“Cruelty” by Kathleen Taylor – a book review by ‘understandingevil’ blog

The book “Cruelty” by neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor is well worth reading.

The author says that cruelty spans a spectrum from callous cruelty to sadism. In the case of callousness, cruelty is merely a consequence of the perpetrator’s attempt to achieve his ambitions. Somewhere between callousness and sadism is an intermediate type of cruelty, where it is used as an instrument to achieve ambitions. For instance, with terrorism, inflicting terror can be an instrument in achieving the goal: when Puerto Rican terrorists put a bomb that exploded in Fraunces Tavern in New York City, the suffering thus caused was an instrument.

The author raises the interesting point that some senior Nazis were against sadism. Johannes Blaskowitz, Eastern Territories Commander in 1940, complained: ‘If high-ranking SS and police officials demand… brutality, before long people who commit acts of violence will predominate alone. It is surprising how quickly such people join forces with those of weak character in order, as is currently happening in Poland, to give rein to their bestial and pathological instincts.” Some of these Nazis were not against extermination, but they were against the sadism that often accompanied that extermination.

She says that we can be cruel to those we believe are evil themselves, and who we believe intend harm. But we can also be cruel to those who we regard as contaminating forces that inflict sickness, weakness, and death: dangerous animals, cancers, and germs – all of which destroy unthinkingly, because it is their nature. We can look at the enemy as a combination of both.

I (the reviewer) have seen the use of the word “cancer” used on people who are seen as a threat, but most amazingly, I once read the words of a Palestinian who proudly said “We are the cancer in Israel’s stomach.”

Kathleen believes that once we start disparaging a particular group, it starts us on the slope to cruelty. She calls the process ‘otherization”. There is also another trait she talks about, called “world shaping.” For instance, she tells the story of a SS man who demanded a baby from a Jewish woman. The Jewish woman refused to give it up, at which point the SS man grabbed it and tore it into two pieces. Kathleen thinks perhaps the SS, who were taught to see Jews as subhuman and dirty (I myself, who am Jewish actually was called subhuman once) might see a conflict in a baby whose helplessness calls us to empathy. So the SS man tears the baby apart, so that it becomes carrion, a dismembered corpse, with the foul associations that corpses have. Of course other explanations could be possible, but its an interesting speculation.

A good example of otherization is seen with SS-Hauptscharfuhrer Felix Landau, who could spend a morning shooting Jews, and then on another occasion could write “we paid our respects to the murdered German airmen and Ukrainians. Eight hundred people were murdered here in Lemberg. The scum did not even draw the line at children.” In other words his morality was intact, it was just selective.

Cruelty can also occur in supposed self-defence. The genocide in Rwanda, by the Hutu people against the Tutsis, had a background of ethnically driven bloodshed – so while still horrible, it could be construed as a self-defence in the mind of the Hutu. (My comment: It is interesting that the two peoples could live by side for a while, but obviously the Hutu had attitudes that when given the opening, could lead to massive massacres by machete of their fellows.)

One place I somewhat disagree with Kathleen Taylor is in a section titled “Why do perpetrators so often seem disgusted by their victims?” She talks of “otherizing simplifications” directed at those “‘radical Islamist’ Muslims who lurk undetected in our cities, plotting murder in the cause of making Britain a sharia state. Instead of world Jewry, we have the jihad-ridden ummah, while the Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy has given way to al-Qu’eda and its Middle Eastern backers.”
The problem is that there is a real threat from Islam, that there was not from Jewry.
Lets do a comparison:
1. Moslems blow up underground trains in England. Moslems fly planes into the World Trade Center in New York. Jews do no such thing.
2. Polls of Moslems in England show 40% desiring to live under Sharia law instead of UK law. Some Jews do wish to live under “halacha”, but I’ve never seen any movement to make it the law of the land in the USA.
3. Islamic texts do teach holy war against the infidel, until Islam is the dominant religion of the world. This may be the stuff of paranoia, but it is also true. Judaism is not a missionary religion, and that’s the plus side of the “chosen people” idea – that there is a small country in the Middle East reserved for Jews, and that is it.

Life is odd in that respect. You do get real situations that mimic paranoid ones. The paranoia against the Jews was unjustified, but some wariness against the Islamic community is in order. In fact, Christians are fleeing Iraq, and leaving the Palestinian areas of the West Bank, and Lebanon, all because of bad behavior by Moslems. Likewise Jews are leaving European countries like France, Holland and Sweden, due to very real attacks by Moslems.

But back to the idea of disgust – indeed, that is a real phenomenon – in fact I read of an Egyptian film that tried to create disgust for Jews, who are presented as treacherous rapists, etc. (This is a bit much, considering what happened to U.S. TV reporter Lara Logan by the mob in Tahrir Square in Egypt recently)

The Turkish film Valley of the Wolves Iraq shows how Moslem propagandists generate disgust: I quote from a website of an American who saw the film:

The “Plot”

To say that Valley of the Wolves Iraq has something that could be identified as a “plot” is perhaps being a bit too generous to the film. It has a very distinct setting — northern Iraq during the war in 2003 — and memorable characters (to be described below), but no real coherent story line, instead being mostly just a series of vignettes loosely connected by repeated explosions and gun battles.

The film starts with a real incident that received almost no press in the United States, but which apparently was a major scandal in Turkey: a group of American soldiers search a Turkish military outpost, and put hoods on the heads of the Turkish soldiers. (Because this one brief scene supposedly really happened, the filmmakers have claimed that the entire film is “based on a true story,” when in fact the rest of the film is pure fiction.)

A trio of Turkish secret agents then go to Iraq to avenge their nation’s honor by hunting down and killing the American commander who ordered the raid. This mysterious American, played by Billy Zane, is identified in the press materials and in various reviews as a “CIA officer,” but in fact the film never really clarifies who or what he is. Zane plays him as a comic-book super-villain, 110% pure evil, manipulating or randomly killing people whenever it serves his purpose. And — naturally — he’s a born-again Christian who prays to Jesus for success with his demonic plans.

The Anti-Semitic Subplot

For reasons that are never explained, part of his job is to supply fresh victims to a Jewish doctor played by Gary Busey, who vivisects them and sends their healthy organs to Jewish clients in Israel, the United States and elsewhere.

So I’m in full agreement with Kathleen Taylor on the disgust tactic.
I’ll even add that the natural tendency to demonize opponents and to ‘otherize” opponents and to believe things that are simply not true could well be present in some of us who are sincerely worried about Islam. I would also agree that there are good Moslems, though if they take their religion seriously enough, they would have major cognitive dissonance.

Kathleen makes interesting points about disgust. “For minorities, or individuals, who live among the people learning to hate them, the problem is particularly acute. This is because a typical disgust response will involve withdrawal from the stimulus. One looks away, flinches, leaves the scene as fast as possible. When disgust is applied in the service of otherization, this avoidance often results in ghetto formation… ”
She also says:
“By making the targeted minority seem increasingly pestilent and in danger of escaping from its confines, they (the persecutors) make the initial disgust response–avoidance–seem inadequate.”

The next approach may be expulsion and when that seems to be logistically impossible (as in one Nazi plan to ship all Jews to Madagascar) – elimination.

“Cruelty” is an interesting book, and it does seem to indicate that cruelty is part of the human condition. There is a lot more to say about the book, including the neural mechanisms that encourage ‘otherization’. I’ll put up another post on the book, but to those interested in the topic, it is a thought-provoking set of ideas and heartrending facts.


One thought on ““Cruelty” by Kathleen Taylor – a book review by ‘understandingevil’ blog

  1. I’m just starting reading this blog, my interest being spurred by reading about China. There has been, and continues to be, a great deal of cruelty in China of Han on Han, and it goes a long way back. Why is that? Then I got to thinking about the cases of torture we read about in books and magazines. Many governments tolerate torture, others do not. Are there cultural factors that explain this. For example during the Chinese civil was in the 1930’s and 40’s, opposing sides did horrendous, unspeakable things to each other. Nothing like that happened in the American civil war. In Mexico there are, apparently, thousands of beheaded individuals found on the roadsides with signs of torture? I’ve never heard of such a thing in, say, England. Why not? Terrible things were done in central Europe during the 30 years war (not involving Jews btw — have you heard of a Swedish x, cocktail (?), I forget the name of the practice). There is a great deal of cruelty in prisons I read, but right now I’m more interested in the norms of non-criminal societies. One idea is that inbreeding — marrying close relatives — leads to clannishness, and that clannishness correlates with cruelty and/or callous indifference. I must admit it is hard to point to a country with high consanguinity that does not tolerate these sorts of behaviors as a norm. You should be aware incidentally that Jews have been perpetrators as well as victims, at least in the early years of the Soviet Union, and not just in Russian but also in Poland. Aside from that I think instances are rare to unheard of — Israel doesn’t tolerate torture, for example, and neither do American Jews anymore than any other ethnic group.

    Anyway I hope I learn something reading your blog.

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