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Sociability • Social Virtues

Why We’re All Capable of Damaging Others

One of the reasons why we may end up acting more destructively and cruelly than we should is that it can take us a long time to fathom how someone like us could cause trouble for anyone. By ‘someone like us’, we mean someone who is as unpowerful, as put upon, as much subject to the whims of others, as obscure and forgotten as we generally feel ourselves to be. We know that certain people can be dangerous: those who run corporations, for example, or the heads of governments or investors in oil companies (we might get incensed when we think of what these mighty sorts get up to). It’s just that we’re nothing like this. We’re ordinary; we’re not in the midst of history; we’re not privileged; we’re the victims.

This sense of innocence tends to take hold when we are very young. At that time, it is obvious that we are not qualified to do much damage at all. We are weak before the world and it is always more likely that someone else will be the aggressor. Parents make unfair demands on us; teachers bully us; strangers might interfere with us.

From this, we may continue to trust in our own inability to aggrieve others. We therefore don’t try hard to reassure other people that we like them and that they are of value: why would they need to hear such messages from someone like us? We don’t rush to tell our hosts that their hospitality was satisfying; they surely know it anyway. We don’t feel we should pay someone a compliment; they obviously have more important friends than us to take care of their self-esteem. If we’re feeling oppressed and angry, we might sit down at our computer and lash out at a famous person online: it clearly can’t matter to them; they wouldn’t be listening to a character as negligible as we are. And thereby, bit by bit, on the back of touching feelings of innocence and powerlessness, we end up adding more than our fair share of poison to the collective bloodstream.

To be a loving person is to wrestle with an always profoundly improbable idea: that however modest our position in society might be, however much we may have been maltreated in the past, however mesmerised we are by the deplorable behaviour of powerful individuals, however shy and frail we are, we are constantly capable of causing other people significant hurt.

Loving people understand the extreme psychological susceptibility of everyone who crosses their path. They might have a neighbour, someone who is much more successful than they are and who holidays abroad several times a year, whom they still take care to share a few warm words with in the morning, knowing how a blank stare can hurt even someone who goes paragliding in the summer and has an elegant car. Even though one of their old friends is now a professional chef and seems confident about their work, the loving guest nevertheless bothers to write a witty and careful few lines of thanks after a dinner. There may be a big gap in age or status between them and their boss, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t say something encouraging when this figure has to go into hospital for a routine operation.

The loving know that you can be employed at the dry cleaner’s or work as an attendant at a cinema and still play a role in someone’s life through a small act of graciousness and solicitude. At the same time, they are aware that you could leave an unkind comment online – just a few words reminding a celebrity living thousands of miles away that they’re a piece of shit – and thereby help to strip away one of the last reasons why someone might bother to keep living.

The loving know how much everyone suffers from feelings of self-doubt, worthlessness, loneliness and pain beneath a veneer of imperviousness and strength. They may not have the precise details to hand, but they grasp enough about the general picture: how much each one of us is haunted by self-recriminations, how weighed down we are by opportunities we have missed, how isolated and overlooked we feel.

The loving intuit that there is a large gap between what people will tell us of their difficulties and what is almost certainly going on inside them. The conditions of society require a great deal of surface bravery; it is easy to miss the desperation. The loving have their senses open: they look out for signs of pain, they don’t wait to be overwhelmed by evidence. They know about pride and our reluctance to let people in on our defeats. They know how much we collude in keeping people at bay, even as we long for comfort. That’s why the loving write so many thank you notes, make so many apparently routine phone calls to say hello and leave openings in their conversations where others might venture a confession or a question. They aren’t being fake or putting on airs; they’re keeping the agony involved in being human at the forefront of their minds.

At a collective level, we describe the heightened awareness of our susceptibility to insult and harm as ‘manners’. History shows how long it has taken humanity to acquire manners in different areas. It now seems natural that we should ideally express gratitude to those who offer us gifts, shouldn’t eat with our fingers, should avoid burping loudly and mustn’t spit in the faces of those who irritate us – but the historical record tells another tale. What we might take to be ‘normal’ impulses to be modest, restrained and thoughtful are the hard-won fruits of a long and unsteady civilising process. We’ve only been using forks since Catherine de’ Medici promoted their use in the 1550s; we’ve only been writing thank you letters since the royal courts of Europe spread the habit in the 18th century. For the largest part of our presence on the earth, it has been customary to behead our enemies, to defecate in front of strangers and to use derogatory words towards the inhabitants of other lands.

Manners can seem irritatingly artificial and untrue to who we ‘really are’, but the loving know that it is no treat for anyone to be exposed to the full and unvarnished reality of another person. They are kind enough to shield everyone they encounter from an authenticity that is likely to include large reserves of irritability, unfairness, prejudice and self-pity. The loving don’t feel any need to take other people fully into the darkness of their hearts; they don’t need to be honest at any cost, they know that sincere kindness may mean leaving a huge amount unexpressed.

Though it may seem as if we now have all the manners we could possibly need, the loving also recognise how much further there is to go. We are only at the dawn of understanding how destructive an online comment might be; the power of the media to shame us is barely grasped, and generally discovered by individuals only when it is far too late. Our loud, self-promoting, angry, justificatory way of life exacts an unexplored and devastating toll on our psyches.

Small children do us a great favour by tending to burst into tears when they are in pain. Adults who look after small ones for the first time may be surprised by how delicate their feelings are: these adults only raised their voices slightly and now the three year old is in floods of tears; it was only a passing sarcastic joke, and now the little one is terrified or sulking under a blanket.

We shouldn’t wonder at this tenderness of heart; it belongs to all of us once we are properly attuned to our sensitivities. Our lives are constantly demeaned by missing small acts of grace: by the reassurance that doesn’t come, by the viciousness that isn’t held back, by the comfort that isn’t accorded. The loving never let this fragility out of their sight. It doesn’t matter that they might apparently be bit-part actors in the dramas of the world, they know that they wield a potentially decisive power to redeem or to damn, to depress or to cheer. They appreciate that they may be the last stop between a stranger and a decision to end it all. They don’t wait for obvious cries of help; they know that the emergency of being alive is general and ongoing.

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