Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Sadism and Parenthood.

So, this has been tearing its way across the Internet for a while. I really didn't want to watch the video, but since I've committed to writing this post, I obviously have to.

This is seriously messed up. You know what's not a tool of parenting? Firearms. Discharging a gun and saying "this is what you deserve" is not something you do around people you love, it's what you do when you're a sociopath. It's certainly not a valid response to a kid whining about chores on Facebook. Whining kids are annoying, I'm sure. I get that. But guns are designed to kill people. Kill animals. Kill intruders. Eliminate threats. Whatever your stance is on gun control, the point is that guns aren't made to fix things. They're made to destroy things. Invoking your power to use an implement of raw destruction when angry is terrifying. “This right here is my .45,” he says, before unloading nine bullets into a laptop. Nine bullets.

But honestly, this guy is the least of my problems. Some people are crazy, I can deal with that. What bothers me is that the poll attached to the article has over 2/3s of voters supporting him. Unscientific polling or not, I'm guessing that there's probably a real majority position there. And the reason for it, as is increasingly dominant in American culture, is one of sadism: those who we dislike are to be neither corrected, convinced or reformed, nor contained, isolated, and ignored. They are to suffer. And so, we get to read the supportive commenters, who say that bratty kids deserve pain, humiliation, and suffering.

"[M]aybe he should have affixed a pic of "lil precious" to the laptop b4 he'd emptied the clip in it!" adds the most egregious of them. Others wish she had been physically struck along with threatened, and more just congratulate their conquering hero, who decided to use his gun to teach his daughter a lesson about "respect."

The other examples of the sadist culture are easy to find. Those cheering, on national talk shows, Marines who urinated on dead Afghani soldiers: so quickly can inalienable human dignity be discarded. Those who cheered at Rick Perry's execution hit list, or at Ron Paul's calls for the poor and sick to be left to die. Or Liz Trotta, in the post below by Agis, who supports rape against women who dare to join the military. The point isn't about who the person is on the other side, whether they're as heroic as female combat soldiers, as ordinary as whiny teenagers, or as loathsome as murderers and enemy soldiers. The point is that we, as a society, are finding moments of glee in our ability to inflict pain on these people, and it is this essential element that denatures our claim to do justice in the world and turns us into cruel tyrants seeking revenge.


  1. The thing I tell myself about the supportive 2/3rds in this particular case is that it's easy to say you support something like this when you don't have to see, hear about or otherwise deal with the consequences of a violent action. People react differently to violence when it's something they must witness or experience first hand, which is why 2/3rds of us aren't routinely beating each other to death over daily minor annoyances like what someone says about someone else on Facebook.

    I do think it's fair to say that we're a highly sadistic culture, though, in that we fetishize the idea of violence in a voyeuristic way. Part of me thinks that the problem is that we're exposed to so much violence in entertainment media that we've become inured to it, but part of me also suspects that maybe the problem is that many of us haven't been exposed to it enough. Here's the thing about violence: fundamentally, it's a form of human interaction with the purpose of defining or redefining a social relationship. A child hits his brother to assert dominance in the family pecking order. Downtrodden peasants take up arms against an autocratic ruler to assert their independence. Or in this case, a parent uses a .45 caliber pistol to assert his parental control while restating the relative powerlessness of his daughter.

    And when you get to see it only from the side of the aggressor like that, there's something seductively appealing about violence because it appears to empower. It's a form of self-determination and self-creation. The thing is, though, when you're forced to also deal with violence from the perspective of the victim, it's not nearly as pretty. There's a corresponding sense of powerlessness and despair. And when you see it up close for the first time, when you witness another human being reduced to wailing in pain like a helpless animal, it doesn't make you feel empowered anymore. You see how fragile we all are, and you begin to feel very, very small.

    There's a reason we came up with a social contract wherein our relationships with one another will not be defined by violence. Sometimes that contract affords us the luxury of forgetting why we needed it in the first place.

    1. Really well said. I don't tend to think that exposure to violence is something that causes this kind of sadism. Public executions, lynchings, witch trials, are all things from history which seem to tap into this same cultural phenomenon.

      You're right though, violence is empowering. I love movies which are about the power of violence. In Shooter (SPOILERS!) Mark Wahlberg just up and shot all the corrupt politicians. Revenge movies, where the victim turns violence to give the aggressor their comeuppance are emotionally compelling.

      It's a tough thing to really "counter," culturally.

    2. There's also a real difference between fiction and reality, although that's breaking down. We forget, I think, in a world steeped in reality television and youtube celebrities, that some things are real and some things aren't. I'm okay with the occasional violent fantasy movie, or your Quintin Tarantino revenge fantasy. I'd even see the catharsis in watching a fictional character destroy his kid's computer who was too whiny. Maybe. I see the humor in "Go the Fuck to Sleep."

      But this is a real person doing real things to another real person. And we're laughing about it.

  2. I think there is also a strong desire to absolve ourselves of responsibility for these things we want to inflict pain upon. Similar to getting defensive when we do something wrong.

    The logical response to a whiny child is to contemplate how they have been raised to be so whiny. (not that my children won't whine, they will - but my reaction will be to try to raise them out of it)

    The reasonable response to rape in the military is to contemplate how it is that our military is so full of rapists.

    For most of the examples of this, the reasonable reaction is to consider how it is we have created this state of being. Getting super angry and sadistic, seems like a defense mechanism which preemptively diverts the conversation.