Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Cruelty on a Whim

My course in morality wound up, and I managed to get enough marks to pass despite being too late joining to do the first test. That's satisfying, but of course it's not the reason I did it. I take many courses that I don't "pass" because I don't do the peer essays. I learn, that's my objective.

And this week I learned two things I want to pass on.

The first one may surprise you, but if you don't believe me you can check it out for yourself, and the evidence is incontravertible, our world, our society, has been getting steadily less violent, and we are living in the least violent times, and currently also the most peaceful.


Now, that's a long lecture, or a long article, if you prefer to read it, but it has to be to cover all the angles. He's got together all the data, because people are going to tell him he's wrong. They have no basis on which to do that.

Why, if this is so clearly true, do we see it do differently?

Partly of course, it's due to awareness. We hear about violence constantly in the media. Of course we do, peacefulness is not news.

And of couse there is the US being the outlier on the stats:

But partly there is a phenomenon that exists in every generation where people are certain things were better in the old days. People who lived 100 years ago, for example, were utterly convinced they were living at the very end of it all. And people living 1000 years ago were too. There's some sort of pessimism from those who cannot imagine the future, probably because they won't be part of it.

Of course, things could change, there's no guarantee of this trend not reversing, so if you prefer pessimism, you go right ahead.

I also expect some of you will say, well, we don't need direct violence to kill one another off anymore, we're all doomed because of climate change. So, you still have lots of pessimism possible.

And indeed, the other interesting thing I learned this week is that people are bastards. And fools. So you pessimists can relax even easier.

Some of you will have heard of Stanley Millgram and his experiments in seeing how people would do terrible things if an authority figure told them to. I'd heard of it in passing, more pop culture references than anything, but examining it closely is pretty scary. I managed to find this video for you, to demonstrate.

Would the same results occur today? Because of the way research is authorized, nobody would ever get permission now to repeat this, so we can only guess. My guess is that less people would be willing to shock a stranger, but some still would.

Do I have an opinion on the character of those who did so when told to? You bet I do. Would I deliver the first shock? NOT A CHANCE. Would you? I hope not.

So, what does this tell us about those who would? Does it suggest they lack compassion, or simply that they are sheep?

Whatever it is, this is how the bully gets his henchmen.

We are never told much about those who go along with it. We don't know if they are naturally sadistic without any encouragement. We don't know if they are just easily manipulated. I can think of a few people I've met in my life who fall into both categories, who I would assume would keep doing it right to the end.

It's an uncomfortable feeling that half the people we run into are potentially either cruel enough or spineless enough to inflict pain on a total stranger for no good reason.

As I said, I'm quite certain I would refuse to shock a stranger no matter how much I was reassured by the authority and situation. It goes against everything I believe in. But I'm going to tell you a story about a much younger Melanie.

When I was 16 I joined a business initiative for young people called Young Enterprise. We had to set up a small company producing simple, useful items, sell shares to fund it, then create the items, and sell them. Each term we chose a Managing Director based on the apparent drive/personality/bravado of the kids we were with, and it'll come as no surprise to you that I was chosen.

So, having been put in this position, each week I had to direct things, and give a little talk at our business meeting. There was one boy there who didn't like a girl being Director and was constantly heckling during my talks. One of the adults who advised us was standing behind me, and he whispered in my ear "For pity's sake throw something at him." And I did. And I hit him. On the head. And it hurt.

So what's different here? Well, he had actually done something to "deserve" it, although it's a matter of opinion whether anyone ever "deserves" to be assaulted due to heckling.

I think what was really different is my age. I was young and stupid.

You are smiling graciously, I know.

You are saying to yourself, yes, quite forgiveable, you were a kid.

You are not at all bothered about it.

So, how do you feel now that I tell you that what I threw was a half pound claw hammer?

No, there is no excuse for that at any age. A very young child knows it's wrong to throw hammers at people's heads.

I do not offer the defence that a supposedly responsible adult told me to do it, because he probably expected me to throw a book.

There's no excuse possible, and no explanation possible, but there it is.

I wouldn't do it now, and I can tell you how it could have been prevented at the time.

First let me tell you one of the main thrusts of this morality course. Bear in mind that it's not a "preaching" course. At no point during it did either the professor or any of the readings or videos he sent us to tell us what was right or wrong. It wasn't that type of instruction. What was discussed was what morality is, how it works, how it is studied.

And yet he said, right at the start, and again at the end, that he hoped, and believed, that taking it would cause us to examine our own morality, and potentially be better people. That was certainly part of my reason for taking it. Personal growth.

By the time I took this course I already had several decades of my own informal studies under my belt, it's something I'm interested in, and the effect such a course can have on me is obviously not as powerful as if I had never considered any of this. I like to think I've got a fairly good handle on morality already. I still found it very useful and interesting.

But what if I'd taken this course before I was 16? Or a similar course, more suited to my age group. Would I have thrown that hammer. The obvious answer is no.

Once you have given morality full thought, once you understand it, you cannot possibly be cruel accidently or lightly. Oh sure, you can still do it, but not mindlessly. Not on a whim. Not because somebody whispered in your ear.


  1. Okay first thing that comes to mind is happiness. You see when I was a child, school age into teens, I just knew better than to do stuff to hurt people. I mean I did make mistakes, but I did not do things that I knew might hurt people. I assumed that was how all people were and they just made the wrong choice when they did hurt people on purpose. But my husband has often said he was young and stupid and did things to hurt people. And my son's now girlfriend tried to drowned him more than once and often hit and pinched him when they were young. Everyone says it is because she was young and didn't know better, but I am sure she did because she would laugh and run and lie to her parents when they were told about it.
    Now when I was young I thought authority figures should be respected and if I was told to do something by one of them I probably would to the best of my ability.
    I am not saying I am never cruel because I am sure I have been and I am sure I will be at times in the future. I just know it is a choice for me. And yes, there are instances of cruelty where a person doesn't know better because they have been taught to be cruel as a normal thing.

    1. That's the problem. We are carefully taught to respect (and obey) authority figures, without being taught to discern, just in case they are wrong. I tried hard to get across to my kids that authority came with responsibility, and when my son was bullied by a teacher, he spoke up for himself, and came straight to me to complain, and I dealt with it.

      We have a problem when we blindly follow authority, but we also have a problem when we rebel at the wrong times. I think we have a way to go, as a society, to get this balance right so that it becomes normal to teach our kids how to cope.