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“The freedom and exhilaration of moral insensibility” (Newsletter)

This is a difficult subject, but recently it’s been bothering me a lot and it’s all Steve Bannon’s fault.

Let’s say you hate something—anything from water pollution to child trafficking—with a passion. Maybe a kid you know got poisoned by PCBs or disappeared. You loathe it so much, you feel, that if you ever captured a trafficker or a polluter you would gladly torture him. Better yet, get someone else to do it and enjoy their suffering vicariously.

Maybe you wouldn’t get off on that, but mightn’t you titter at someone slipping on a banana peel? That’s a mild form of schadenfreude, and we’ve all felt it at some point in our lives. We’re talking about human

cruelty |ˈkro͞oəltē| noun (pl. cruelties)

callous indifference to or pleasure in causing pain and suffering: he has treated her with extreme cruelty.
• behavior that causes pain or suffering to a person or animal: we can’t stand cruelty to animals | the cruelties of forced assimilation and genocide.
• In Law behavior that causes physical or mental harm to another, especially a spouse, whether intentionally or not.
ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French crualte, based on Latin crudelitas, from crudelis (see cruel)

These thoughts came to mind when I happened to read this passage mentioning Bannon

A popular YouTube video, “The Crazy, Nastyass Honey Badger,” shows this small creature display a viciousness, fearlessness, and recklessness unparalleled in the animal kingdom, attacking a huge cobra, diving into a beehive to eat the larvae in spite of being stung all over. The video’s narrator coined the phrase that Steve Bannon and Breitbart news have taken for their motto: “Honey badger don’t give a shit.” This is a choice, this not giving a shit. It is the voluptuous enjoyment that Nietzsche described. It is the freedom and exhilaration of moral insensibility.

… in a review of Sam Gold’s production of Othello in the New York Review of Books (retrieve it here). That last sentence stuck with me. It could explain why I view alt-right provocateurs like Bannon as morally deficient, predatory creatures. More seriously, it made me wonder if human beings have a “cruelty gene” that masks moral sensibilities and thereby enables sociopathic behavior. And perhaps an “aggression gene” to manifest it.

While the reviewer, Tamsin Shaw, doesn’t mention genetics, he seems to defer to Nietzsche’s view that a penchant for cruelty (does DSM have a name for it?) is baked into every human society.

[Nietzsche] describes the voluptuous “enjoyment of violation,” the primitive man’s “exalted sensation of being allowed to despise and mistreat someone as “beneath him,” the elaborate ancient spectacles of suffering that were “an enchantment of the first order, a genuine seduction to life.” As a scholar of ancient societies he had a visceral sense of the historical realities underlying these claims, the bloody amphitheater, the violent Dionysiac orgy, the prolonged agony of public crucifixions.

The thrill of witnessing someone else’s pain is called sadism, whereas masochism is the thrill of pain itself. Perhaps both are inherited traits, either through culture or biology or both. And perhaps you can’t choose to be one or the other, just as you can’t chose the gender you are born with or identify with; it feels that inexorable. We hear of children of abusive parents whom, we are told, often were abused themselves as children, and sense that this is natural, and if not instinctive, at least somewhat of a behavioral norm in certain circles.

You see this penchant in the cruel and sadistic maltreatment of “less evolved” living creatures that some humans heedlessly, maliciously feel free to do. Thankfully, there’s a diagnostic category for this: Zoosadism.  I want to call it a perversion, but if it’s baked in, doesn’t that sort of naturalize it, or at least locate it on a continuum of “normal” behaviors that different cultures sanction? (Sanction, strangely, can mean either to authorize or to punish, and members of a society may do either or both with respect to zoosadism.)

Methinks it’s a slippery slope from zoosadism to bullying, spousal and child abuse, torture of prisoners, collective punishment, and other forms of meting out punishment. Most people, I presume, stop short of escalating animus to the point of cruelty, but then I suppose what is cruel is in the eye of the beholder. How the victim feels about it is a different story.

So, what if science discovered a gene sequence for cruelty and developed a vaccine to snip it out; what effect would that have on people at large, not just sadists? Would people still do cruel things even if they no longer derive pleasure from doing them? I cannot believe that cruelty is a necessary trait for a species to survive; my hunch is that suppressing it, were that possible, would lead to a kinder, gentler world.

We should live so long. And speaking of Steve Bannon’s disposition, it’s worth noting in this context that (as first reported by the NY Post in August 2016) on New Years Day 1996, in a fit of pique Bannon grabbed then-wife Mary Louise Piccard by the throat in their driveway, chased her into the house, and smashed the phone she used to dial 911. Then he bullied her to get out of town when she was supposed to testify to the incident and had his lawyer threaten her with financial ruin if she pressed charges. When she didn’t show up in court, her case was dismissed. This came out just after he’d become Trump’s 2016 campaign manager.

I just found this out, but somehow it doesn’t surprise me that a fan of mustelids (from the fetid musk they spray in combat or to mark territory) who doesn’t give a shit would abuse his wife (of just nine months) and threaten to withdraw support for their twin daughters (eight months old at the time).

The Post went on to say, “A representative for Bannon told The Post, ‘Steve has a great relationship with his ex-wife and his twins.’”

I’m sure he thinks so. He’s got that gene, I suspect, and takes joy in depositing a foul odor wherever he preys. Now he’s being cited for contempt of Congress. Britannica says Honey Badgers are “strong, fearless fighters but in captivity can become tame and playful.” A jail cell might do the trick for Bannon, but somehow I doubt it.

Just sayin’ there’s people out there whose Golden Rule is “Do unto others before they do unto you,” and enjoy doin’ it.

Take care, everybody.
-Geoff

P.S: If you’re looking for a holiday gift for anyone who enjoys perfidious thrillers, consider sending them a copy of Turkey Shoot, available here.


Curator’s note for featured Image, The reward of cruelty, 1751, from series Four stages of cruelty (engraving)

The reward of cruelty is the dramatic finale to Hogarth’s moralising series Four stages of cruelty, based around fictional character Tom Nero.

In Nero’s early years, he tortures and beats animals, and in the penultimate scene, Cruelty in perfection, he commits murder and theft. The reward of cruelty (a reworking of the frontispiece to the 1543 medical book On the fabric of the human body) shows the body of Nero, who has been tried, found guilty and hanged, being dissected in public. This sarcastic ‘reward’ – denial of a proper burial and mutilation of the body – was in line with Britain’s new Murder Act, introduced in the same year as this print.

This new legislation sought to have murderers executed almost immediately upon being found guilty, at which point, ‘in order to impress a just horror in the mind of the offender’, the perpetrator’s body was to be anatomised or hung in chains, but ‘at no point whatsoever … to be buried’.

Nero’s final fate would be similar to that of the skeletons in the niches behind. His remains would be boiled down (indicated by the cadaver’s left hand pointing towards the steaming cauldron) and reassembled as an anatomical specimen, and thus refused a burial altogether.


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