From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance.It's hard to tear myself away from binge-watching one episode after another. This morning as I sit here thinking about what I want to write about this morning, I feel the turmoil I'm experiencing about the cruelty of the prison guards towards the women in their care. Is it simply because the act of giving people complete and utter control over others would cause anybody to become so cruel and unfeeling? I remember reading a while back about an experiment that recruited ordinary people (college students) and put them in a setting where half were prisoners and half were wardens. It was supposed to last two weeks but had to be terminated early because the "wardens" became abusive and the "prisoners" had nervous breakdowns, within a few days! (I just found the website for the experiment, which was held at Stanford University in 1971.)
It must be something inherent in all of us, to either be kind or cruel to others. There must be a reason for the rise in reality shows (which I don't watch) that give the watchers a chance to relate to these emotions without actually putting oneself in the position of being cruel. Somebody watches that awful wrestling show, which I immediately turn off when it comes on. Maybe these shows provide an outlet for feelings that everybody has. I wonder.
Or is this true at all? I know I've done things in my life that I'm not proud of, but I truly cannot recall a time when I inflicted pain on anybody or anything on purpose. I remember a young playmate when I was a kid who loved to torture little animals. I couldn't understand it then and I don't understand it now. But I do remember once, a long time ago, when I was playing with my little sister, I held her down and tickled her until she screamed in terror. It must have been traumatic to both of us, for me to remember the incident all these years later.
Maybe I am being naive, but I don't think that cruelty is something that everybody develops in such circumstances. During the Holocaust, there were people who were able to find joy and happiness in concentration camps, in spite of the most horrendous circumstances. I remember a book that still resonates after many decades; in fact, I recently re-read it to see if it was as powerful as I remembered, called Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. He was a prisoner in Auschwitz during World War II and not only managed to endure it, but he developed a theory to explain why some people are able to survive such atrocities, while others died. The book was different for me to read after all these years, but it still resonated deeply. He felt that there are decent and indecent people, whether they are guards or prisoners.
Oh boy, this is definitely not turning out to be a very uplifting post. It's filled with all the turmoil I've been experiencing as I have reacted viscerally to the awful injustices I've related to while watching that show. I guess I've answered my own question (the title of this post): no, I don't think we all have a mean and cruel streak. Some people have the ability to be mean, I believe, but they fight against it, while others embrace it totally. Maybe it comes down to the age-old question of good and evil. Are we really fighting against two strong tendencies in our nature, and sometimes one wins and sometimes the other wins?
No, I don't think so. I believe we get to choose which way we go in life. Perhaps it's a series of choices, and as we get stronger in being kind to one another, it becomes less likely we will be seduced towards the dark side. What do you think?