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Culture Of Cruelty


new internationalist
issue 215 - January 1991

Culture of cruelty
Psychologist Richard Ryder makes the
case for squeamishness and sissiness.

What are the motives for cruelty to animals? There are, of course, very many. They range from straight commercial profit to emotional scapegoating, from careerism in science to manifestations of mental illness, from social conformity to sexual sadism, from snobbery to the motive I regard as the most neglected - machismo.

Our treatment of nonhumans lays bare the truth about us as human beings. It reveals that beneath our veneer of civilization we are, in reality, greedy, selfish, ruthless, cowardly and - paradoxically - kind. A child's ambivalence towards a pet is basic to the whole human character and illustrates very well the fundamental problem of the human condition.

As human animals we are 'naturally' both cruel and compassionate. One moment we want to dominate and the next we want to nurture. The important point I want to emphasize is that these contradictory impulses are not behaviours we learn but spontaneous and innate ones. We are, by nature, compassionate torturers. But on top of these natural 'instincts' - I use this outmoded word deliberately - we can also learn to be kind and cruel.

Perhaps two-thirds of our behavioural motivation can be explained in cultural - or learned - terms. But underlying this cultural superstructure are our natural foundations of compassion and dominance. In human social relationships, after the first two or three years of life, they tend to be covered over by learned behaviours and may only be glimpsed clearly again in moments of crisis - war, illness or disaster.

In most societies dominance and cruelty between humans are controlled so our true natures are hidden. In our relationships with animals, however, there is less pretence. This is partly because animals have not been included in our moral code - and are unlikely to retaliate effectively to be being treated badly. But it is also because the relationships between humans and animals are less affected by the sexual taboos around physical demonstrations of affection - so humans may spontaneously display affection or compassion towards an animal which they would hesitate to show towards a fellow human.

There is, I believe, a whole bundle of altruistic impulses that we are born with to support the idea that we are spontaneously kind. The most obvious is parental feelings. The maternal drive to protect and nurture is possibly the strongest of all drives in many species. Paternal motives come not far behind although they may have a more possessive and aggressive tinge.

Another of our most powerful emotional responses is to the sight of blood or injury in others; we react with fascination and compassion. We also react with a kind of horror or squeamishness which can make us feel nausea or cause us to faint. Although this reaction is extremely common it has not been studied by scientists, who often seem to be contemptuous of it in others and proud that they can control it in themselves. Yet, surely, squeamishness is one of the most overpowering of behaviours and deserves to be taken seriously, not least because it tells us something about ourselves and our disinclination to inflict injury. Squeamishness should be respected as a powerful motivating force against cruelty and violence.

But the whole of our upbringing, of course, is geared to mastering such feeling and from infancy we are taught not to show our true emotions and impulses. This applies not only to our aggressive and sexual ones, but also our sensitive, compassionate and squeamish ones. The cult of machismo decrees that they are unmanly and sissy. Machismo influences the attitude that men have towards women, and feminists have for this reason spent much energy attacking it. But we are nearly all, in some way, still enslaved by this cult - women as well as men.

It is, I believe, the constant desire to prove to ourselves and others how tough we are that is at the root of much selfishness, cruelty and crime in the world today. It is a major motive for cruelty to animals in bloodsports, laboratory experiments and even factory farming - where natural twinges of sympathy for the animals are suppressed as being sentimental and unbusinesslike. But it also plays a part in crime and football hooliganism - where men show off to each other how 'hard' they are - and in international politics where the politicians' fear of 'losing face' leads us into wars such as the Falklands and to confrontations such as that in the Middle East.

Each culture has it own slightly different brand of machismo but all are pernicious; be it the flamboyant variety that motivates the bullfight, the jealous lover's revenge and the recklessly fast driver; or the more deadly, cold ascetic type which refuses to compromise and which breeds militarism and thuggery.

The point of the cult of machismo is that it is a learned behaviour. It is taught to us as children. We do not have to behave 'like this. Yes, we may be naturally aggressive and cruel - but machismo makes it much, much worse.

However, we must also face up to the fact that unlearned, red-blooded, sado-masochism is another common human motive for cruelty. Professor Miriam Rothschild writes, in her fascinating book Animals and Man 1 , of the connection between cruelty and sexual arousal:

'I was once taken aback by an unusually able assistant of mine suddenly deciding to quit zoology. Apparently she had been given a live, instead of a dead mouse, to feed to a stoat ... Not having the courage to kill the mouse herself, she hurriedly pushed it into the cage. She watched fascinated while the animal crouched terrified in a corner, facing the tense, bright-eyed stoat preparing for the kill. To the girl's consternation she then experienced a violent orgasm.

Although we tend to conceal - even from ourselves - such sadism, we make matters worse by deliberately espousing machismo. For those who hunt and kill wildlife the machismo motive is probably more frequently significant than is sadism. But for the victim it hardly matters which is the predominant motive; the results are just the same.

This brings me to my final point. It seems to me we need a new moral code; not one that is hung up on sex. If you mention morals to some people, all they can think of is fannies and willies. How odd it is that popular morality should be associated with an activity that gives such pleasure; we ought to be far more concerned about those that cause pain. If two, or more, people want to play with each other sexually then let them - provided they do not cause unwanted suffering. Far more important matters of morality are the injustice that leads to poverty in the Third World and in our own societies, violence and pollution, and humankind's tyranny over all nonhuman sentients. These are issues that involve suffering.

Some people argue that pain and distress are not what are really important. They claim that dignity or freedom or justice are the object. But if you then ask the question 'why do dignity and freedom matter?' they are eventually forced to admit that these qualities matter only because they give pleasure and reduce pain. The lack of freedom, justice or dignity, generally speaking, causes pain.

I believe that consciousness - or sentiency - is all that matters ultimately. Each sentient individual - regardless as to whether he, she or it is human or nonhuman, artificial or natural, terrestrial or alien - has rights and, in particular, the right not to be caused pain or distress.

Ultimately all morality comes down to this. In extending our moral concern beyond the boundaries of our own species, so as to respect the consciousness of all sentient individuals, we are tackling the most important moral issue of the millennium.

Richard Ryder is a psychologist and writer. His latest book Animal Revolution - Changing Attitudes Towards Speciesism is published by Basil Blackwell (1990).

1. Clarendon 1986.


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New Internationalist issue 215 magazine cover This article is from the January 1991 issue of New Internationalist.
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