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America’s Culture of Cruelty

Rather than being unspoken and unseen, violence in American life has become both visible in its pervasiveness and normalized as a central feature of dominant and popular culture.

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The recent murderous acts of violence committed by Jared Lee Loughner in Arizona cannot be reduced to the mental instability of a young man out of touch with reality. Nor can such a horrendous act be reduced to a breakdown in civil discourse. Such rationales are too easy, and emulate what Frank Rich has called “classic American denial.”

There is a deeper order of politics behind this murderous act, one that the American public is inclined to ignore. More specifically, the general responses to this violent act are symptomatic of a society that separates private injuries from public considerations, refusing to connect individual acts to broader social considerations.

I want to suggest that underlying the Arizona shootings is a culture of cruelty that has become so widespread in American society that the violence it produces is largely taken for granted, often dismissed in terms that cut it off from any larger systemic forces at work in the society.

The culture of cruelty is important for thinking through how entertainment and politics now converge in ways that fundamentally transform how we understand and imagine politics in the current historical moment – a moment when the central issue of getting by is no longer about working to get ahead but struggling simply to survive. And many groups, which are considered marginal because they are poor, unemployed, people of color, elderly or young, have not just been excluded from “the American dream,” but have become utterly redundant and disposable, waste products of a society that no longer considers them of any value.

How else to explain the zealousness in which social safety nets have been dismantled, the transition from welfare to workfare (offering little job training programs and no child care) and recent acrimony over health care reform’s public option? What accounts for the passage of laws that criminalize the behavior of the 1.2 million homeless in the United States, often defining sleeping, sitting, soliciting, lying down or loitering in public places as a criminal offense rather than a behavior in need of compassionate goodwill and public assistance? Or, for that matter, the expulsions, suspensions, segregation, class discrimination and racism in the public schools, as well as the more severe beatings, broken bones and damaged lives endured by young people in the juvenile justice system?

Within this politics, there is a ruthless and hidden dimension of cruelty, one in which the powers of life and death are increasingly determined by punishing apparatuses, such as the criminal justice system for poor people of color and/or market forces that increasingly decide who may live and who may die.

But there is more. The growing dominance of a right-wing media forged in a pedagogy of hate has become a crucial element providing numerous platforms for a culture of cruelty. This form of cultural pedagogy is increasingly characterized by more than a breach of civility. It also registers without apology and legitimizes a hostility towards immigrants, a barely disguised racism, a contempt for the poor and almost anyone supportive of the social contract and the welfare state.

Citizens are increasingly constructed through a language of contempt for all noncommercial public spheres and a chilling indifference to the plight of others that is increasingly expressed in vicious tirades against big government and health care reform. There is a growing element of scorn on the part of the American public for those human beings caught in the web of misfortune, human suffering, dependency and deprivation.

For instance, how else to explain a right-wing spin machine that endlessly spews out a toxic rhetoric in which all Muslims are defined as jihadists; the homeless are not victims of misfortune, but are lazy; blacks are not terrorized by an overzealous criminal justice system, but are the main architects of a culture of criminality; the epidemic of obesity has nothing to do with corporations, big agriculture and advertisers selling junk food but rather is the result of “big” government giving people food stamps; the public sphere is largely for white people, which is being threatened by immigrants and people of color, and so it goes.

This could be dismissed as loony right-wing political theatre if it were not for the low levels of civic literacy displayed by so many Americans who choose to believe and invest in this type of hate talk. On the contrary, while it may be idiocy, it reveals a powerful set of political, economic and educational forces at work in miseducating the American public while at the same time extending the culture of cruelty.

Rather than being unspoken and unseen, violence in American life has become both visible in its pervasiveness and normalized as a central feature of dominant and popular culture. Americans have grown accustomed to luxuriating in a warm bath of cinematic blood, as young people and adults alike are seduced with an endless stream of violence that runs through the endless production of video games, extreme sports and the nonstop production of Hollywood blockbusters. The celebration of hyperviolence and torture travels all too easily from fiction to real life, with the emergence in the past few years of a proliferation of “bum fight” videos on the Internet, increased acts of bullying in schools and the workplace and young boys investing in a mode of masculinity organized around pummeling each other for sport. The culture of cruelty mimics cinematic violence as the agents of abuse both indulge in actual forms of violence and then further celebrate the barbarity by posting it on the Web, mimicking the desire for fame and recognition while voyeuristically consuming their own violent cultural productions.

The ideology of hardness and cruelty runs through American culture like an electric current, sapping the strength of social relations and individual character, moral compassion and collective action, offering up crimes against humanity that become fodder for video games and spectacularized media infotainment, and constructing a culture of cruelty that promotes a pageant of suffering and violence. While much of this violence is passed off as entertainment, it should not be surprising when it travels from the major cultural apparatuses of our time to real life, exploding in front of us, refusing to be seen as just another entertaining spectacle.

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[1] Etienne Balibar, We, The People of Europe? Reflections on Transnatonal Citizenship (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), p. 6.

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