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Humanity's response to escalating global cruelty

By Ken Macnab - posted Tuesday, 24 November 2020

History is littered with references to cruelty. Usually it was attributed to Chance, the Fates, the Gods, or Nature itself. Increasingly, however, as empires expanded and contracted, humans explored and exploited the whole planet, and acquisitive competitiveness for material gain became the purpose of life, cruelty began to be attributed directly to Man. In 1673 the German political philosopher Samuel von Pufendorf wrote: 'More inhumanity has been done by man himself than any other of nature's causes.'

The best-known statement of the same sentiment is by the famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns, in his poem Man Was Made To Mourn: A Dirge (1784). In Burns's poem, 'the rev'rend sage' asks the 'young stranger' out wandering whether he has joined him 'to mourn/ The miseries of man.' The list of 'miseries' that 'man was made to mourn' is long and varied, but one struck a note that echoes louder with every passing hour:

And man, whose heav'n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, -
Man's inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!


This is the inhumanity confronted by Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees in his latest publication, Cruelty or Humanity: Challenges, Opportunities, Responsibilities, Policy Press (2020). As Rees makes clear from the outset, current cruelty – 'a wanton and unnecessary infliction of suffering on body and mind … without regard to what is right, just or humane' – is worldwide, deliberate and escalating. This is because cruelty is now primarily the result (either intended or unanticipated) of government propaganda and policies. Hence his book aims 'to show cruelty in the play of politics, in the design and implementation of state policies and in non-state responses.' As Rees wrote: 'The behaviour of nation-states, their governments, institutions and the cohort of politicians, public servants, and media acolytes who contribute to cruelty needs to be exposed.'

Professor Rees also makes it clear that in examining 'cruelty' and the 'cruelty as policy question', a strong analytical framework is necessary. Clear definitions and distinctions are important, as are specific contexts and intentions. Although there are different 'degrees of cruelty', and 'differences between countries and cultures', he emphasises that 'each act derives from values operating within a state'. Throughout Cruelty or Humanity, the core functions of all states, irrespective of their particular structure, are outlined, along with the impact of prevailing attitudes and values.

These include 'superiority' and 'inferiority', equality' and 'inequality', 'efficiency' and 'inefficiency', 'conformity' and 'deviance', 'good' and 'evil', 'border control' and 'homeland security', and whether we live in a 'society' or an 'economy'. In short, as he wrote: 'In every context, cruel acts are influenced by a concern with order and control, with disparagement and punishment.' At the same time, in pursuing the patterns within the differences over time and place, the standards set by international Conventions and Humanitarian Law should be applied consistently and impartially. Moreover, the scope of the study necessarily includes not only all aspects of human existence but also our relationships with and impact on the animal kingdom and the environment.

Clearly, Professor Rees has set himself an ambitious, all-embracing framework for the identification, classification and explanation of myriad acts of cruelty. But as his title makes plain, he goes much further than this. Examination of 'the composition of the cultural seedbeds from which cruelty grows' enables the presentation of 'humanitarian alternatives'. This 'utopian thinking' is also ambitious and all-embracing. Rees discusses 'diverse forms of advocacy for a common humanity', and the potential for 'creative, non-destructive uses of power'. Among these are the changes that corporations (currently promoters and beneficiaries of all sorts of direct and indirect cruelty) could pioneer, the usefulness of technology as an instrument of change, and the need to eliminate the international arms trade and the threat of nuclear weapons.

Crucially, however, attitudes must change at all levels, from individuals and communities through governments to international agencies, about a wide range of issues. These include animal welfare, climate change, the treatment of refugees, public education, health and social welfare, religious tolerance, walls and borders, international relations, national identity and exceptionalism, and racial stereotyping. Also included are the treatment of Indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, the treatment of women, children, the physically handicapped and the mentally ill, the imposition of both corporal and capital punishment, and war crimes, crimes against humanity and wars of aggression (the offences defined and prosecuted at the Nuremberg Trials after World War II). Not to mention the socio-economic and political fault lines and ethical issues highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The list of necessary changes is very long; but the list of cruelties from which it is derived is far longer.

To facilitate lasting change the media, including not only the print and television media but also increasingly the internet-based social media platforms, must be held accountable to standards of independence and truthfulness. As Professor Rees wrote in a powerful chapter of impassioned advocacy titled Humanity on a bonfire:


Humanity would benefit from admissions that cruelty is present in the motives of policy makers, in the hate-filled attitudes of religious and political extremists and in the cowardly indifference of media commentators.

Moreover, he argues in his concluding Chapter that this process also requires the transition to a new non-violent 'language for humanity', incorporating 'ideals of humane governance and determination not to be cruel to future generations.' As he puts it: 'A life-promoting alternative to authoritarian populism derives from language to promote a secular ideology which combines humanitarianism, non-violence and enthusiasm for meaningful human rights.'

Stuart Rees's Cruelty or Humanity: Challenges, Opportunities, Responsibilities, is a powerful book. He has incorporated and commented on a staggering number and range of cruelties, both historical and current. These have been analysed and explained with the help of relevant and perceptive academic expertise. Desirable and achievable alternatives have been presented clearly and persuasively. His own insights are based on a lifetime of social work, scholarly research and writing, and ceaseless wide-ranging activism in pursuit of 'peace with justice'. The whole work is presented in a thoroughly scholarly fashion, with the Sources used and/or quoted in each chapter (with one exception) meticulously referenced at the end of the text, followed by a Select Bibliography and an Index.

The exceptional Chapter, Humanity on a bonfire, opens with the assertion: 'There comes a time when abhorrence over cruelty should be expressed spontaneously and passionately, separate from academic references, scholarly analytical theory, legal punctiliousness and political hypocrisy.' What follows is pithy, personal and pointed. It should also be emphasised that the whole book is permeated with Rees's own lifelong passion for poetry as well as peace. A 'List of poets and poems' precedes both Rees's Acknowledgements and Richard Falk's Foreword. Over fifty poets have been quoted, often at length, their words like flashes of lightning illuminating the agonies and aspirations of humanity. They add an extra dimension to the analysis and advocacy which are the hallmarks of this timely reminder of our common problems and responsibilities.

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This is a review of Stuart Rees's Cruelty or Humanity: Challenges, Opportunities, Responsibilities

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About the Author

Dr Ken Macnab is an historian and President of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS) at the University of Sydney.

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