Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Should Cruelty Be Considered Insanity?

Originally posted on February 2, 2014

I object to the conflation of mental illness and inhumanity. Only rarely is deep mental illness associated with cruelty. It does happen, but never on a broad scale. Were the Nazis who so methodically pursued the “Final Solution” merely nuts? Were the Hutus who engaged in genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda insane? In my role as psychiatrist (retired), I would like to see these categories separated, as much as diseases that look a little alike, but have very different causes.

The problem of the common illusion of sanity is that it assumes a deep humanity. But many people in the living past who assumed that they participated in deep humanity were and continue to be inhumane in the way they think about and treat certain other categories of humans.

I confess, though, that I myself may be hard in this way: In the case of a prejudice against hardened, antisocial criminals, well, I confess to a deep bias that wants to separate “them” away from “us.” I justify this by thinking that except for the few who are truly repentant, most are in deep denial. It’s hard to forgive those who not only don’t think they have done anything that wrong, but circumstances might in their minds justify their repeating their crimes. They’re “just” getting back, or getting while the getting is good, or in other ways rationalizing their crimes. Nor do I consider this “insane” in anywhere near the same category as someone who cannot control their basic mental faculties.

On the mass level, though, are nations insane, are large groups, or most dictators insane. I would argue that they are not. It’s peculiarly easy to demonize some target group, to justify their oppression. After all, who has “caused” the group’s or nation’s trouble? Who gets included in the category of “trouble-makers” or “rebels,” or even “former oppressors”? They “deserve” the cruelty that we return. Or perhaps we think we must be strict or harsh to teach “them” to behave or keep them in line.

Rationalized Emotionality

We should recognize that much cruelty seems reasonable to the people being cruel. The mind has no trouble unconsciously coming up with plausible explanations and justifications for their inhumanity. Often with people who are sensed as allies, they are capable of kindness and sympathy, and this “proves” to those who are being cruel to some that they are “really” nice—if it weren’t for the harshness that they “have” to exercise to keep the bad elements in line.

A few years ago I gave a lecture on the anti-“witch” campaigns in Europe from the 15th through the 18th century—tens of thousands of innocent people—mainly women—being killed, often after brutal torture to make them confess. This was hardly madness. Based on false but widely held assumptions, propaganda, etc.—but hardly “hysteria”!—this campaign was stoked by clergy and (yes! {Gulp!}) many physicians, as well as the various levels of governors of cities and small regions.

Many other places in the world engage not only in genocide, but the systematic oppression that is needed to sustain slavery, the domination of women, witchcraft, and other follies that more advanced civilizations decry. But even in these so-called “advanced” civilizations, I have no doubt that many of their practices will be viewed by many with horror in two or three generations in the future.

Alas, at present, most professional mental health workers don’t have a clear way of differentiating the psychology that leads to genocide. Calling it mob psychology doesn’t adequately speak to the way that highly rationalized thought can often lead to genocide and a self-righteous “cleansing” of those elements believed to be destructive to the dominant population, and the way this kind of seeming-insanity can seem to be the most sane response to a perceived threat. That this dynamic is often highly organized as government propaganda or party politics and advertising again helps to differentiate from what most folks imagine to be “crazy.”

The worst thing about such words is that it seems that “we” are incapable of such wickedness, because we think we mean well! How could people who are kind (in some roles) be wicked? Ah, but the way to hell is paved with good intentions, and often that hell is what we make for others! Seemingly good, civilized people must be recognized as being vulnerable to demagogues who play on people’s fears and provoke them to mass evil. People—maybe us, if we aren’t alert to that possibility—may be persuaded to engage in behaviors that at the time may seem like eminently good sense! Let’s eliminate threats to the common good. (The problem is that in such large group dynamics, those few who might question who is truly the greatest threat become oppressed, also, as allies of the scapegoats—nigger lover, commie sympathizer, infidel, other epithets.)

Outright cruelty has been seen as a rational act to terrify slaves or others into subjugation. Far too many who are in many roles kind consider that cruelty is needed in order to maintain their idea of civilization. This was true, for example, of the terrible acts of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s, which they viewed as necessary for promoting purity and the rightful success of their version of a higher civilization. Others in Cambodia, Rwanda, and elsewhere have come to similar conclusions.

The ethical problem is what to do with those who are considered to be a drain on the culture and its goals. Should any party presume to know what is good and what is evil? This is a question that is deeply controversial.

The Nazis, the ethnic cleansing and massacres throughout history, most are not conscious acts of cruelty. Rather, they are policies of governments that let those who are seen as a drain on their culture.

From the victor’s secure position looking back at whoever are judged to be the bad guys, it seems that “they” were mad, insane. How else can we explain why good people do bad things? (To question that our concept of an all-loving god can consign vast numbers to everlasting torture in hell seems to be taboo. Too many “good” people believe this, and we shouldn’t make trouble by spreading dissent, now, should we?) (That many “true believers” were capable of great cruelty also does little to impress people with the incapacity of true belief to serve as a moral guide. Again, that’s off the table. Then was then and now is now, right?) Although in other matters, these folks are more than willing to note that events in the distant past that any thinking person would consider to be beyond-legendary, historically, are absolutely true. Yet I do not consider that it is insane to sustain these inconsistencies. Rather, this capacity to wall off less noble behaviors, rationalize them, to be the height of yet-immature humanity, not sufficiently evolved beyond the mentality of the cruel middle ages.

In summary, often the greatest wickedness has been perpetrated by the greatest hypocrites: Nobles that imagined they were pinnacles of righteousness. People pursuing “final solutions”— the Nazis by no means were the first or the last on this count. Good people behaving in shameful ways, but (said with an apologetic shrug that is unwilling to condemn too harshly), “that was the custom at the time.” What is problematic for me is the mixing of the virtue of humility and forgiveness with a blindness to the behavior at the time—and more, an overlooking of similar but slightly milder or different kinds of behavior still being supported in the present.

We should recognize that mind is vulnerable to illusions—many of them. For example, looking back in time or at other cultures (ignoring the “stick in our own eyes”), “they” seems now to have been not merely foolish, but (needing more distance), “mad.” Other than this strange fiction of an eminently sane person behaving badly, it is too threatening to believe that, no, they were quite sane. When one is in those horrible situations, as victim or perpetrator, it’s not crazy, though. It gets rationalized as a fight of good versus evil in which both sides consider that they must fight even greater evil.

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