Videos about cruelty

April 29, 2013 at 11:57 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Cruelty book cover‘April is the cruelest month’, the poet T S Eliot tells us. It seems an odd remark to make about spring, especially in this year here in Britain, with spring so late and longed-for. And yet mood disorders, hospital admissions, heart disease, even suicide statistics show a definite peak at this time of year.

Cruelty also fluctuates. Domestic violence charities, for instance, say Christmas is always a bad time. But there’s no time when someone, somewhere, isn’t suffering because of someone else’s cruelty.

The first thing most people say about cruelty — after their initial horrified/disgusted/angry/unwillingly fascinated reaction — is ‘Why?’ As a guide to possible answers, I’ve done a set of short introductory videos about cruelty, now available on YouTube.

By the way, it’s OK to feel the fascination as well as the horror, anger and disgust. It doesn’t mean you’re cruel yourself, deep down; it means you’re human. Cruelty, in evolutionary terms, is a significant threat. Evolution didn’t bargain for books and blogs and video games and movies. Our brains evolved to react to other people’s cruel behaviour — including the fictional kind — as if to a dire and imminent danger. We find it hard to tear our eyes and minds away, even as we’re repelled, because concentrating on a threat was better for our ancestors than ignoring it and hoping it would go away.

Ignoring it and hoping it’ll go away, incidentally, is one of the two most popular strategies for dealing with cruelty. The other is reacting with even more cruelty. Both have repeatedly failed. That’s why I wrote a book about cruelty: because the only other strategy we have is to try to understand why cruel behaviour happens.

It’s a good strategy. It’s worked for other kinds of human sickness. (We lucky Westerners forget how many diseases, from malnutrition to cholera, children used to die of who now don’t.)

Cruelty is much more about sickness, failure and inadequacy than it is about evil, glamour and excitement. That ice-cool psychopathic killer sexing-up a movie? In real life he started out as pathetic and miserable, and he stayed childish till the final shoot-out. To treat cruelty as evil is tempting, but unhelpful. Calling something evil won’t help us see what’s causing it, whereas delving into the backgrounds of serial killers might. Getting away from the idea that cruel people are unfathomable also reduces our fascination with them, converting it to pity (or contempt). Paradoxically, that helps focus attention on victims, who are often given much less thought than their attackers.

Breathing through a scented handkerchief fails to protect against cholera, but cleaning up the water supply saves lives. To decide to clean up the water, however, you first have to understand how cholera spreads. John Snow, the father of epidemiology, looked at disease patterns scientifically, and his understanding is still saving lives today.

Likewise, curing the malaise of cruelty requires us to understand what makes it spread and flourish, or decline. Science may or may not be able to convince politicians to act in ways which reduce cruelty, but without science, we’ll never know how best to stop it.

Here’s the playlist.

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