The Benefits of Cruelty
As I continued to ponder the ideas I shared in my last post, I gave more thought to the idea of the potential hidden benefits of cruelty.
When I used to do a lot of shoplifting in my late teens, aside from the self-destructive nature of those pursuits, there were some benefits as well. It was a way to face my fears. I built a lot of courage during that time. I stretched beyond my comfort zone.
Years later I found more productive (and legal) ways to achieve those same benefits, such as getting into public speaking. Over a period of years, I built up from doing short 7-minute speeches to doing 3-day workshops. Speaking gives me a similar high like shoplifting did, but I don’t have to worry about getting arrested for it… at least not presently.
Shoplifting wasn’t something I just got sucked into. I chose to do it. Eventually it became something of an addiction, but in the beginning it was a choice. By contrast the acts of cruelty I undertook in my past were usually unconscious. They largely resulted from unquestioned habits installed during early childhood.
That said, I’ve still been asking myself, What’s the benefit of cruelty? If it’s such a popular engagement for humanity, surely there must be some benefit to it. Otherwise why would people perform such acts?
I suppose for some it could convey a sense of power or dominance. Maybe I could access those feelings at one time, but I generally don’t feel that way towards acts of cruelty today. They don’t seem strong or powerful to me. If I were to deliberately do something cruel today, I expect that it would make me feel weaker, not stronger.
As I reflected upon this question further, however, I realized that there is a very real benefit to cruelty. That benefit is a greater sense of belongingness. In a group that condones some acts of cruelty, to participate in such acts can give one a sense of being part of the collective.
An unintended side effect of my sometimes obsessive commitment to personal growth is that it can create a feeling of distance between myself and the rest of society. The more I move away from social norms, the more there’s the potential to feel like a social outcast… or to be treated like one by others.
One way I compensate for this is by spending more time with like-minded people. This is one reason I love speaking and doing workshops — it provides more opportunities to connect with people with similar values.
The truth is that most of the areas in which I may be different from others don’t seem to negatively affect my sense of belongingness. Not having a job, not being religious, being in an open relationship — these rarely cause me any real trouble in relating to other people.
There is one area which seems to cause me more trouble than any other — my sense of compassion. It would seem that being more compassionate should make it easier to connect with others. But in my experience, it often serves to create more distance, at least in a society that doesn’t normally place such a high value on values like compassion and caring. We may idealize such qualities, but in our day-to-day interpersonal interactions, compassion can actually be a social liability.
Suppose I’m with a group of friends, and everyone is eating animal products, while I eat something else (or nothing at all) because my moral compass tells me that turning animals into consumables is wrong. Perhaps a few of them even celebrate their choices, like proclaiming the tastiness of barbecued flesh… while my perceptions are quite different from theirs. I find it more difficult in these moments to experience a sense of harmony with such friends.
Occasionally when someone has invited me to lunch or dinner, I’ve redirected to suggest other ways of connecting that don’t involve food. How about if we go for a walk instead? I might say. That makes it easier for me to focus on what we have in common instead of highlighting our differences.
Being a Social Outcast
Another way this difference in compassion gets highlighted is when I’m around other men who have views towards women that are very different from mine. I don’t like it when men talk about women as objects or targets, when they rate a woman’s value based on her looks, when they act as if the only reason to connect with a woman is to get her into bed. If I challenge these attitudes and suggest alternatives, then I become a target of ridicule for such men, which has happened on more than one occasion. There are countless threads on other people’s forums, especially in the seduction community, where such men criticize and condemn me, basically for not being enough like them. They’ll sometimes post pictures of women I’ve connected with and criticize whatever they can about them too. To them, women are objects to be manipulated, and anyone who suggests otherwise is not only wrong, but also a perceived enemy to some degree.
Many women, unfortunately, aren’t much better. Some who’ve never met nor talked with me, have written lengthy blog posts analyzing the failure of my marriage, the perversion of my interest in open relationships, or the pure deviance of my love of cuddling. I become a target for whatever past transgressions any man has ever done to them. I wonder who they’re really writing about, since the thoughts, feelings, and intentions they condemn me for aren’t any that I could conceivably recognize as mine. So I remain an outcast among the men who objectify women and among the women who demonize men, and those are some pretty sizable communities.
Another group of people with whom I sense a sometimes glaring disconnect is entrepreneurs. When I do things like removing third-party advertising from my website or uncopyrighting my work, for some reason many people in that community seem to perceive me as a threat. Sometimes they’ll write long posts about how I must have some secret agenda beneath the surface. I happen to like having a website that isn’t full of ads; I think that’s a nicer way of serving my readers. I want people to be able to enjoy my articles for free without unnecessary distractions like pop-up ads. I get more joy from helping people than I do from earning money. This prioritization of my values, however, can create a disconnect with entrepreneurs who are more profit-focused. While I am technically an entrepreneur, I often find it hard to relate to other entrepreneurs because they usually value money a lot more than I do, whereas in their minds I go way too overboard in trying to help people for free, so therefore I must be less savvy or perhaps even a bit wacko. A more generous criticism of me is that I’m too idealistic and not realistic enough. I think that some of them are genuinely bothered by the fact that my business actually works. One entrepreneur actually stood up at one of my workshops, went on about how it doesn’t work to follow your heart in business, and closed with, “So fuck you, Steve Pavlina!” I smiled at her, bowed, and continued with the workshop.
I get invited to speak to groups of entrepreneurs sometimes, and with such groups I often like to speak about finding and following one’s path with a heart in business. That isn’t an easy thing to do, especially when other speakers at the same event may be sharing ways to make more money (sometimes in ways that I consider manipulative), but I feel that I have an important message to share. At some events, I feel that this message falls on deaf ears with most of the people in the room, but when one or two people talk to me privately afterwards and tell me how much they needed to hear what I shared and how much it validated their own thoughts and feelings on the subject, it really lights me up inside and encourages me to continue doing this where I can.
Despite the challenges, I consider myself very lucky to have enjoyed some really wonderful connections with like-minded people. But like me, these people usually dwell on the fringes of society. They too, to at least some degree, are social outcasts, even though many of them seem much happier and more fulfilled than the average person.
I find it so easy to connect with other people who really care about others and who are committed to doing good in the world while minimizing the harm they cause. In their presence I effortlessly relax into oneness. But with most people I meet, it isn’t so easy to connect with such a degree of harmony.
I’ve been wondering whether I should focus even more attention on like-minded people and engage in fewer interactions where a perceived incompatibility is more likely… or if I should seek out ways to feel a sense of belongingness with a much broader range of people. I often flip-flop on my approach here.
Connecting Through Cruelty
Just as thievery is a way to face fears and build courage, cruelty is actually a way to create a sense of belongingness. Since some level of cruelty is extremely common among human beings, it’s easier to belong if one is able to exhibit some cruelty now and then. Eat animals. Objectify women. Bash men. Throw around a few racial slurs. Manipulate people for personal gain. This validates you as one of the gang. If you can embrace cruelty in some fashion, it isn’t difficult to find a social tribe that will welcome you.
Have you ever observed yourself being a bit cruel now and then, perhaps even more than felt good to you, in order to fit in? Did you ever advertise your cruelty to reduce or avoid the risk of becoming a social outcast among your peers?
Being a caring and compassionate man is very important to me, so much so that I’m willing to be a social outcast if I must. However, I’d rather not be such an outcast if I can avoid it. I do desire a greater sense of belongingness. I’m just not willing to sacrifice my compassion to do it.
So just as I learned to discover and re-integrate the benefits of stealing without the drawbacks, I’m now seeking ways to re-integrate the benefits of cruelty — namely a greater sense of belongingness — but without the perceived drawbacks.
I’m not yet sure what this solution will look like. I feel like I’m getting closer to a significant perspective shift though, one which could open up some wonderful new opportunities for me socially.
I think that somehow I’m going to need to get better at connecting with people’s hearts when I communicate with them. If I’m unwilling to connect with people on the basis of shared cruelty, then I have to find something else to share — something that’s powerful enough to override the potential feeling of disconnect due to our differences. Surely there must be something more powerful that we can share other than cruelty.
Cruelty is very expedient. It’s actually a pretty efficient way to connect. If you wish to be accepted into a new group, you can listen attentively and learn their particular language of cruelty and then demonstrate that you can speak that language too. Boom — you’re quickly accepted into the group. I think that’s partly because outside of that group, it may be risky to speak that same language. By taking that risk yourself, you validate the group, and so the group validates you in return.
I don’t find compassion to be quite as expedient. With the right people, compassion is a truly wonderful way to connect. But when people aren’t used to connecting on that basis, it takes time to earn their trust. Some people are still suspicious of genuine, open-hearted invitations, as if there must be a hidden agenda in there somewhere. A lot of people have been hurt or betrayed in the past, and so they don’t even trust what their own intuition is telling them. They get stuck in their heads or in their fears and talk themselves out of otherwise perfectly good connections.
Connecting on the basis of compassion with like-minded people is easy. When I meet a woman who thinks like I do, it’s wonderful. We love to co-create and share that delightful feeling of oneness. It’s perfectly natural to us. But for someone who isn’t used to this language, it may take a while for them to feel comfortable with it, if they can even make that journey at all. They can’t just dive into it and enjoy it. It’s too different from what they’re used to. They may actually find it easier to connect through teasing each other or making sarcastic comments. There are women who truly seem to want to connect with a man who will treat them like an object. Trying to cultivate a loving, heart-centered connection with such a woman doesn’t work so well; it’s not what she wants.
I absolutely love the depth, intimacy, and warmth that comes from connecting with people on the basis of compassion and love, but in my experience it tends to be slow, and not everyone is willing to invest the time to create a foundationally strong connection in this way.
Speed isn’t the most important factor to me. But I do wonder whether I could discover a way to more quickly cultivate a sense of belongingness with more people without having to connect with their cruelty.
Compassion is wonderful on its own, but I don’t feel that it can fully substitute for cruelty’s primary benefits when it comes to creating a sense of belongingness, especially in a group situation.
I wonder if humor could be a possible key. Humor and cruelty do overlap in some ways, but we can still have either one without the other. What about the subset of humor that involves no cruelty then? Good-natured humor could be a fairly universal way to connect, and humor can be much more expedient than compassion. I think that even sarcasm and teasing can qualify as good-natured, if the intention is to amuse, entertain, connect, and create laughter rather than to inflict harm or to damage someone’s self-esteem… and if the humor is playfully received.
Humor is something I really like about humanity. I love that we have the ability to laugh at ourselves and our circumstances. It would be an interesting path of development to strengthen one’s humor skills as a way of enjoying the benefits of cruelty, but minus the drawbacks of cruelty.
Sharing acts of cruelty is a form of mutual validation. Sharing humor can also be a form of mutual validation.
What’s unsatisfying about the humor route, however, is that it doesn’t resolve my feelings towards cruelty. It can be a way of connecting superficially, but by itself it doesn’t make me want to connect more deeply with a person. I still regard it as a helpful tool, and I use it liberally in my social connections, but more as a way to release tension than as a way to experience real intimacy with someone.
One person suggested that connecting on the basis of shared delusion could work. We all delude ourselves to some extent, don’t we? We all deny some aspects of truth. On the surface this approach makes sense since most of the people I know who eat animals seem to be in denial about the cruelty aspects of such behaviors; they usually don’t like to face that part of themselves. So I could relate to them and empathize with them better by noticing how I do the same in some area of my life.
I’ve already explored this to some degree, and it does help, but in practice I find that it only takes me so far.
This can be a difficult concept to apply because much of the time we’re deluding ourselves, we simply don’t see it. It’s easier to notice and to point out someone else’s delusions. Seeing our own is tougher. That’s the nature of the beast.
However, even when we can empathize with each others’ delusions, this doesn’t usually create much intimacy or belongingness. I still see the cruelty as being wrong, and as time passes, I find it increasingly difficult to unearth aspects of myself which can compare with the scope of paying people to torture and slaughter other beings.
Suppose it was 1943, and you sat down with a Nazi officer who expressed pride in the efficiency of the concentration camp he managed. Suppose he shared his delight at improving the facility’s conversion rate, in terms of how quickly they’re able to convert Jews into ashes… or the productive output of their forced labor… or the efficiency of recycling the prisoners’ stolen possessions. Would you be able to find a suitable self-delusion that would allow you to effectively empathize with this person? Could you pat him on the back and say, “Yeah, I get ya! You know… lately I’ve also been feeling more inclined to reduce large numbers of people to ashes. I’ve been wondering if I should work on that though”?
Or is it more likely that you’d be too busy dealing with your own disgust at this person’s attitude to really access much empathy in the moment?
If you’d sat down with Elliot Rodger before he went on a shooting rampage and listened to him talk about his hatred of women, his sense of entitlement, and his desire for retribution, would you feel motivated to want to connect with him further? Would you be able to empathize with his attitude? Or would you be more interested in wanting to get him off the streets and have him locked up somewhere?
That said, this empathy approach does help in fairly mild cases, especially with very open-minded, growth-oriented people. But in practice I don’t find it that effective much of the time. When I see that Nazi-like, entitlement attitude in someone as it applies to our treatment of animals, I normally feel more interested in leaving than in trying to relate to them. I simply feel too disgusted or disappointed to want to connect further, at least in that moment.
Another reader suggested that BDSM could be a practical way to explore my connection to cruelty — specifically the S&M side of BDSM. I know women who enjoy this sort of thing — women who like being treated like objects, enjoy giving and/or receiving pain, or who get turned on by being humiliated. None of that feels good to me though. I just don’t like it. Even when I’m with a woman who’s happy to play together in this way, and there’s clear consent from her to go there, I can’t be that kind of partner for her. It’s too big of a turn-off for me.
When I do D/s play, there’s no violence or cruelty involved, either physically or emotionally. If I felt that the woman was beginning to feel embarrassed or humiliated by what we were doing, I wouldn’t continue playing with her in that way. My exploration of this area is light-hearted, playful, fun, and even silly at times. I only do it with women who perceive it in a similar fashion. It’s basically a form of role-playing that allows us to intensify our feelings for each other. For me the dominance aspect has to do with my enjoyment of being able to direct our play together, as opposed to doing anything that involves force or coercion.
I understand and accept that for some people, carefully chosen expressions of cruelty can increase the emotional intensity of a connection in positive ways. I just don’t derive that same kind of pleasure from it, even when I’m convinced that the other person would.
I enjoy such delicious emotional intensity from more subtle ways of connecting — through the sensitivity of touching, smiling, or sensual kissing. A slow, more tantric approach is so much more stimulating to me than anything that would fall on the side of cruelty.
Another suggestion was to try to access the more vengeful part of me. What if someone wronged me in a really severe way? Could I get in touch with the cruelty aspect of myself more easily then, by wanting to seek vengeance?
Maybe if the conditions were right, I could get really pissed off for a time, but does that mean I have to wait for someone to do something really egregious in order to access those feelings? Even if that happened, knowing myself as I do, I’d eventually recover. I simply don’t like dwelling in those feelings for long. If I did indulge in those feelings, I’d expect that the people in my life would help to pull me out of that place and back to a more positive and constructive emotional state again.
I don’t feel that most people who transgress against animals are doing it with the intention of committing serious harm. I think the harm arises mainly from ignorance, denial, and rationalization as opposed to a genuine hatred of animals and the intention to see them suffer. As I learned in the recent Food Revolution Summit, surveys show that even most animal eaters want to see their food animals raised and slaughtered more humanely. I can’t think of anyone I know who actually approves of the standard factory farming practices.
Even when I consider a company like Monsanto, which is about as close to pure evil as a company can get — for instance, their actions have led to the suicides of more than 250,000 farmers in India — I still feel that they’re acting from a place of fear, greed, and ignorance. That doesn’t give rise to a strong desire for vengeance within me. Same goes with the Wall Street investors who help to fuel and reward such enterprises.
I just don’t feel any desire to exact revenge on people for eating animals or for working in that field. I feel more sorrow and disappointment with the situation than anger or hatred.
Since I don’t actually feel a desire for vengeance, what about allowing myself to more openly express my true feelings?
I feel that I already do a decent job of allowing myself to feel what I feel and to acknowledge my feelings on the inside. I allow myself to feel the sorrow. Sometimes the magnitude of the cruelty emotionally overwhelms me. From time to time, I just let go and cry. When I allow those feelings to surface, I feel a sense of relief afterwards.
I don’t, however, normally share these feelings when I’m with people who eat animals, probably because I don’t fully trust them. But maybe that attitude is a mistake.
Normally when I’m out sharing a meal with people who eat animals, and I see the dead flesh on their plate, I feel sad about it. I feel disappointed. I feel ashamed that humanity is still doing this. Within my heart I’ll often say a silent prayer for the animal who had to suffer in order to become that meal. I’ll send out a silent “I’m sorry” thought, as if it’s my duty to apologize to all animals on behalf of humanity. But I do my best not to let those feelings show. I don’t share with anyone what’s happening inside me in those moments.
As we continue to eat, I may look away from their plate and try to distract myself from what I’m feeling. Or I’ll talk about something unrelated. Or I’ll do my best to enjoy my own meal. But there’s usually a part of me that still feels the sadness during those times. If someone comments about how delicious the animal flesh is, I feel the sting of that even more. A being had to suffer and die merely for entertainment purposes… so unjust and unfair. But I don’t show — I never show — what I’m really thinking and feeling.
As I write this, this behavior is beginning to sound inauthentic to me. Perhaps I don’t share these feelings because I don’t want to make other people uncomfortable. Maybe I’m just being polite. Maybe I don’t want to risk yet another debate about something that isn’t worthy of debate in my view. Once you’ve indulged in the equivalent of debating with a Nazi over whether a Jew is really a person for the 1000th time, do you really want to risk kicking off round 1001? The outcome is all too predictable.
Maybe that’s a mistake. I don’t have to turn my feelings into a topic for discussion every time I share a meal with an animal eater, but I could at least stop suppressing my own natural inclination to let my face reveal how I feel in the moment. Is it okay to let myself look sad when I’m feeling sad?
Sometimes if I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed in a larger group setting, when I’m very present to the fact that there’s a significant quantity of sliced up animal corpses in the room with me, and everyone else seems to be smiling and laughing and enjoying some festivities, with no acknowledgement whatsoever of the suffering and the sacrifice of lives it took to satiate their appetite for flesh, I’ll excuse myself and just leave for a while. At one large group dinner I attended, I discovered that there was not a morsel of vegan food for me to eat, despite the fact that I always let the hosts know about my diet in advance. I was hungry, and the server was very apologetic for the situation. I actually felt relieved though. I quietly left the room and went for a walk outside for an hour. The cool night air was soothing to my spirit. I rejoined the group later after everyone had their fill of flesh. I didn’t feel I’d missed anything that mattered to me. Sometimes I just need to go off on my own to engage in my own care of the soul practices.
The truth is that eating animals doesn’t just hurt animals. It also causes emotional pain in people who are sensitive to the emotional pain of other living beings.
If you were walking down the street, and you saw someone physically beating their dog and heard the dog yelping in pain, would you feel any emotional disturbance within you? Would you care? Would you feel anything for the dog? Why not for other animals too then?
When Elliot Rodger hurt people, many others who didn’t know him or any of the victims felt hurt as well. He delivered pain to people who were nowhere near any of the bullets. I feel such pain whenever I see people condone acts of cruelty towards animals as well as people.
The pain I feel in those situations is normally much greater than whatever sting I may feel from violence that’s intentionally directed at me. I can stand up for myself. There are people I can turn to for help. I can consciously choose to bear the pain. I can seek meaning and purpose in it. But animals in factory farms are not even permitted to defend themselves. Even their beaks and claws are sliced off. Their purpose is to serve as gustatory entertainment for a significantly more powerful — and more violent — species.
I’m deeply disappointed that humanity is so willing to prey upon the weak, when it’s completely unnecessary for our survival.
Can these feelings actually help me connect with people and to enjoy more intimacy in my life though? Or do they only serve to distance and isolate me from others? I don’t presently know the answer to that. Are there more people out there who can relate to what I’ve shared here? Or am I just too different from you for having these thoughts and feelings? Would you rather see me honor these feelings… or suppress them?
Of course there are other possibilities to explore as well. These are the ones that I’m pondering for now.