America Has a Cruelty Problem
Since the pandemic, the vibes have been going in the wrong direction.
Three years ago, the world was still navigating the early days of the pandemic. Most people were praying for the health and safety of their neighbors, thinking that we were all in this nightmare together. But not everyone. A small but significant cohort found something to celebrate in the death and destruction caused by Covid.
Unsurprisingly, the watering hole for these people was the internet, and social media in particular. If you spent enough time on platforms like Reddit or Twitter in 2020 and 2021, you’d inevitably come across people cheering when someone died or got seriously ill from Covid. For psychologically healthy people, this kind of behavior sounds psychotic. But it was a real phenomenon, and hundreds of thousands of people participated in it.
Take, for instance, the Reddit forum “Herman Cain Award,” which was created in September 2020. Named for the Republican businessman who died from Covid after downplaying the disease, the community is dedicated to shaming and mocking people who initially didn’t take Covid seriously but ended up dying. Other Reddit forums like “Darwin Awards” and “Leopards Ate My Face” spent much of the pandemic doing the same thing. The latter, with just under one million members, explicitly states that its purpose is to “revel in the schadenfreude anytime someone has a sad [sic] because they’re suffering consequences from something they voted for or supported or wanted to impose on other people.”
Suffice it to say, the pandemic surfaced an astonishing level of callousness and cruelty in some corners of the internet. For me, it was a bit of an awakening to realize that there’s a substantial number of people out there who treat the suffering of other humans as a reason for joy rather than a tragedy to be mourned or a problem to be addressed. And ever since Covid alerted me to this instinct, I’ve been seeing it all over.
Think back to June, when we first heard that a submarine exploring the Titanic wreckage had gone missing and that five people, including a father and son, were potentially counting down the hours in the dark until they would suffocate. If you’re like me, your first reaction was probably dismay and horror. The thought of being alone in a cramped space at the bottom of the ocean knowing exactly how long you have to live is too awful to get your head around.
But not everyone agreed. Some people were downright gleeful when they heard the news. In their minds, the fact that the people on the submarine were wealthy made them de facto bad people who deserved to suffer. “It’s crazy to think we might only have another 30 hours or so of being able to make fun of the people on the submarine,” said one TikTok video, which got over a million views before it was deleted. Memes and jokes of the “eat the rich” variety abounded across the internet. Among the jokesters were some high-profile pundits like The Nation writer Elie Mystal. It’s particularly jarring when people on the left demonstrate a capacity for cruelty, given how sharply it contradicts their self-image of being kind and goodhearted.
To be clear, cruelty is just as common on the political right. Just watch this video posted by anti-trans activist Matt Walsh of him insulting and trying to humiliate Dylan Mulvaney, a transgender woman, for two straight minutes. The video begins “Dylan, if that is the most attractive you will ever look then I don’t even want to imagine what you’ll look like when you’re at your ugliest”—and it gets worse from there. Or take Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who recently implied that Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, is “not a mother” because she did not give birth to her stepchildren. You can dislike everything about Weingarten, her job, and how she handled the pandemic and still see that Greene’s statements had no purpose other than to wound.
Regardless of where the cruelty is coming from, the behavior is ultimately rooted in the same impulses. For some small slice of the population, that impulse is the satisfaction to be gained from cruelty itself. There are those who genuinely enjoy the suffering of others or are happy to indulge in cruelty if doing so is personally beneficial. Happily, while these fringe figures are certainly a concern, they are just that: fringe. Only tiny slivers of the population lack the capacity for remorse or actually enjoy inflicting pain on others.
The more consequential question is why otherwise decent people are driven to cruelty. Unfortunately, it seems to be part of our nature. Going back hundreds of thousands of years, humans have always drawn sharp distinctions between those who are part of an in-group and those who are not. When our species spent most of its time hunting, gathering, and warring with neighboring tribes, the ability to dehumanize one’s adversaries and treat them with cruelty may have been an evolutionary advantage.
In the United States today, the principal dividing line is politics. Americans are increasingly likely to see their partisan adversaries not just as people with bad ideas about politics, but as bad people. Clear and growing majorities of both Democrats and Republicans say that those on the other side are immoral, dishonest, and closed-minded. The relationship between the rising polarization and casual cruelty is a feedback loop in which more polarization feeds more cruelty, which feeds more polarization, which feeds more cruelty, which feeds….
The internet is unquestionably an exacerbating force in all this. The very things that feed our capacity for cruelty—the tendency to divide the world into us versus them, to abstract away the humanity of the “other,” to see only the worst stereotypes of the other side—are rewarded and ratcheted up online, especially on social media sites like Twitter and Reddit. The people who pick up followers and get likes are usually the most aggressive and vindictive, not the ones who treat their adversaries with grace and empathy.
I don’t have a comprehensive prescription for how society can overcome this impulse. But I do know that any solution will involve changing the incentives coming from our institutions, politicians, voters, and social media. In short, these institutions will need to start punishing cruelty instead of rewarding it.
That might sound naive, but I don’t think it is. Most people intuitively understand that cruelty is a vice. If we can realign social and political incentives to reflect that fact, we might not be able to stamp cruelty out for good, but we’ll at least be throwing sand in the gears of the flywheel of polarization that’s starting to spin out of control.
Seth Moskowitz is a contributing editor at Persuasion. He writes the newsletter Brain Candy.
And, to receive pieces like this in your inbox and support our work, subscribe below: