We Actually Can’t Stand Cruelty

Here’s a common scene: The grown-ups are upstairs chatting, maybe having drinks, relaxing, while the kids are playing in the basement, in the yard, elsewhere. The parents are having a moment.

Someone remarks, “Oh, it’s like lord of the flies out there, but they’ll figure it out,” and the adults nod appreciatively. Because yes, kids behave just like the characters in Lord of the Flies, and lacking structure, rules, or social expectations, kids are savages, and life is inherently nasty, brutish, and short.

That trope, borrowed from William Golding’s 1954 book gets repeated everywhere. It makes me crazy to hear it. Golding was a disaffected addict writing horrifying fiction. Don’t believe it. As Peter Conrad writes in his review of Golding’s biography, “Golding called himself a monster. His imagination lodged a horde of demons, buzzing like flies inside his haunted head, and his dreams rehearsed his guilt…” He spent his latter years deeply regretting the novel.

I believe our natural state is to assume best intentions of others, and support and comfort our fellow humans. And even when we are taught to be cruel, are we reluctant. Yes, we can be deeply tribal and protective of our own. But even then, we hesitate to hurt.

Consider that throughout historic battles and wars, military leaders often lament that their soldiers aren’t cold-blooded killers. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, one of the most prominent and successful British commanders of the Second World War, wrote home “The trouble with our British boys is that they are not killers by nature.” In the U.S Air Force during WWII, less than 1% of fighter pilots were responsible for 40% of the planes shot down.

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence that we really don’t like hurting one another comes from research about the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. Of the 27,574 muskets recovered on the battlefield, 90% were still loaded. Since most of the time spent managing a rifle involves priming with gunpowder, loading with a shot, packing with a ramrod, and setting the trigger with a percussion cap, it seems crazy that so many rifles were not discharged. If it takes a second to fire, and minutes to load, most rifles at any given moment on the battlefield would not be ready to shoot, right? What’s going on?

But wait. About 12,000 of those muskets – nearly half of the rifles recovered – were double-loaded. Thousands of rifles were even triple-loaded. But these soldiers were trained and drilled. They knew muskets fired one ball at a time. What’s going on? Well, loading a gun is a perfect excuse not to fire it. And if it was already loaded, well just load it again. Look busy. Do anything except attempt to kill someone.

According to Army psychologist, and Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman, “The obvious conclusion is that most soldiers were not even trying to kill the enemy.”

It’s not danger, per se, that we are avoiding. It is specifically harming others that we simply cannot abide.

We love dangers and thrills. Our society actively seeks out physical danger through activities like rollercoasters, recreational drugs, rock climbing, white water rafting, scuba diving, skydiving, hunting, and countless other exhilarating, and sometimes stupid, behaviors. However, facing aggression and hatred from fellow citizens is an experience of a profoundly different magnitude.

We’ve all encountered hostile aggression, whether on the playground as kids, in strangers’ rudeness, in malicious gossip, or in hostility at work from bosses and peers. In all those cases, we’ve known the stress it causes.

At our core, human beings yearn for connection, understanding, and community with one another. Though cruelty and violence sometimes arise, they are but brief shadows cast against humanity’s inherent pursuit of compassion.

Lead with kindness and compassion. All we have is each other.


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