You would think that someone who grew up with the knowledge of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins murdered by the Nazis would have an inherent understanding of cruelty. But the opposite is true. I don’t understand how people choose to do things that are cruel. I do understand the effects of cruelty.
by Ruth Neuwald Falcon, Seattle, Washington
Right now, the effects of presidential cruelty include leaving people to twist in the wind over the Christmas holidays when he wouldn’t sign the relief bill. It’s restarting federal executions after a 17-year hiatus. For the first time in history, “the U.S. government has carried out more executions in a year than all states that still conduct executions.” More than that: “More federal executions have been carried out in 2020 than in the past 57 years combined.” It’s playing golf day after day while the coronavirus is leaving some ICUs with “zero capacity.”
Merriam Webster defines cruelty as “disposed to inflict pain or suffering: devoid of humane feelings.” The Cambridge English Dictionary definition includes “causing pain to people or animals intentionally,” and lists barbaric, brutal, and inhumane as synonyms. The Free Dictionary says it is “willfully causing pain or distress; merciless.” It also says, “Not to be confused with crewel—worsted yarn for embroidery and edging.” Good to know.
I think cruelty involves lack of empathy, but I can’t find that in any of the definitions. None of them seem to mention causality. Perhaps it is that for which I am searching. If someone pulls the wings off of flies or tortures kittens, does it matter if they feel remorse for their actions? I think it does, but I don’t think people feel remorse if they aren’t able to empathize.
I get that Trump is a malignant narcissist, a term that was coined by psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor Erich Fromm in 1964. According to Psychology Today, Fromm suggested that it is “a severe and destructive pathology that can lie at the heart of the inhumane acts exhibited by dictatorial tyrants such as Hitler and Stalin.”
But it isn’t only Trump. Is half the United States Congress made up of malignant narcissists? That can’t be true. So how to explain the consistent callousness they display toward people who are less fortunate than they are? How to explain a Senate Majority Leader who appears to be “preparing a poison pill to doom the chances of increasing COVID-19 stimulus checks to $2,000″?
In 2018, Adam Serwer wrote in The Atlantic that, “The Trump era is such a whirlwind of cruelty that it can be hard to keep track.” The title of Serwer’s piece? “The Cruelty is the Point.” Maybe it’s no more possible now to understand that cruelty is the point for far too many than it was 75 years ago when my grandparents were murdered. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important to keep struggling to do so. Perhaps the fact that so many of us are engaged in that struggle is what gives me hope.