"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Deliberate Cruelty

“Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. It is the most unforgiveable thing in my opinion, and the one thing for which I have never, ever been guilty.”“said Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. 
 Image result for images blanche dubois
Ivan Karamazov as the Grand Inquisitor challenges the returned Christ and accuses him of unnecessary, deliberate cruelty.  How could you deliberately consign innocent children to suffering, brutality, and untold cruelty, the Inquisitor asks, when you didn’t have to. I understand why you might have thought that adult suffering was a test of spiritual resolve and faith; but little children before the age of reason, can make no such choices between good and evil.  Ivan says to his brother, Alyosha:
A poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty -- shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn't ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child's groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can't even understand what's done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice?

Image result for images the grand inquisitor
Job, a faithful and obedient man, wonders why God has deliberately and without reason caused him so much suffering, pain, and loss. What is your explanation for such cruelty, he asks God.
I loathe my life; I would not live forever.
Let me alone, for my days are a breath.
What are human beings, that you make so much of them,
that you set your mind on them,
visit them every morning,
test them every moment?
Will you not look away from me for a while,
let me alone until I swallow my spittle?
If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity?
Why have you made me your target?
Why have I become a burden to you?
Why do you not pardon my transgression
and take away my iniquity?
For now I shall lie in the earth;
you will seek me, but I shall not be (Job 7:16-21)

Image result for images durer job
Dostoevsky and Job do not challenge God for the existence of suffering in the world, but the deliberate cruelty that is part of it. Suffering from disease, infirmity, loss, grief, and war is understandable in an imperfect world. Ivan’s Devil (The Devil – Ivan’s Nightmare) says that without evil, the world would be a very dull place indeed; but the Grand Inquisitor, Ivan’s other alter ego, is far more compelling. One can accept a world with both good and evil, but not deliberate cruelty.

Image result for images ivan's devil

Where does meanness figure in the spectrum of deliberate cruelty?  Most of us have had hurtful, hateful moments and make our lovers, children, and colleagues suffer from our insecurities. There should never be room in human experience for deliberate, selfish meanness any more than purposeful cruelty; and yet we are all heir to it.
Othello was mean and cruel to Desdemona because he doubted her fidelity. He never considered that his naïveté with women, his self-doubts about his own sexuality, his psychological infirmity because of his race, and his lack of social intelligence were the reasons for his violent jealousy, and his wife was blameless.
Was this fair paper, this most goodly book,/Made to write “whore” upon?/What committed?
Committed? O thou public commoner/I should make very forges of my cheeks,/That would to cinders burn up modesty,
Did I but speak thy deeds. What committed?/Heaven stops the nose at it, and the moon winks;/The bawdy wind, that kisses all it meets,/Is hush’d within the hollow mine of earth/And will not hear’t. What committed?
Impudent strumpet! (Act IV,ii)

Image result for images othello and desdemona
Couples who have been married for years often resort to meanness to settle scores.  Whereas honesty and open confrontation of hurt and slight would of course be the best way to restore peace, many husbands and wives either fear the consequences of an out-and-out confrontation, or prefer to avoid it.  Instead the pick on their partner’s weakest points and drive the knife in deep.  Men and women who have lived together understand their spouses so well that they know what they love, what they dislike, and most of all how to wound and hurt deeply.  It is part of their defenses in a relationship where both parties can lose badly.
Spite is unnecessary meanness and cruelty.  Researchers at Washington State University devised a study to determine how important spite was to college students and came up with a series of illustrative questions:
A total of 946 college students and 297 adults were asked to rate how firmly they agreed with sentiments like “If my neighbor complained about the appearance of my front yard, I would be tempted to make it look worse just to annoy him or her” or “If I opposed the election of an official, I would happily see the person fail even if that failure hurt my community” or “I would be willing to take a punch if it meant someone I did not like would receive two punches.”
In short, there is little to be gained by spite and its only reward is to make someone pay for a real or imagined slight and then to gloat over it, even if you yourself are harmed.  Here is the best example of spite from an Eastern European folk tale: “A genie offers to grant a man’s wish as long as his hated neighbor gets double the prize; the man says, ‘Put out one of my eyes’.”

I heard a story of a man who was so angry at finding his wife’s dirty coffee cups all around the house that he coated them with a thin film of honey and brought in ants from the alley to feast and get stuck. Other men reportedly left their underpants hanging on the doorknob of the bathroom, brown stains up, for their wives to find in the morning. 

The worrisome aspect of all this is that marital spite and deliberate cruelty to innocent children are both expressions of the same human nature; and we are all capable of both.

Many books have been written about the Holocaust, and among the most interesting are those that deal with the complicity of the German people.  It is bad enough that Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels thought up and executed The Final Solution, condemning Jews to years of misery and torture, keeping alive the faint hope of mercy, while at the same time planning to gas and incinerate them. It is even worse that ordinary Germans acted either explicitly or implicitly in the rounding up and murder of millions of Jews.

Image result for images auschwitz

Taking the argument a step further, philosophers since the Greeks, Augustine, Aquinas, Kierkegaard, and Hannah Arendt have pondered the existence of evil in a world created by a supposedly benevolent God.  This speculation has led to a disaggregation and categorization of evil – sins of omission and commission; indirect or direct complicity;and willing, deliberate torture.  

Image result for images augustine saint

Cruelty, meanness, and hurtful spite must be added to this spectrum because they stem from the same source.

Tennessee Williams’ sorrowful observation about human cruelty and how it destroys both the perpetrator and the victim; and how it degrades the ethical compassion that is the glue of all societies, is accurate. In  A Streetcar Named Desire, perhaps the best of Williams’ plays and certainly the one which deals most directly with cruelty, Blanche is a suffering, mentally anguished, strong but delicate woman, who wants only to escape her torment.  Stanley not only does not care about her frailty and need, but deliberately hurts and humiliates her until she has become so wounded and helpless that she gives herself to him.
The most famous line of the play, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” refers to her frailty and neediness; but much more importantly to her belief that human cruelty is the worst possible sin.  In relying on the kindness of nameless strangers,.Blanche can at least find a respite from cruelty and a moment of compassion.   


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