The True Cause Of Cruelty, Redux


Photo: Pink Sherbet Photography

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 called 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 fall prey to it, and further, that it stands as the identical 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 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, in my view, 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?


I firmly believe 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 that rather than scarring him it blossomed in him a special sense of empathy (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.

Next week:  How Optimism Can Be Learned

8 comments to The True Cause Of Cruelty, Redux

  • Diana

    I remember when I was in junior high school hearing a boy make fun of a girl with born with a genetic defect. I decided then to major in psychology. I did enter a PhD program in psychology but left after 2 years, with a masters degree. Later I got an MBA to help with by business communication career.

    I also have been wondering about why so much war and killings continuing to occur. I like your reason. Yesterday morning I watched a wild animal program seeing bears fighting with each other. And we ourselves have chosen to kill to eat.

  • Jude

    I’ve always felt this to be the case, but you articulated it very well. When people are invalidated, it’s easy to abuse them. I also no longer affiliate myself with political parties, religious organizations and/or any type of “organized” endeavors. Inevitably, it eventually becomes an “us” against “them” mentality and I don’t want to be a part of it. Thanks for writing a truly thought-provoking post.

  • Jack

    Very interesting post. You might be interested in viewing the following video on empathy produced by the Cleveland Clinic earlier this year. Here is a link to another article about empathy that includes a link to the video.


  • Linda Garrity

    One of the main regrets of my life happened years ago, but still haunts me today. A white foreman of a construction crew working across the street on our neighbor’s driveway was mercilessly verbally abusing one of his workers, who happened to be black. The foul language of his abuse went on for two days; at the time, the neighborhood children were young and running around and could hear every word, yet I lacked the courage to cross the street and speak up about the situation. Eventually, we spoke to our friends, whose home was where the work was being done but who weren’t there to hear the abuse, and they eventually addressed it.

    In my heart, I didn’t want to confront the foreman, but desperately wanted to speak to the black man, telling him that NO ONE deserved to be treated like that EVER, that I was so sorry that he had to work under these conditions, and to say that if there was any way he could work elsewhere, I hoped he would get the chance. But I, like you, was afraid to draw attention to myself, and possibly have the abusive language hurled on me; now that I’m older, I would have no problem speaking up, but I continue to berate myself for not doing so at the time.

    After all these years, I wouldn’t even recognize that man who was being abused, but my deepest wish would be to speak with him once again, apologize for my cowardly behavior and ask for his forgiveness, and inquire as to how his life is today….sadly, that will never happen…..

    That day changed me though; I wouldn’t have thought of it in terms of what you write about abstracting others, but I do stop to consider why someone might be behaving like they do, I make an effort not to lash out at a person who is not the real cause of a frustrating situation, and I try to get to know something personal about those with whom my life intersects.

    I read your book a while back, and recommended it to my husband, who also works at the U of C (lung transplant program); we both liked it very much. I think the way you and he interact with your patients is very similar, but sadly, somewhat rare in the world of medicine today.

    I also like these weekly posts, reinforcing the various topics once again, giving much ongoing “food for thought”. Thanks for your wise words…..

    Linda: Please don’t beat yourself up too much. We all fail to live up to our ideals at some point. And as painful as the memory of your inaction may be, it may also be that very pain that rises up to make you sensitive to such abuses in the present and helps motivate you to intervene. Please say hello to Ed for me! I’m so glad you both liked my book.


  • Very good topic. I will work harder on it now. Thanks.

  • Melodee Kornacker

    The way I often put it is that all of the world’s children are my children, and all the men and women are my brothers and sisters.

  • Danny

    As always, very insightful.

    While groups can be a negative—you can’t have war without at least one group (see Rambo, First Blood)—groups can also be a positive. The reason the news shows a father, just back from Afghanistan, surprising the daughter is the emotion was see, the emotion most of us can feel. If we are not closer to some people than others… wife, kids, parents, long time friends, have we not lost something as well?

  • Michael

    I don’t know if this is using or resisting this lesson, but I have been faced with domestic abuse in my life and that of my friends for pretty much my entire life. Well, I live in a country that cheers for war.

    Anyways, the only way I’ve been able to consistently retain my sanity is to not try to understand where the abusers are coming from. I have to remind myself constantly that they are doing what they are doing for reasons which could not possibly make sense to me, because what they are doing does not make any sense as a response to any stimulus from me.

    Is that both? I mean, I am acknowledging that they have motivations. But refusing to even attempt to understand them has allowed me to be free of the deadly question: “What did I do to provoke this behavior?” Because, of course, the answer is, “Exist.”

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