In seventh grade I once found myself in the school gym locker room changing before class when a group of my classmates began bullying a boy named Pino for having breasts (a condition called gynecomastia that sometimes occurs in young boys at puberty, usually resolving spontaneously). I failed to rise to his defense, too afraid at the time to have their malevolent attention redirected toward me, but remember feeling awful for Pino and wondering how anybody could be so effortlessly cruel.
Its commonly observed how children can be mean to one another in a certain phase of their development, can bully one another mercilessly and then somehow still grow up into reasonably well-adjusted adults who leave their cruel behavior behind in childhood (regrettably, of course, some dont leave it behind, often due to strife, cruelty, or neglect theyve suffered themselves at the hands of their parents or other caregivers). Most of us find cruelty in children as unacceptable as we find it in adults and often attempt to quell it when we see it. And yet if we fully apprehend the true cause of cruelty, were also forced to recognize just how easy it is for any of us to fall prey to it, and further, that it stands as the identical underlying cause of both murder and war.THE SPIRIT OF ABSTRACTION
Its called the spirit of abstraction, a term originally coined by Gabriel Marcel in his essay The Spirit of Abstraction as a Factor Making for War, and is defined as the practice of conceiving of people as functions rather than as human beings. In early American history a large segment of the population labeled African Americans as slaves, reducing their identity as human beings into an abstract idea only, freeing slave owners to consider slaves their property. Hitler convinced a majority of Germans to conceive of a segment of their population as Jews, abstracting their identity as human beings into something he convinced the German people was so inferior he was able to wipe out 6 million of them (not to mention half a million gypsies as well). Americans, in turn, abstracted the Japanese people into Japs, a derogatory term that reduced them from human beings with hopes, loves, families, and fears into the enemy on whom it was therefore eventually permissible to drop two atomic bombs.NOT JUST SOMETIME OR SOMEWHERE ELSE
When George H. Bush announced the beginning of the first Gulf War in 1990 a cheer was reported at a professional basketball game, and I remember thinking that even if a war were deemed necessary how barbarous it was to enter into it with anything other than a heavy heart. I know now why that cheer went up, though. The spirit of abstraction.
Today there are the telemarketers at whom we snap and upon whom we hang up angrily for calling us at home. There are the customer service representatives we abuse for following a no receipt, no return policy. There are other drivers on the road at whom we swear when they refuse to let us merge into traffic (a practice of abstraction of which Im particularly and frequently guilty). All examples of ways each of us fall prey to the spirit of abstraction on a daily basis.
The spirit of abstraction is the main reason I resist associating myself with any group. Certainly texture and interest attaches itself to different cultures and traditions, but its far too easy to abstract others (Americans, Canadians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, women, children, doctors, valets, hairdressers) if I attach too much importance to labels. Not that its wrong to value a particular facet of a person (as long as valuing it is what youre doing), but every groupexcept for the largest, the human race itself (and perhaps even thats too narrow)by definition excludes others. We like to connect ourselves with people who share similar backgrounds and characteristics to make ourselves feel comfortable and safe, but the cost, in my view, is often (though certainly not always) too high: a subtle belief in our own groups superiority that promotes the abstraction of anyone else belonging to another.
How often do you think about even your spouse outside of the function he or she plays in your life, regarding him or her as a full-fledged human being in his or her own right whose needs, desires, and pleasures may exist completely apart from your own? How often do you think this way about your children, overcoming the tendency to conceive of them as simply extensions of yourself and allowing them to blossom in your conception as human beings with their own destiniesdestinies that may be intimately intertwined with yours but are ultimately their own responsibility in the same way your destiny is yours?WHAT CAN WE DO?
I firmly believe if we trained ourselves to avoid abstracting others, cruelty in all its forms would be a far rarer thing than it is today. How, then, can we improve our ability to do this more consistently?