cruel to be kind

Have you heard that phrase? Has anyone said it to you to justify their behaviour or words? Have you used it to explain why you acted or spoke in a certain way?

Apparently the phrase first appeared in Shakespeare’s Hamlet where he justifies cruel behaviour to prevent a greater harm. Nick Lowe released a song with that title in 1978:

Oh I can’t take another heartache
Though you say you’re my friend, I’m at my wit’s end
You say your love is bonafide, but that don’t coincide
With the things that you do
And when I ask you to be nice, you say

You’ve gotta be cruel to be kind, in the right measure
Cruel to be kind, it’s a very good sign
Cruel to be kind, means that I love you, baby
(You’ve gotta be cruel)
You gotta be cruel to be kind

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I sort of understand what’s going on here, but it seems to me that much of the time cruelty has none of the apparent moral high ground that is claimed by ‘cruel to be kind’, even if someone thinks that is the case. Most of the time it is ‘cruel to be cruel’, ‘cruel to diminish another’ or ‘cruel to make ourselves feel better’. You only have to look at the comments sections on websites to see that enacted time and time again. Personal, hurtful, racist and LGBT+phobic comments are poured out without mercy and without any thought of the impact on those who will read them. I don’t think I have ever considered such comments to be framed in a ‘cruel to be kind’ manner. There is no excuse for them.

I wonder what motivates anyone to think such things, never mind to write them and make them public. Is there a rage within that is like a petrol-soaked bonfire just waiting for something they consider to be incendiary to set it ablaze? What sort of distorted reality are such people inhabiting that they feel justified in being cruel to someone else? Does the internet and social media make people think that they have some sort of online invisibility cloak that means they don’t think anyone will know it was them, or perhaps the scale of the online world makes them think that their few words won’t matter? Is there a sense in which there is a ‘safety in numbers’ approach that if other people are writing such things then it must be okay, and like a wildebeest in a vast herd being hunted by lions, the chances of being caught are slim? Or is it something else? I don’t know the answer, perhaps it’s some or all of those in some sort of toxic cocktail of hateful vitriol.

Hmmm, I seem to have got slightly off topic! Back soon to ‘cruel to be kind’… but the reason for the detour is to emphasise how easily ‘cruel to be kind’ can lose any sort of moral justification (and also, if I am honest, to ‘vent’). ‘Cruel’ always has the propensity for violence and to overshadow or blot out ‘kind’.

The idea is that to prevent greater harm you have to inflict some lesser harm. I suppose it’s a bit like someone who pushes another person over (causing them to experience cuts and bruises) so that they are not flattened by a runaway bus hurtling down the hill. I get that. But in that case there is an urgency to the action which requires the rough intervention. How many times when someone is ‘cruel to be kind’ is there that sort of urgency?

In Hamlet, the eponymous lead character is unkind to his mother in order to dissuade her from a course of action that he considers to be dishonourable. (Follow the link for a more considered analysis). But can a good motive redeem a bad action in this case? ‘Cruel to be kind’ may be an attempt to excuse a lazy response to something that we think could be improved. I may be wrong here but it seems to me that there is almost always a ‘kind to be kind’ option if we look hard enough for it. It may take more thought. It may be more difficult. It may take greater empathy and patience. But ‘kind to be kind’ must surely be possible, mustn’t it?

An example I came across may serve to illustrate what I mean. Someone was suggesting that direct criticism is good, albeit painful to receive, as it enables the person to have a clearer understanding of their performance and thus motivate them to improve (eg a sports coach). But isn’t a kinder approach (assuming the person wants to receive any sort of assessment) to offer feedback that accentuates positives and seeks to build on them and at the same time recognises what needs to be improved – offering practical steps and support to help the person to improve?

In the Bible ‘kindness’ is listed as one of the qualities that God’s Spirit grows in people, especially those who are looking for them to grow in them. ‘Cruelty’ is never listed as such a quality.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

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