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Maggie Schein portrait

The Bo(u)lder Question by Maggie Schein

The Bo(u)lder Question

is a regular feature of DePauw Magazine, which is published three times a year.

Maggie Schein, author of “Cruelty: A Book About Us,” recently spent two years as writer-in-residence at the Prindle Institute for Ethics. We asked her:

Why are people cruel?

It depends.

That is how most people first interrogate cruelty. During my three decades of studying cruelty, I have found that most people, when first interrogating cruelty, pose that question. We want to identify a confusing kind of pain or a sense of un-belonging within ourselves or the world. We want to describe the discomfort that goes beyond bad, skirts law or religions and can even align with – and this can be a really aversive/divisive thought – “good intentions.” Yes, cruelty can be well-intentioned. It is a counterintuitive thought, but a necessary one for making sense of ourselves. Think of Richard H. Pratt, now infamous but famed in his time for organizing the destruction of American Indigenous peoples, who coined the catch-phrase: “Kill the Indian; save the man.”

I suggest we begin our conversation asking “what is cruelty?” before we try to deconstruct the many “whys” cruelties are committed, or even “who” can count as a perpetrator or a victim. “Why” is a necessary question, but distant from our starting point.

Cruelty belongs to all of us, each of us: in our kitchens, with our guns, families, WMDs, tortures and genocides. Cruelty has an unlimited reach; it perverts what we think of as “humanity,” hence, why we can speak of “inhumanity” in relation to instances of it. For contrast, we do not say a bad gopher is an “in-gopher.” Why not? What is the underpinning moral grammar, the moral valence or expectation, that allows that difference? Cruelty opens gaps in our moral foundations; it can go beyond legality, morality, religion and custom. There were manuals for how to properly draw-and-quarter a convict (when that was a legal punishment) and what size stones are acceptable, under certain interpretations of Sharia law, for stoning a person to death. Varieties of moralities, religions, conventions and legalities have evolving boundaries around “humanity” versus “inhumanity;” “cruelty” is the outlier for each. Like a virus, it does not discriminate in a morally familiar manner and, like pornography, we know it when we see it.

This work aims to invite, even demand, because we, all of us, have to be in on the conversations. I was fortunate enough to present recently to a DePauw forum. I will be upfront: I was disappointed I did not have answers for the participants. I had suggestions to begin the conversation. When asked to define cruelty, the participants offered up “intention,” “suffering,” “indifference.” Those notions mostly revolve around why certain people become cruel. We are at a deficit and we need one another’s help to discuss what we are talking about when talking about “cruelty.” Are we talking sociopaths? Psychopaths? Ordinary humans? By what criteria? Our answers tell us about ourselves; codified moralities, religions, legalities, psychologies? That is, what is humanity, such that it can be cruel, can be inhuman?

We need to further define cruelty so that we can understand why people are cruel.

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