Graeme Newell

Justified Cruelty

Nazism, war, cyberbullying. Why do normally decent people enthusiastically line up to be the next to inflict brutal punishments on innocent victims? Dehumanizing out-groups is a powerful survival tool that was carefully crafted during our distant evolutionary past.

When our hunter-gatherer ancestors suddenly found themselves in times of drought and famine, violent raids on neighboring tribes were often the only option for survival. Yet tribes needed to somehow build a moral code that made killing members of their OWN tribe deplorable, yet killing members of OTHER tribes was heroic. How did our ancestors pull off this ethical slight-of-hand? Justified cruelty.

By concocting a simplistic and REPREHENSIBLE character flaw, hurting out-groups was not just ALLOWABLE, it became downright HEROIC. It’s a moral get-out-of-jail-free card. The out-group DESERVED the cruelty inflicted upon them.

So never forget that Mother Nature has wired all of our brains with a hair-trigger, instinctual inclination to demonize outsiders. Take a long hard look at the people in your own life whom you believe “had it coming to them.” Criminals? Ethnic groups? The opposing political party? That’s your caveman brain talking.

Forgive yourself for feeling it, but never forget that the temptation to act cruelly is always just a heartbeat away for all of us who have human ancestors.