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This Cruelty Can’t Be Ours

The Cruelty Can’t Be Ours

I checked my Twitter feed this morning, like a lot of mornings. The article du jour, the one the people I respect were passing around as today’s best piece of writing, is an analysis from The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer headlined “The Cruelty Is the Point.”

Read it if you’re not already too downtrodden. The article made me feel… unsure. It pulled me toward that irresolute mindspace, the place where I worry that our principles aren’t the ones that ultimately win.

The article is about Americans at a Trump rally laughing at Christine Blasey Ford and about this country’s shameful history of laughing at those it oppresses. Yes, we’ve made advances for equity over the course of history, but the laughing has never stopped.

As Serwer points out, Ford said during congressional testimony that the worst memory of being sexually assaulted was “the uproarious laughter” of her attackers “and their having fun at my expense.” So often what’s fun for the power-hungry is terrifying for the rest of us.

My daughter Annabel came home from school this week, saying another first-grader was being mean to her friends and had started a “punching party.” My other daughter Audrey — they’re twins — said she was afraid of this boy. “He’s too strong,” she said.

Moments like these as a parent, you try to remind yourself it’s first grade, for Pete’s sake. Remain calm. Still, every interaction seems like it risks defining the rest of their lives. Surely, I must do something!

First, I gave my daughters a hug. I wanted to tell them something wise and reassuring that would make them feel confident, some piece of advice about how to face bullies. 

During my own childhood, I can’t say I ever discovered a magic shield from bullies. This budding gay boy was always too rail-thin to rely on any physical shield, so I kept my head down, trying instead to disappear.

I didn’t recommend that bully-suppression tactic to my kids because, decades later, I doubt it served me well. What I really learned is how to live closed off from others, and I don’t want that future for my lovingly friendly daughters. Too much of them would disappear.

Instead, I told Annabel and Audrey the exact opposite, that they and their friends had to stick together. People like this boy want to divide us! You have to stand by your friends no matter what, and they’ll stand by you!

I may be subconsciously transferring my frustration with politics into the playground. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

I stand by that advice. Sticking together is important long after we leave the schoolyard.

What I’m less sure about is whether solidarity is enough. The other side sticks together, too. They’re holding rallies. They’re chanting. They’re in lockstep.

If solidarity is our defense, then what’s our offense? Serwer’s piece in The Atlantic argued that, for the worst offenders, “the cruelty is the point.”

Serwer marveled at how white men of a certain era would beat and torture black men and then pose for a photo, smiling their big smiles. “Their cruelty made them feel good, it made them feel proud, it made them feel happy. And it made them feel closer to one another.”

Their cruelty was a motivator to action, no matter how despicable. They get something out of being terrible — which in itself is a fairly terrible realization and the reason it felt like a two-cups-of-coffee kind of morning.

Everyone wants to feel proud, feel happy, to be part of something larger than themselves. It’s a human desire, or maybe a soulful desire. Instead of chicken soup for the soul, how about a bowl of cruelty? Apparently, it’s addictive.

Is what we offer better than the drug of cruelty?

If we want to merely last through our days, we could survive with our heads down or hands clasped together. If we want to win, then we have to prove that love, not cruelty, is the point. 

As proud as they might be to shame others, we must be prouder to raise up. As happy as they are made by destruction, we must celebrate creation. Love brings us closer than cruelty ever could. Love wins.

It ought to be the bullies who marvel at the smiles on our faces. Come to think of it, seeing those smiles might also make me feel better. 

I had a second ah-ha moment during my early morning screen time. Let me first admit, though, that I’m possibly drawing far too many life-lessons from social media. 

I guess this is who I am now.

Before checking Twitter this morning, I made my rounds on Instagram. There I found Karamo Brown, the Queer Eye culture star. He habitually posts inspirational messages. It’s just Karamo talking directly to the camera and delivering an uplifting takeaway, kind of like a human desk-calendar. Each morning you rip off a new page and hope to get through the next 24 hours.

As much as the cynic in me reflexively sneers at anything purposefully inspirational, I always wind up admitting he’s right. Damn it, Karamo!

“What do you practice daily?” he asks the camera. “Do you practice happiness, joy, self-love, compassion, and gratitude? Or worry, self-doubt, fear, negativity?” 

Karamo concludes, “What you practice you become.”

It feels like our values of equity and inclusion and justice are attacked daily. I am every day tempted to respond with cruelty. Maybe a wicked tweet. Maybe a vicious comment shared privately with my friends. 

I try my best to resist the cruel temptation. I don’t want to make that tweet for the same reason I don’t want to tell my kids to smack a bully. I don’t want my daughters to feel the power of cruelty — because it is powerful — and one day become cruel. 

In these challenging times, we “practice” solidarity on the regular. You can get tens of thousands of people to a weekend rally for women, for scientists, Muslims, or gun control victims. When we’re attacked, it’s now natural to clamor in chorus. 

Although it happens, for sure, what’s more elusive when under attack, is that we find a way to practice our love for each other. The love is the point. 

LUCAS GRINDLEY is executive director for Next City, a donor-supported nonprofit journalism organization that reports on solutions to problems facing cities. You can support Next City by becoming a member. Grindley is the former editor in chief of The Advocate.

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