Paving the Road to Hell

Roy Herndon Smith, December 22, 2017

Recently, I have noticed a repeated pattern in a number of discussions of current events. Someone with good intentions makes an argument that enacts what I call “structural cruelty.” I am using “structural cruelty” as a more apt term than “structural violence” for the afflicting of suffering through relatively stable and often institutionalized patterns of social interaction. The most obvious example of such structural cruelty is the impoverishment of large numbers of people under hierarchical political-economic orders, such as capitalism, feudalism, and authoritarian and totalitarian socialism.

Structural cruelty contrasts with other forms of cruelty and with “violence” (defined as “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something” and “strength of emotion or an unpleasant natural force” ((Apple Dictionary Version 2.2.1))), in that it is often passive, rather than active, often inherent, rather than optional, often unintended, rather than intended, often unconscious, rather than conscious, and collective, rather than individual. For example, as a member of a capitalist society, I passively, inherently, unintentionally, and, much of the time, unconsciously participate in the collective cruelty of impoverishing people.

Structural cruelty constructs what we sometimes call “hells”—for instance, of poverty and oppression. In order to understand how to respond compassionately to each other in these hells, we must first understand how structural cruelty manifests in the actual events and situations of our lives. Such understanding begins with immersions in the particularities of these events and situations.

I will, in this series of posts, engage in such immersions.