I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Can anybody become mean and cruel?

I've been watching the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, about a woman who ends up going to a women's prison for fifteen months for something she did a decade earlier. The series is based on a book written by Piper Kerman, who spent a year in prison for much the same reason as the character in the series. I'll have to read the book after I finish watching the 13 episodes. From everything I've been able to ascertain, it follows the book pretty closely. An excerpt about the book:
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?


justme_alive said...

Thought provoking blog post, definitely a series of choices.

doo said...

I think sometimes that some people may be mean or cruel to others because they are unhappy with their own lives and want to "take it out" on someone else to make it so that they are't the only ones unhappy. My mom always told me, treat others how you would want to be treated..sometimes the cruelty I see out there in the world gets to be a bit too much for me, I just don't understand. Very sad. Really enjoy your posts!

Anonymous said...

I think there will always be sadists and masochists. Some people like being mean while others like to suffer.

Rian said...

I agree with you, DJan. I think we "choose". And I think we have to choose daily. But how we determine what is an 'acceptable/realistic' choice in a particular set of circumstances is probably as diverse as there are people.

And I think that *Love/Kindness* is more powerful than *Hate/Cruelty* but the fear factor pops up in the latter and is often used against us.

I haven't seen that series you're talking about, but I would think that one would have to navigate around the 'system' in a way that works for them, and the choices made daily may be different than they would prefer, but necessary for survival...

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

Deep thoughts and complicated questions! I think the capacity to be cruel is within most of us, but we learn to keep it in check. Likewise, the capacity for good is in each newborm, but it's not always nurtured as well as it should be. The way I've said this makes me think I see "mostly good" as the normal state of being for humans. Others would argue, I'm sure.

Sally Wessely said...

This is an age old question. I have been subjected to people being mean and cruel. I'm sure I have done some mean and cruel things in my life, but to what degree of meanness and cruelty was it felt by others. Is meanness and cruelty experienced in levels?

You are very deep today. I've not heard about this book or series. I have read "Man's Search for Meaning." It is a classic that should be read by all.

Friko said...

I believe that there is far more grey than black and white.

Given the circumstances, I believe, we could all be cruel, say, when protecting someone we love. On a nasty day when I feel angry or miserable I can lash out and be nasty to someone else. And instantly feel sorry for it.

Most of us prefer to be kind and friendly but there are times when cruelty wins over a good nature.

Otherwise I can’t find a reason for so much bitterness, unkindness, cruelty etc. in the world we inhabit. Just read the papers or watch the news. Is there ever a day when man’s inhumanity to man doesn’t stand centre stage?

I would consider myself basically a decent and humane person, like everybody I know. But that doesn’t blind me to the possibility that there may be other sides to my nature, if provoked.

Gigi said...

You are determined that I put on my thinking cap tonight, aren't you?

I would think that the majority of us are born kind - but I think some are taught from an early age cruelness - whether it's because that's how they were treated or taught to behave. A rare few, I think, are born cruel. And then there are those who are easily corruptible; give those people any semblance of power and they are cruel.

I would like to think though, at the very core, the majority of us were born kind. And given the opportunity to choose, would choose kindness or cruelty.

Gigi said...

Uggh! *over* not or.

Red said...

Nice to see that responses have been expanded.
For me I've seen guards handling prisoners and the despicable manner the prisoners are treated was appalling. Now I know some of the bad guys aren't very nice so they have to be looked after with vigilance.
However, we can be trained to deal with people in a positive manner. I was a teacher. We had many inservices to train us to deal with students in a proper manner. We didn't always succeed fully but we were going in the right directions. I had my days when things should have been dealt with much differently.
I think prison guards need much and very different training. They have a tough job but the way it looks they make it harder for themselves.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

I worked as a prison librarian for 3 years, in a facility for juvenile offenders. There were some kind correctional officers, but the majority were not. The majority, it seemed, were attracted to the work because it made them feel powerful. The assistant warden was fired when it was discovered he was having sex with inmates on the outside detail. He never did time.

Linda Myers said...

I believe mostly people are good, but they're vulnerable. And I'm starting to believe that power corrupts.

marlu said...

I cannot find my copy of something I read about an Indian legend. here is a brief version.

A chief was explaining to his grandson about good and evil, saying that within every man there are two wolves fighting for his control. "Which one will win?" asked the child. "The one you feed," answered the grandfather.

Arkansas Patti said...

You really know how to tickle the brain.
I do believe most of us are kind, possibly by nature but often by nurture. Those who are not for one reason or the other I feel are attracted to positions of control where they can feed their demons. So sad for the subjects of their cruelty.

June said...

I'm going to be thinking about your questions all day. Great post.

Jackie said...

Thought-provoking blog....and as I was reading it, I could feel the emotions within you, Jan. I know from being your blogging friend for a short while that you are a caring and loving person. Someone like you (and me) has a hard time imagining the cruelty in the world today. It breaks my heart. And I want to 'fix' the wrongs...make the hurting go away and bring happiness to everyone. There is nothing wrong with that. As a matter of fact, I believe it is what I am here for. I was a teacher for 33+ years. I miss it a lot. One if the first things I could (and did) give my students every day was my smile. It begins in the heart and reaches out and touches each one we meet.
I believe that this love comes from Christ, my Lord. It is through Him that I can do anything..... not of myself.
Love to you,

Donna B. said...

I have been thinking of this topic myself lately...where do I start? First off, when I was younger I experienced being bullied and picked on and it did not feel good...so I became sensitive and strived to become a champion for the underdog.

I believe humans and animals need love and understanding, regardless of color, race, religion, politics, breed, disposition....I do my best to give people the benefit of the doubt and decide on potential friendships or relationships based on how they treat me.

The older I get I have come to think there are two types of people in this world. Those who choose to become weaker from negative experiences and those who choose to be stronger despite it.

To a large degree, I believe it is a choice. Some times something so traumatic happens, one must care enough about themselves to seek out help, Hopefully, children in such situations need to be rescued immediately by anyone who witnesses and suspects trauma.

Altruistically, I wish everyone strived for enlightenment and sought kindness like people seek power and money. Most people cannot handle power. It goes to their head, they become twisted and cruel.

Very provocative post DJan, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

I do like survival type reality shows and Discovery channel's Deadliest Catch. Rising over adversity and harsh environment or situations always inspire me.

Rita said...

I think we have the potential for anything and everything within us. We may be influenced by our surroundings and upbringing, but ultimately the bottom line is choice. Every day we make hundreds of little choices. Even choosing to believe you are a victim is a choice. I truly believe that it is not what happens to you in your life but how you choose to live through it that makes you who you are.

We mold ourselves into who we believe we are. That's why so many people make me sad. I mourn for their souls. What a waste that they think so little of themselves and others. That's why I choose to try my best to help lift people up when I can. How will the world ever get any better if we don't try to connect with each other, you know? Life may be short, but it is wide! :):)

troutbirder said...

Well said DJ. I remember reading Frankls book when I was in college and it had an impact....

Deb Shucka said...

Hi DJan! I haven't read you all summer and so this was an incredible post to come back to. What a heart you have. I really believe that the more love and light we can give to ourselves and bring into the world, the less cruelty there will be. I think it comes from a dark and empty place that can only be filled with love. I also really want to see that series now, too. :-)

Dee said...

Dear DJan, one of the novelists whom I most respect and whose mysteries always speak to me is Louise Penny, a Canadian writer who has won every award given to mystery writers. Her Inspector Gamache is a wonderfully drawn gentle man.

In her most recent novel in the series--"The Beautiful Mystery"--she explores mean and cruel and evil. Toward the end of the novel she uses the story that most of us know now--about the two wolves within each of us and the shaman who, when asked which wolf will live within a young man, says, "The one you feed."

And so I agree with you that when we "feed" the wolf of care and kindness and compassion, that wolf grows gentle within us. And yes, when we "feed" the wolf of cruelty and hatred and evil, he too grows into a beast that is almost impossible to control.


Far Side of Fifty said...

Some people are just mean spirited. I don't know if they are born that way or if something happens to them at an early age. I don't like mean people at all..I suppose you already knew that!
I find very little meanness in Reality TV..much more meanness in some of those murder shows...or thrillers which I avoid.
I think people who tend to be controlling will be mean to gain more control.
I have a real mean person in my life...it is no fun. I am not one to be controlled so the meanness continues:(

Linda Reeder said...

Fear and insecurity are usually behind people treating others badly. And yet that does not explain all situations. I can't imagine being deliberately cruel but then I would not make a very good prison guard. I tend to be anti-punishment of most forms, and yet there are people who only behave for fear of punishment. Obviously human behavior is complex.

Glenda Beall said...

I think one can become mean and cruel if they suffer a turn in life that leaves them hurting or so angry they don't know how to deal with it. But in a research study I saw where tiny children show traits that could be considered mean or unkind. If a child doesn't develop compassion or empathy that child can easily become mean and cruel if those traits bring him attention or power. I was overly sensitive to pain of others and felt their suffering no matter how slight, and I can't watch TV or movies that show extreme cruelty to peple or animals. I just can't bear it.

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

I think we all have a brain that has chemical balances that can become a part of evil behaviour. And I believe that we can shift our behaviour by surrounding ourselves with things that make us feel comfortable in our skin. That comfort zone is the tricky part and teaching kindness may play a role.
Ever notice a behaviour change in a person whom you know well after they ate certain foods? Or had a drink?
Studies have been done and chemistry does change ones ability to be kind or cruel.
Ever herad of "you are what you eat"?
Then there are those who have a bad chemistry by nature and who also have to be cared for and they are labeled as being mentally ill. One condition, bipolar, comes to mind.
Not everyone can choose their behaviour. The brain has many mysteries yet unresoved medically.

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

I believe a factor in behaviour that is not chosen is the chemistry of the brain. It is possible to alter its functionality and studies continue. A person suffering from a bipolar condition comes to mind. The mood swings are not controlled by selected behaviour but by a chemical change that is still not well understood.
Cruelty could be a chemical trigger.
And we are all subject to chemical changes on a regular basis. Our food can trigger mood swings and make us negative and cruel even if by words alone.
Each of us seeks to balance a feeling of wellness and that feeling is varied.
How does wellness factor into kind or cruel behaviour is now a science.

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

I shall try for the 3rd time to post here.
I think an important factor in this field is brain chemistry. Behaviour can be influenced by chemical.
Think about the plight of those who may suffer from a bipolar condition. Their highs and lows can shift suddenly and cause them to struggle with coping to remain fair and not cruel even to themselves.