Comment on The True Cause Of Cruelty, Redux – Examining the “Spirit of Abstraction”

Abstraction a person into a function or label can lead to cruelty

“It’s called the spirit of abstraction, a term originally coined by Gabriel Marcel in his essay “The Spirit of Abstraction as a Factor Making for War,” and is defined as the practice of conceiving of people as functions rather than as human beings.” [From the article The True Cause Of Cruelty, Redux]

It is an interesting exercise to “…consider the full human dimension of people who flit in and out of your life…” and it certainly would teach us to value our fellow human beings much more. Still, if one did this all the time how much additional effort would it require? How much would it distract us from what it is that we are supposed to be doing? There is a use for this abstraction in that it allows us to focus on tasks that we need to complete while still noting those around us. It’s much like the notion of a camera lens. Some things are in sharp focus while others are blurry and in the background. The focus can and does change depending on the situation. This doesn’t invalidate the author’s premise that the spirit of abstraction allows one to be cruel by dehumanizing the subject of one’s cruelty. Engaging in this abstraction doesn’t automatically lead to cruelty but it does set us on the path towards it.

The frustrating part of existence is that we are rarely able to confront the person or persons responsible for a source of irritation. Everything is someone else’s responsibility or fault: “It’s store policy”.  This inability to correct these small injustices in life leads us to associate the “messenger” with the faceless entity that is obstructing us. This person is no longer a person but a manifestation of impersonal bureaucracy. On the converse, you are just another source of irritation to the bearer of unpleasant news, who is being blamed for something they have no control over.

Thus, it is very hard to constantly be aware of the humanity of every person we have casual contact with. Nonetheless, it is important that we try to remember the people around us are human beings with thoughts, hopes, feelings and families that love them. In remembering this, perhaps we’ll all treat each other a little better in the small things and hopefully, makes strides to treat people better in the larger issues in life.

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