We think we have a clear distinction between cruelty and callousness. The cruel person inflicts pain and is pleased to do so, derives a sense of satisfaction from its infliction. The callous person inflicts pain simply because some other reason makes it expedient, and is indifferent to the pain per se. (The nice person inflicts pain regretfully and does everything they can to avoid doing so, of course).
For example, someone might have to operate on someone without anaesthetic (let us say, there is none available, or the risk of death is too great). A mild operation, not too much pain, but enough that the patient would very much prefer anaesthetic. We might intuitively say that the surgeon who takes satisfaction in the infliction of that pain is cruel (perhaps sadistic might be a more appropriately psychological word? no offence to BDSM tops) while the ‘businesslike’ surgeon who simply gets on with the operation is merely callous (the nice surgeon would, we imagine, do something to minimise the pain or prepare the victim for it?).
So these two alternatives – cruelty and callousness – seem very different: one is defined by a certain affect, the other by a lack of affect. But it seems to me they may often be very similar. I say this because it seems that very often people draw satisfaction precisely from their ‘callousness’, their indifference to pain.
I’m thinking of people for whom it is a point of pride that they do what must be done, and do not concern themselves with the squishy feelings – more broadly, who regard it as an important principle to be dispassionate, to ‘raise themselves’ above crude emotional reactions. People who can see past the messy feelings and sensations to the cold, hard, facts that are important.
I say this is very similar to cruelty/sadism. The sadistic mind encounters the other person’s specific pain, and draws satisfaction from the sense of mastery, control, or superiority that this gives them. As O’Brien says in 1984: how does one man assert his power over another? By making him suffer.
And then the mind that is indifferent to suffering as a point of principle encounter the other person’s specific pain. Here there is only a slight difference – the specific pain is brought under the general category of ‘messy distorting feelings’. Then this category is ignored in action through indifference to the suffering being caused. But this ignoring of it in action itself shows mastery, control, and superiority over it in general – which then provides satisfaction to the mind, understanding itself as the rational.
All that has changed is a slight internal reorganisation – instead of the specific pain of the other providing satisfaction, it is that pain as a representative of the general class of feelings. It is as if a company were to announce a shake-up of its internal structures, and then afterwards to continue to take in the same inputs, produce the same outputs, behave in the same way. Would we really believe that anything essential had changed?
What does this mean? It means that the principle of dispassion, of privileging reason over feeling, of making it a point of principle to ignore feelings – a principle which is deeply entwined with both modernity (science, and the scientification of other disciplines like economics or management) and masculinity (‘toughness’, ‘boys don’t cry’) – this principle is inherently sadistic. Its appeal is the appeal of superiority, of mastery, of power.
Does it matter that science is inherently sadistic, or something close to sadism? Perhaps, perhaps not. It’s not a reason to dispense with science or reject its reliability, or an argument against it in any particular case. But nevertheless it is worth recognising, surely? Sadism may in many cases be helpful, but failing to recognise it as what it is seems likely to be very unhelpful.
I think I should clarify. The thing is that if you look over the history of science you can find a lot of what looks like cruelty. That’s not just animal experiments, and human experiments like in the USA, it’s also the way that medical professionals have often treated peole with mental illnesses, mental disabilities, mental differences, sexual deviances, etc. The same mentality also extended to workhouses and prisons in many cases. And let’s not forget the scientists who explained how the natural deficiencies of the non-white races made them fit to be subjugated, or who prescribed the proper methods of disciplining children.
Now, given that there is all this apparent cruelty that we in retrospect see as pointless (and no doubt there is still much going on now that we will in the future see the same way), defenders of science/those scientists might say in mitigation that this cruelty wasn’t ‘sadistic’, that it wasn’t inflicted for the sake of causing pain, but rather with a dispassionate and indeed noble concern for truth. My point is thus that we shouldn’t accept this as the last word. The ‘scientific’ infliction of pain on homosexuals to ‘cure’ them is not to be distinguished from more obvious cases of cruelty – it is merely a particular (and perhaps better, or worse, or whatever) variety.
EDIT AGAIN: It’s been pointed out that a better word than ‘science’ here might be ‘technocracy’. More specific, donchaknow?