resting place, an acknowledgment of my role in the universe, my prime directive, if you will, which is to err on the side of peace.

So it is with interest that I read this article on The New Yorker website, “The Root of All Cruelty? Perpetrators of violence, we’re told, dehumanize their victims. The truth is worse.” That article by Paul Bloom, is an impressive and thoughtful review and analysis of some of the history of human cruelty, as well as a search for the cause of the same. It is well worth the time to read it if you have not already, especially since there will be a bit of spoiler later on in this article about Mr. Bloom’s article.

Regular readers of my blogs will know that I too, have been examining this topic for quite some time. While I enjoyed reading Mr. Bloom’s analysis, and his widely varied accounting of certain practices that dehumanize a minority or a disadvantaged human, I couldn’t help but think that something was missing.

Before you conclude that this is a really depressing subject matter, take note that there is optimism at the end of the article. Please press on if you can. There is a happy ending.

While it seems that people must dehumanize others to abuse them, I think on balance, I agree with Mr. Bloom that even though we call it “dehumanization”, it is clear that when one person commits a cruel act against another, that person is well aware of the subjective experience of the victim. Cruelty is not committed because the victim is less than human, for the victim’s response would have no value to the perpetrator if the victim is less than human. Cruelty is committed for the response of the victim in context.

But I still think there is more to this business of cruelty. I was with Mr. Bloom until the closing paragraph, wading through all those words to get to the nugget, the reason for his article. He does give it, but it was uninspiring:

The limitations of the dehumanization thesis are hardly good news. There has always been something optimistic about the idea that our worst acts of inhumanity are based on confusion. It suggests that we could make the world better simply by having a clearer grasp of reality — by deactivating those brain implants, or their ideological equivalent. The truth may be harder to accept: that our best and our worst tendencies arise precisely from seeing others as human. (emphasis mine)

While I can find agreement with much of what he has to say, he lost me as soon as he said — in so many words — that we could not make the world a better place with a clearer grasp of reality. Here is where I disagree with him, and perhaps where many in the criminal justice system have been wandering for decades.

To have a clear grasp of reality is to have the skills and capacity to perceive it, to understand it, to act on it. In every act of cruelty that I have ever observed, there is one skill or capacity missing: empathy. One cannot commit a cruel act upon another with empathy for the other. Close examination will reveal that all acts of cruelty serve one purpose, to satisfy the purely subjective needs of the perpetrator at the expense of the victim. I say, “subjective”, because cruelty serves no known biological purpose. Logically and psychologically, the purpose of cruelty is to demonstrate dominance over another, to humiliate the other.

If you have empathy for someone, you acknowledge their experience. You cannot be cruel to someone else if you identify with their experience, for you will feel their suffering and suffer as well. Cruelty is highly addictive, for you get an enormous jolt of endorphins, usually adrenaline, from committing an act of cruelty. That’s the hit of cruelty and the juice is adrenaline, guilt and remorse.

To put it very differently, Mr. Bloom finds appeal…well, maybe not appeal, how about resignation?..in the idea that there is no optimism in teaching a better way to perceive reality because cruelty is human nature. And we know we can’t change human nature. That’s the assumption we’re asked to make, over and over again.

I’d say that a small but growing number of us, including Mr. Bloom, have considered the benefit of teaching people the skill of empathy. Yes, empathy is a skill and it is something we learn. When our parents have empathy for us, they teach us empathy. If our parents did not have empathy for us, we would not know very well, how to have empathy for others.

Bloom, like so many others, relegates the capacity of humans to be cruel to the lowest common denominator that I see in so many articles of this type: human nature. His article is another example of how our belief system is set up. All of our culture, it seems, is bent on the idea that humans are bad by their very nature. I’m not buying it.

Isn’t it interesting that we can teach kids good manners, but their “bad behavior” comes out of nowhere? Are we really that reluctant to admit that bad behavior is learned from parents? Why is it that the the worst traits of human beings are attributed to human nature? So many awful acts of humans have been attributed to human nature, it’s become the first excuse of mankind. The Seven Deadly Sins are all human nature? What are the odds?

“Human nature” is an easy out. Yet, humans are the most adaptable, most creative, most imaginative creatures on the planet. Seriously? We’re going to relegate the shortcomings of humanity to human nature and just give up?

If there is one advantage that humans have over the animal kingdom, it is the capacity to learn and teach skills. Everything we do is a skill. We walk, we talk, we run, we work, we build and use complex systems, and we teach each other skills. We have even learned how to control autonomic functions of the body to some extent. Yet some people still believe that cruelty is human nature.

If you’ve read this far, this is where the optimism comes in.

Learning is human nature. We learn to be cruel. We learn to be kind. We learn to love. Yes, love is something we learn, every bit as much as hate is learned, and as noted earlier, empathy is learned.

Behind every cruel person, every ruthless dictator, every corrupt business leader or politician, we can find a history of pain inflicted upon them by their caregivers in childhood. Being cruel is a skill, every bit as much as being caring of others is a skill, and we learn those skills.

For centuries, we have been led to believe that evil is supernatural. “Evil” is really just a word used to describe challenging behavior in kids and adults. Bloom rightly notes that “evil” is used as justification for punishment of those challenging people, but all too often, society loses its mind in the pursuit of justice and fails to distinguish between restraint and punishment.

For centuries we have been led to believe that kids are less than human and that “evil” must be driven from them. “Evil” is just a supernatural attribution to challenging behavior in people.

Much of my thinking on this subject has been inspired by the work of Dr. Ross W. Greene, a man who has dedicated his life to working with kids. He has more than 40 years of experience working with kids and has found that kids don’t respond well to punishment and reward. Neither punishment or reward actually teach skills, but they do reinforce behavior, and not always the behavior we would like to see in them.

Dr. Greene has also shown that kids demonstrate challenging behavior when confronted with problems they cannot solve. “Challenging behavior arises when kids lack the capacity to respond adaptively to the demands of their environment.” Dr. Greene wrote two books that have inspired me to explore this subject further, much further.

First, there is The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children. A book parents can use to learn how to help children who lack impulse control, and to help kids solve the problems that they face. The second is Raising Human Beings: Creating a Collaborative Partnership with Your Child, a book to help us work with more or less, “normal” children.

Both books offer a new way of thinking about how to raise kids, but, both offer, parenthetically, a new way of life for all of us, not just parents and kids. When I see people suffering, I see people suffering for lack of the skills to do better. Kids act out because they lack the skills to get their needs met. Same is true of adults. In the same vein, all crimes and all abuse stem from an inability to get one’s needs met.

People who impose their will on their kids learned that from their parents. They are comfortable imposing their will on other people, with force or threats of force. For you anarchists out there, you may find the information in those two books useful.

Dr. Greene proves to me at least, that cruelty is learned behavior. He proves to me that by working with and collaborating with kids, we can teach kids to be peaceful, tolerant people. When we collaborate with kids to solve their problems, we teach empathy to our kids. And when kids grow up with empathy, they will be less inclined to be cruel. For empathy and cruelty cannot exist in the same room at the same time.

If empathy and cruelty can be taught, then it stands to reason that cruelty is learned behavior, not human nature. I suppose the same could be said for empathy, but empathy is required for human survival, cruelty is not. That makes empathy human nature.

Write on.

Originally published at steemit.com on February 6, 2018. Updated for clarity (every review leads to improvements).

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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