It is said that cruelty is a many-faced demon that can take any form to serve its purpose. This week, we have had a glimpse of the demon through nurses, people we usually trust our life with when we are at our most vulnerable. According to a report by The Daily Star, two nurses of a health complex in Dinajpur “drove away” a woman in labour for no apparent reason. So her husband, a rickshaw-van puller, took her to a nearby tree, where she lay on the grass and gave birth to their daughter, with the aid of a random woman who chanced upon them at that moment. It was a remarkable display of courage and the ferocity of maternal love, but the illogicity of the whole incident is mind-numbing.
A few days earlier, cruelty appeared in another form. A woman at a village in Comilla was tortured in broad daylight over an alleged extramarital affair. The incident came to light after a video surfaced on social media. The 82-second video is quite unsettling. It shows a man mercilessly beating the mother-of-four (and her alleged lover) with a stick, trying to elicit a confession from her as part of an arbitration led by the local chairman. The day's episode was preceded by a nightlong beating in private by the relatives of the victim's expat husband. What was more unsettling, however, was the reaction of the people present during the arbitration—who seemed to enjoy the grisly spectacle—and a section of the viewers online who sought to justify the beatings.
These reports are as illuminating as they are troubling—illuminating because they help us understand the true state of moral values in our society, and troubling because we don't like the direction in which it is turning. If current trends hold, soon we may need to ask ourselves this: are we getting cruel as a society? It's a reasonable question as acts of cruelty are becoming increasingly frequent, taking place across the social spectrum and often finding tacit approval. Every day we come across an astonishing mix of news about cruelty coming in various forms—murder, rape, beating, violence, harassment—which is shocking given that Bangladesh used to be a place that prided itself on its rich traditions of hospitality and generosity. Are we then witnessing a collective descent from that moral high ground?
There are many questions and no easy solution. These questions, however, may be seen as too radical for mainstream discourse because they raise uncomfortable issues about our own moral culpability which makes those providing explicit/implicit support to cruel acts or not doing enough to prevent them—which includes most of us—as guilty as those committing the acts themselves. In any case, it's important to understand the drivers of cruelty, because they may lead to a clearer grasp of reality and probably a solution too.
There is no doubt that each of us has our own deep-seated fears, prejudices and insecurities that influence our decisions. But to walk the additional mile to make someone suffer requires something else. In his book Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, philosopher David Livingstone Smith posits that there is a connection between our capacity to inflict cruelty and dehumanising “the other.” In other words, cruel acts happen when one fails to appreciate the humanity of others.
The pregnant woman in Dinajpur was refused admission in the health complex, or the woman in Comilla was beaten up in public, because the perpetrators failed to see them as humans. This line of reasoning is particularly effective in case of misogyny where, as feminist philosopher Kate Manne argues in her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, “often, it's not a sense of women's humanity that is lacking. Her humanity is precisely the problem.”
That's just one way of looking at it—and it's comforting. There's comfort in believing in the ubiquity of dehumanisation. It makes those dehumanising others a “better” enemy for those of us who believe in humanity. It makes us feel superior—and makes them more loathsome, more wicked, and deserving of harsher punishment. I remember a friend who reacted to the Dinajpur incident saying: “This animal (the guy beating the woman) should be executed by firing in public.”
While the sentiment is understandable—one that many of us would willingly share—it plays into the dehumanisation rhetoric in reverse: it's us now who are failing to appreciate the “humanity” of the dehumanisers. Seeing a criminal as an animal and condoning a summary execution, however gruesome the crime, are not exactly how justice works. What if, in the words of sociologist Slavoj Zizek, “the way we perceive a problem is already part of the problem?”
Celebrated psychologist Paul Bloom offers a different approach in an exhaustive exploration of the intricacies of human cruelty titled The Root of All Cruelty? In the article published by The New Yorker, he explores various acts of aggressions and the many theories that seek to explain them, before saying that the truth may be harder to accept: that “our best and our worst tendencies arise precisely from seeing others as human.” Bloom thinks that people indulge in acts of inhumanity because they think of their victims as humans, with feelings and emotions ripe for exploitation. “The sadism of treating human beings like vermin lies precisely in the recognition that they are not,” he says. It's a complicated thesis, but it goes to show just how complex the human mind is.
The human angel may be the root of all cruelty in Bloom's opinion but there can be as many motives behind a cruel act as imaginable. For a society as polarised and crime-prone as ours, it's important to understand how the criminal mind works. Moralistic violence is easier to comprehend. Moral agents and misogynists—Manne called misogyny the “law enforcement branch” of the patriarchy—are everywhere, especially in rural communities where they brutalise women if the latter fail to live up to their expectations. We come across news of various types of aggressions licensed by such moral entitlement, but what about all the other manifestations of cruelty, ranging from political to social to familial, that we see on a daily basis? How do the perpetrators justify their action in their minds?
We need to understand cruelty if we want to address it, all forms of it, effectively. It's not enough to simply dismiss the perpetrators as mere criminals devoid of human reasoning.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.