Like a number of my blog essays, this is a response to a Forward Thinking prompt – this one on the subject of cruelty. I also might entirely be heading off in the wrong direction here. (The blog title comes from the opening to the musical Chess).
I started out thinking of the topic of cruelty by doing the obvious – a websearch to see what people had said. Although the Psychology Today column was interesting nothing I turned up whether vanilla or kinky had much to say on why people are cruel. And searching for cruelty’s very close cousin, teasing, produced even less useful results (and a lot more kink). But I don’t think you can get to grips with cruelty without understanding teasing. I think I have an answer – but this is only what I can come up with.
Cruelty and teasing are both about security.Cruelty’s the more obvious one. People are cruel because they can be – in other words because they know they can do these things to the person they are being cruel to and there will be no negative consequences. Add positive reinforcement and convince people that cruelty is necessary to maintain security as in the Stanford Prison Experiment and a lot of people become cruel. When being cruel there’s the rush for being secure enough to do this and nothing stopping you. And cruelty also takes away the victim’s security, lessening them, and showing whoever is being cruel could go further. This, incidentally, is why people want to be cruel to those they fear. By doing so they are exerting power over those they fear and lessening the way the formerly terrifying victims appear in the mind.
There are two layers of teasing. The first form of teasing is merely cruelty by another name. Where does teasing end and bullying begins? That’s something only the victim knows – although it’s a pretty good clue that if the victim says stop (or uses a negotiated safe word) and it’s ignored that’s direct cruelty. Which leads me nicely into teasing and being teased.
Liking being teased is also about security, and subverting it. In this case it’s closer to “This situation that would otherwise be a nightmare is happening, and I’m still safe.” Underlining how safe you are because things that would otherwise be very dangerous are perfectly safe. Without the safety and security things don’t work (which is why BDSM bleeding into mainstream fashion worries me – making it mainstream almost always removes almost all the security). The person doing the teasing is also, like the person being cruel, in a safe and secure enough place to smash the normal social boundaries. And above all it’s about trust – trust between the teaser and the teased that they are secure enough with each other that without the normal social safeties, nothing serious is going to go wrong.
And yes, on thinking about it, I do think cruelty (as opposed to dispassion and apathy) is as simple as that. I’d be interested to be shown anything that doesn’t fit that isn’t cases where cruelty isn’t a byproduct. And my apologies for any jumping around whether I was using first, second, or third person. I noticed while writing this post I was attempting to “other” the immediacy of any cruel acts and think I lined it all up for consistency. But find that I had to do so well worth noting.
And no, I haven’t gone into pointing out that non-consensual cruelty is bad, that torture never leads to reliable information (you merely get the information you ask for), and that torturing people creates enemies – I find all these obvious and cruelty something that is not to be praised.