Donald Morrison: The United States of cruelty


BECKET — Sigmund Freud believed that we're all born with an impulse to inflict suffering on another human being. To him, children are "uncivilized heathens" who must be taught how to control such urges so they can live with others in harmony.

If so, then Americans are very bad little boys and girls these days. We seem to be swept up in a national epidemic of cruelty. I'm talking — no surprise to anyone who reads the news — about our mistreatment of refugee children in detention camps along the southern border. Also about our recent policy of separating those children from their parents, many of whom are themselves treated badly.

This cruelty crusade targets not just immigrants, but native-born Americans as well. Our government is currently trying to deprive some of its most vulnerable citizens of health care, food stamps, school lunches, disability benefits, consumer and workplace protections, clean air and water, even the vote. Our government also wants to cut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and other programs that make life a bit less cruel for millions.


Meanwhile, we are the only developed country in the world that lets so many of its people go hungry, homeless and — our specialty — bankrupt from medical bills. We imprison, torture and kill people in shocking numbers. Our politicians treat each other like enemies and regard compromise as a form of treason. If nastiness were an Olympic sport, America would be a shoo-in for the gold next summer in Tokyo.

We have our excuses: The country is overcrowded, immigrants are criminals and rapists, they steal our jobs and don't pay taxes, only cruelty will discourage them from coming. As for our own citizens, we have no choice but meanness: Government spending is out of control, the poor are lazy and larcenous, social programs just make them worse.

We are not deterred by reality. Immigrants are, in fact, less likely to commit crimes than the rest of us. They come to the U.S. mostly to avoid violence and unemployment at home, not to get food stamps. They pay taxes, often at rates higher than some millionaires, but get little in return. Besides, we need immigrants; our birthrate is declining and jobs are going unfilled.

As for harshness toward our fellow citizens, the poor tend to work more jobs than those of us with trust funds. Besides, we just gave away $1.5 trillion in tax cuts, largely to the well-off. Money is clearly not the problem.

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So what is? I've grazed recently among the rich literature of cruelty, including Freud's "The Ego and the Id" (1923) Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem" (1963) and Yale psychologist Paul Bloom's "Against Empathy" (2018). They provide useful insights into our current, mean-spirited mania.

Some experts think cruelty is essentially a lack of empathy: We don't have much contact with people who are unlike us, so we don't care much about them. That makes them fair game for mistreatment, especially when somebody tells us they're threatening our jobs or traditions. Hannah Arendt blamed industrialized cruelty like the Holocaust on blind allegiance to ideologies that raise such fears and thereby provide meaning to the lives of alienated masses.


Other psychologists believe cruelty is linked to a sense of superiority. People who think they're better — more industrious, more religious, more patriotic — tend to be indifferent to the suffering of perceived inferiors. Sometimes these righteous folks actually inflict that suffering, as if to confirm their self-worth or to even-up some cosmic score. Paul Bloom believes the perpetrators really do recognize their victims' humanity, which only heightens the satisfaction of making them suffer.

Whatever its origins, cruelty transcends class and religious differences, even political affiliations. Both major parties in the U.S. have discovered the utility of keeping "the base" angry, of painting opponents as unspeakably, irredeemably deplorable. And even though one party is responsible for most of our current tantrum of cruelty, the other one doesn't seem to be doing much about it except to complain.

We should all be doing far more than that. Our lack of empathy, our sense of superiority and our blind loyalty to ideological demagogues have led us to deprive innocent children of soap, toothpaste, beds, blankets, showers, medical care and even parents. What atrocities come next?

America once shone as a beacon of hope and generosity in a mad, remorseless world. Abandoning that role for its opposite — government-sanctioned cruelty — is not merely a national disgrace. It's a sign of mental illness. America is sick. We need help.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and Advisory Board member.


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