How can a same act be both cruel and virtuous?

If we belong to or identify with a group, than we will regard that group to be the ‘in group’, anyone outside this group will be the ‘out group’  and therefore they become the ‘not us’ or ‘them’. This orientation will trigger our tribal behavior and we will become extraordinarily contemptuous of, cruel towards, and paranoid about ‘not us.’  Because we know that other groups can be hateful and as paranoid as we can be, we fear them; and so continue the cycle of hate and paranoia. In certain context, we may even attribute cruelty as a virtue. Around the time of 911 crisis for example we may remember certain cruel acts on both sides were not uncommonly reported in the media, depending on which group you were in, it was either interpreted as an act of cowardice or heroism; same cruel act but interpreted as a virtue by one group and cruelty by another. This kind of behavior has been a source of great suffering for thousands of years.

Why does this kind of behavior continue? One answer is that we derive our self-identity from the group to which we belong and adopt its values. The group then orients us to compare ourselves to others; and as we get comfortable with the idea of belonging and being accepted by our group, we seek to have our contribution valued, wanting validation that our existence matters to the group. A sense of belonging is important to feeling of well-being and feeling safe. It is the sense of belonging that keeps us in the mode of the ‘in group’ and noticing the differences in the ‘out group’. This is a tribal behavior and it is this that keeps us from being compassionate to other groups and will keeps the suffering to continue unless we change our tribal thinking.


The Compassionate Mind  by Paul Gilbert

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  1. Cathy Edmundson

     /  May 18, 2012

    This reminded me of high School students. God forbide you weren’t in the “in Crowd”. That’s where bullying happens

  2. MT Everest

     /  May 18, 2012

    It thought of high school as well — where that sense of needing to be accepted, by whichever ‘in’ group you have either chosen or that chose you or that you fell into, is powerful. Yes, now that you’ve stirred my thoughts on it, it seems easy to see how that all extends into our later lives as well. Easy to understand, thought provoking reading. Thanks Dr. Chana.

  3. Margaret MacDonald

     /  May 28, 2012

    For me it was junior high and being the “new kid”. The longing to be accepted resulted in my misinterpreting a tease for 2 full years as truth … suffering deep embarrassment.. The shock of learning my own belief was based on nothing made me uncomfortable with cliques henceforth; I floated, most comfortable in having friends in different groups not ever just one. I often think many people are still in middle to high school except show better social skills (hopefully) as adults. That deep desire to be respected can be translated into feeling you must be accepted totally even your views despite them sometimes being disagreeable to others. When really it is better to stay open and curious – even to one who appears a bully. It is hard but worth it – to step out of your frame of reference. Thanks Hari for the thought provoke above and the inspiration of your stories.


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