The mathematics of cruelty


Warning: this is a naive politics post, best avoided by those who really know their stuff. I expect someone has written all of this much better than I have and it’s been dismissed already. But, hey, it’s my blog.

A while ago I read Laurence Rees’s comprehensive The Holocaust: A New History. It is not a cliche or an invocation of Godwin’s Law any longer to say that the direct parallels to today’s climate in the US, UK, much of Europe, Australia, Russia and elsewhere are glaringly obvious. Particularly in the rise of nazism and their route to power within a democratic framework. We always used to ask that question “how could that happen in Germany?”, but what we’ve seen, especially with Trump and Brexit is that it is the alignment of different segments in society. The fundamental driver for these right wing resurgences seems to be a deliberate, performative cruelty. A pretty reliable compass for the Trump White House or Brexit negotiations is “which is the cruellest option?” To help me get my head around where we are (and to offer myself some hope for the future), I’ve begun to think of it in terms of portions of cruel behaviour that need to align, and from this, what we need to do to prevent it happening.

Let’s break down the mathematics of cruelty then. The exact proportions of each group may vary, and there will be some overlap. It is overly simplistic view but has the merit of not being tied to one context so is applicable in different settings. As a rough guide, I think we have:

  • The naturally cruel – these people just enjoy being cruel, it’s their main driver in life. Think Katie Hopkins. Let’s say this is about 10% of the population usually. Most people aren’t cruel most of the time. Usually this group is dispersed, and may not even bother to vote, since feeling rejected by the political system is part of their identity. Maybe one day we’ll find a way to reach this group and make them nicer, but generally they are not our target.
  • The latently cruel – these are people who aren’t always vicious, but it can be brought to the surface readily. It can be couched in terms of they’re the victims, so need to be cruel to survive, or playing to fears of culture, immigration, safety. Once aroused they become indistinguishable from the first group, but often other interests will have priority over cruelty. This could be 10-15% of the population. You’ve probably got a family member like this.
  • The cruel for self interest – this group are primarily worried about their own jobs, welfare, housing, healthcare, etc. They can be tricked into thinking cruelty is the best (only even) route to safeguarding this. You just need to be cruel this once and it’ll all be fine. Good centrist politicians are very effective at appealing to this group and steering them away from overt cruelty through playing to discernible benefits. Again, let’s assume 10-15% of the population.
  • The intellectually cruel – these are the people who vote as a form or protest. They aren’t really cruel, but they are more interested in making an intellectual point (eg those on the left who voted for Brexit as an anti-neo liberal protest), which allows them to ignore the more blatant cruelty on display. They probably don’t expect to win either, but want a good debating point afterwards. Let’s say 5% in this group.

If you get all of these to align around a single issue or person, then you’re up around 40-50% of the vote, enough to form a government or win a referendum when you get people who don’t vote, or a divided opposition. It is a rare set of circumstances that brings these together, which is why the past few years have come as a surprise. But it can happen. Boy, can it happen. If we accept this broad classification then there are a number of conclusions we can draw from it.

Firstly, don’t trick ourselves that it can’t happen here, that we are beyond this now. The recent success of the far right can in part be attributed to complacency and smugness. We thought that wasn’t who we were now, and allowed these factions to coalesce by not being vigilant enough.

Secondly, it means you don’t have to convert half the population to your side. You simply have to find ways that prevent a lightning rod forming that attracts all these groups to one focus. You focus on converting those middle two groups primarily to a more reasonable, less cruel course of action.

Thirdly, structures and policy in society and political systems can be implemented to prevent their alignment. This is going on the assumption that a political system based primarily on cruelty is a bad thing. From and ethical and humanitarian perspective that is obviously the case, but even from a more mercenary perspective it is true – such a culture forces people into extremes, and a fundamentally fractured country or society does not function well in the long term.

So, what can we do about it? I think there are two courses of action that follow from this. The first is to prevent the normalisation of cruelty. This particularly influences the latently cruel group. You don’t invite them on TV and if you do, you challenge them so utterly that they look foolish. The BBC’s obsession with Farage because it was scared of looking like it didn’t understand the working class and its abject failure to hold Brexiteers to account is a prime example of how not to do this. Similarly, without Fox News, Trump doesn’t exist. Our media culture needs to be more accountable, and responsible.

The second route is around political structures. The system should be constructed in such a way as to prevent the alignment of these factions. For example, the Brexit referendum was a clear focal point, but if you were going to have it, then it should have been around a clear Brexit proposal. For a start, as we’ve seen, the brexiteers cannot create one, but had they done so, then it focuses the argument on specifics. The self interest group will then be moved away from a vague promise of better things to very specific and factual arguments. Similarly, the biggest flaw with the US system is that Trump could become the Republican nominee in the first place. For the most important job in the world, some experience should be necessary, and any junior political role would have revealed his inadequacies.

These are boring, policy, governance and selection points but through these you construct a system that prevents the mathematics of cruelty adding up. If we survive the next few years, this needs to be our focus going forward.


  • Martyn Cooper

    Is cruelty not more acutely blind selfishness in your argument. The moral high ground is surely the greater good for the greatest number of people. It’s your blog so choose your terms but cruelty didn’t seem quite right to me.

    • mweller

      I chose cruelty quite deliberately – for the third group it may be more self interest, but largely cruelty is not an unfortunate by-product, it is the specific aim. The one clear direction for Trump’s decision making is cruelty – many decisions make no sense in practical terms (eg banning trans people from the armed forces, blocking certain countries). It is performative cruelty for his audience – they enjoy it. The Atlantic just published a good piece on this too: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/the-cruelty-is-the-point/572104/

  • John

    Shame. Well written but you just maligned a whole group of people you don’t know.

    Brexit voters are varied. Their reasons for voting Leave differ from person to person.

    Some are professors who voted Leave because of complex and arcane EU anti trade union laws. Then there are those who voted Leave because they’re afraid of immigrants.

    You, however, lazily lump them all together, which makes you as bad as the people you’re maligning.

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