Thinking about cruelty

This week I’ve been thinking about cruelty. Growing up as a nerdy, gender-nonconforming kid, I spent a lot of time playing with girls, and received some hardcore mean-girl training, often by being on the receiving end of the meanness.

I also spent time with boys and learned how to tease and joke and gaslight and deny. I was teased often enough, but it still took too long for me to realize that when I did it, it had the same effect on others: I was hurting people.

So I know that I have a mean streak. When I really don’t like someone, it’s like wanting to scratch an itch: I have to restrain myself from the all-too-human pleasure of being unkind to them. I don’t always succeed.

I also have a profound capacity to love, and the ability to catch myself in a cruel moment and transform it into a compassionate one where I try to listen to and understand the person whom I want to judge and even punish.

But all of this is my individual behavior. Something I mostly missed out on has been the whole tribe mentality, the way an entire group can become vicious, such as the team-sports politics of Democrats vs Republicans, Bernie vs Hillary, and so on. While I’m missing the team-gene, I’m just as susceptible as anyone to peer pressure and groupthink, and during the past few weeks I’ve observed how easily I can be influenced by the people around me.

When I see this hatred playing out in public, it scares and repulses me, in part because it reminds me of my own vulnerable status and insecurity. I can see how someone could manipulate me through that fear: this could happen to you, so stay in line.

This applies across the board. I’m appalled at some of the messages I see in social media that are intended to support my point of view, but which are expressed with such a profound lack of compassion that I cannot get near them. I understand the impulse: there are many forces, both intentional and unconscious, from the presidency downwards, pushing us all towards greater alienation and brutality. But we must resist. Indeed, I believe it’s as important to resist this as everything else.

This is a terrible time, and I fear it will get worse. We must be prepared to confront and oppose behavior that has no place in our society. But I hope that we also can continue to see one another as human beings capable of change and growth.

I don’t identify as a Christian, but I still pray for those who would persecute me, and who are actively persecuting other, much more vulnerable members of our community. And you know what? If those whom I see as my persecutors say they are praying for me as well, I welcome it. Perhaps that act of comtemplation will help them see me in a new light.

But praying is only part of it. I’m also prepared to fight for what I believe in. With compassion. With determination. And with an openness of spirit that gives both me and the people I’m opposing room to grow.