The Cruelty of Our Times

The worst part of our times is that cruelty, which has always come too easily to human beings, has now become the accepted mode of too much of our lives.

And for so many reasons.

Because we are so divided politically and so threatened by the other side we want to obliterate them.

Because we are so threatened by the other side that we can’t abide anyone on our side who doesn’t think and talk exactly as we do, or who fails to rise to the same level of indignation at some offense that we do.

Because we talk to so many people at a mediated distance, which makes it impossible to see the immediate harm we do to others with our words.

Because political conflict, economic struggles, and endless choices make us so uncertain of ourselves and our future that we seek the constant affirmation that comes with showing we are better than others.

Because, as we see too many of our fellow human beings sink into desperate poverty and homelessness, and we worry about ourselves, we want to assure ourselves that people in trouble are responsible for their fate. Because some of our political leaders encourage cruelty in their followers and too many others fail to act decently and condemn them.

Cruelty, as Judith Shaklar wrote, is the worst of the vices, the one that does the most damage to others, and ultimately to ourselves. It’s the vice that not only makes daily life unpleasant but can lead to war and atrocity.

The cruelty of our time is seen in so much of our conversation. And it’s becoming increasingly influential in our public policy.

The continued attacks on the rights of transgender people, women, Black and brown people, and those with low incomes are motivated more by cruelty than by any other goal. The Republican embrace of “work requirements” for those who received benefits such as SNAP and Medicaid—almost all of whom work, take care of dependent children or parents or are disabled—is driven by nothing real except cruelty.

We shouldn’t just blame the Right, however, for there is plenty of cruelty on the Left as well, which we direct at one another as well as at the Right. And when we respond to the right’s cruelty in kind we accomplish nothing politically. We do nothing to undermine the cruelty of the right and turn those in the middle against us as well.

There have been worse times to be alive, times in which genocide and slavery and plague and bad weather have called our continued existence in question.

But it’s hard to imagine a worse “normal” time, that is, a time when most of us don’t worry about immediate survival. The freedom from immediate threats that comes with normality makes the casual cruelty of this time even harder on all of us.

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