Communicator (communicator) wrote,

How to be cruel

Elaine Scarry, an American professor of aesthetics, has written extensively about torture, and her work is perhaps more relevant today than it has been for decades. The Body in Pain is well worth a read. Yesterday in the Guardian she was interviewed about political and social morality.

"I once wrote an essay called The Difficulty of Imagining Other People, in which I argued that the ease with which we injure people directly corresponds with the difficulty we have imagining them and their feelings. In political and moral life you must be aware of the pain of people whom you may never see."

Well, kind of. It sometimes seems that unimaginative people find it easier to be cruel, or don't even realise the implications of cruel acts. Here's a silly example - I have seen people leave children and pets in their car, and stand talking, oblivious. Perhaps leave them in the dark and go and have a cup of tea. But if you show them - point at the child, sitting there - they are mortified. The imagination wasn't there, telling them the child was unhappy. Perhaps they are not more cruel in their wishes,but only more cruel in their actions.

On the other hand I am wary of a morality which privileges brainy or empathic people. Autistic people, for instance, may find it difficult to model other people's internal experience. Yet they are not cruel people. An intelligent sadist however, may be only to eager to imagine another person's suffering.

happytune writes today about visiting the new horror exhibition at Madam Tussauds and how disturbing it was. It reminded me of recent discussion of the horror story Guts, and the nasty way you feel implicated by horror.

I think we have a few deep drives - to find out about other people's suffering, so that we learn from their bad experience ('Keep away from sabre tooth tigers, look what happened to Uncle') - also to sympathise with suffering ('Let's rescue Uncle from the tiger') - also disgust ('Keep away from Uncle's corpse, you might catch something'). Pity, interest, and disgust, all come together in an emotion we call horror.
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