Meanness: Topic No. 92 that philosophers and ethicists never seem to talk about.
Meanness seems to me to be a pretty common occurrence. It forms part of the social backdrop in which we all live, play and work. Most of us, I think, can think of discrete examples of mean behaviour we have witnessed in the not-too-distant past, and many of us would know someone we think of as mean.
Yet meanness has not been subject to much philosophical attention. Out of curiosity, I recently searched a few academic and philosophy databases for works on meanness. Even in the context of psychology there was surprisingly little—and most of it about school-age children. In terms of philosophical or ethical analysis, there was almost nothing. This seems to me to be startling—surely meanness, as much as selfishness, is one of the key drivers of human misery in the modern world. Perhaps it is more visible when performed to and by schoolchildren, but it is hardly an exclusive concern of that age-group.
What do I mean by meanness? Meanness is not simply selfishness or callousness. The callous person is amoral: they are someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to secure their desired ends: power, money, influence and so on. But the harm the callous person inflicts is not performed for its own sake, as an end in itself. It is done only instrumentally, as a means to some other, distinct value. The mean person, however, performs the harm for its own sake, and not for any further good. He wants to inflict harm, to drag another person down, to wreck her self-belief and undermine her self-esteem. Meanness, then, is low-grade cruelty. Meanness is cruelty for people without a work ethic.
Meanness, so defined, is everywhere. I submit that it motivates harassment in the workplace, bullying online, vitriol in the twittersphere, spousal abuse in relationships, point-scoring in conversations, road rage and verbal attacks on random strangers in public places. To be sure, all these actions can happen for motivations distinct from meanness. But very often, I think, they are a result of a naked will to harm for its own sake.
Why are people mean? Meanness as will to power
Why are people mean? This seems to me a much more perplexing question than the more general one of, ‘why are people selfish?’ People are selfish because they don’t accept any moral constraints on getting what they want (or maybe they think they have valid reasons to resist applying morality in this instance). Selfish people simply see what they want and they go for it. But this is not meanness. Meanness is not amoral but immoral. Meanness involves enjoying inflicting harm for its own sake—not merely as an instrument to some further, independent wish. As such, it is not only different to selfishness, but can often conflict with the narrow pursuit of one’s other desires. Mean people often undermine their own self-interest when they are mean. Instead of facilitating relationships that might prove massively beneficial for their future, mean people go around unnecessarily making enemies. Soundlessly, invisibly, mean people are cut off from future job opportunities, helpful associations, fun events, positions of authority, wonderful friendships and rewarding relationships, and all because they couldn’t resist the temptation to knock someone down a peg.
But this very fact makes meanness perplexing. If it isn’t performed on the basis of self-interested prudence, then, why are so many of us mean, at least on the odd occasion? To be honest I’m not really sure of the answer here—but here’s one thought. Perhaps meanness is an expression of what Nietzsche called the will to power—the wish to feel and know that one is powerful. Meanness gives the mean person the thrill of mattering in the world, of being an object of others’ attentions, of having an impact on what others are doing and feeling. It is an action one can perform where one can see the immediate effect one has on the world. A mean action makes a difference, it is a way the world is changed by one’s actions, it is an achievement (albeit one easy to accomplish). If that is right, meanness is a strategy against insignificance; it is a prop for an ego that needs to see its will impact upon the world.
Perhaps we can go further, and speculate on a deeper socio-biological link between meanness and the feeling of power. It is not hard to imagine that, once upon a time, meanness was an accurate indicator of physical, social and political power. Living in smaller communities, if you inflict abuse on another person, someone who is actually physically present and who knows who you are, you demonstrate that they do not have the power to stop you. You show that the victim does not have the power or courage to hit back—to requite, as Nietzsche would put it. Only the powerful and the brave (or, at least, those heedless of the risks of physical or social battle) can be gratuitously mean. If the weak person attempts meanness, he will suffer retribution; he will be put back in his place, through social or physical means. Succeeding in a mean action demonstrates that others do not have that power over you. It impresses this sense of power upon the mean person himself, upon the victim who is forced to endure the ill-treatment, and upon third-parties who can be impressed by the power and confidence of the mean person. In small, tight-knit communities where physical proximity and non-anonymity were the rule, meanness really was a demonstration of personal and social power. It showed clearly that one resided at the top of the pecking order.
Sometimes, this link between meanness and genuine power is still in effect in the modern world. I have been in situations where a physically strong person (usually a man), clearly unafraid of the situation collapsing into a contest of brute force, gratuitously abuses people or otherwise picks fights with them. It is an ugly and in many respects scornful show of strength—but it is a show of strength nonetheless.
But in the modern world, everyone can now get away with being mean. You can abuse or harass people online, with various levels of anonymity, and walk away unscathed. In such situations it is possible to feel the thrill of the genuinely strong person, without actually possessing their power. The anonymity of the internet or the city street lets any one of us feel what it is like to push someone’s buttons knowing they have no capacity to retaliate. It provides us with a feeling of power that was hitherto only possible for the tribal chief, the feudal lord, the aristocratic princess. It lets us pretend for a moment that we are at the top of the pecking order, carelessly exacting our will on those beneath us as we please. Just because we can.
Racism and sexism as organized meanness
If we take meanness seriously as a real and abiding fact of human behaviour, then it might change the way we think about other vices.
So here’s a contentious thought: maybe we don’t—as a world, as a country, as a culture—have a problem with racism and sexism. Maybe at base we really have a problem with meanness.
Sometimes social commentators seem to speak as if racists are otherwise decent, reasonable folk who—if only they could only be disabused of their irrational notions about racial difference—would thereafter be good and worthy citizens. On this view, the problem is fundamentally one about their views and values on race in particular, and not a more general one about their moral psychology.
I accept that there are probably some people who are like this—it’s not hard to imagine an otherwise good-hearted person who grew up in a culture where every child is taught that racial differences are morally relevant, or who lives in a world where all the people with a particular skin colour are poor and uneducated, and who mistakenly concludes that racial difference correlates with differences of character or rationality. But in my own world of twenty-first century Australia, I honestly don’t think I’ve ever actually met anyone like that. Pretty much every person I’ve ever met who espoused genuinely racist or sexist views was not otherwise a nice person. Their character flaws were by no means limited to their particular views on discrete classes of people. They were mean in a much more unqualified and generic sense.
This point needs to be distinguished from a person being insensitive to racial or sexual issues. Certainly someone can be a decent person who, through lack of awareness about current society or prior history, or entrenched and institutional structures that permeate inequalities, acts without a proper degree of sensitivity to minorities. Education can fix a decent person who is culturally insensitive—they just need to learn that their behaviour hurts others and to understand why it does so. But such a course of consciousness-raising cannot cure meanness. The mean person wants to hurt others. Showing them the effects of their actions just underscores that they are succeeding.
Now I’m not implying that all instances of racism and sexism are just simple products of meanness—as if mean people just use bigoted attitudes when they interact with others who they can target racially or on the basis of gender or sexuality, and then switch to different types of abuse when they encounter others. This view would assert that bigotry is just window-dressing to the actual motivation, which is just to be mean generically, to anyone who they can get away with it.
Instead, I suspect it is in the nature of meanness to organize itself. Mean people want to be effective in their meanness, and being effective requires being organized. If I really want to hurt someone, to impact upon her wellbeing, then what I want to do is to oppress her. Anonymous random abuse is all very well for the mean person, but such occurrences are all too easy for victims to ignore, or even laugh away. And that ruins the fun. The type of abuse that is impossible to ignore is the abuse that is well-organized and pervasive. If a mean person wakes up in the morning and wants to oppress a tall, healthy, well-educated white male in my culture, I submit it is almost impossible for them to do so. This is because oppression requires coordination; it requires the victim to be aware that wherever they turn, they will encounter this same harassment and abuse. You can use pointless cruelty to ruin the day of this white male, but that won’t contribute to ruining his life unless you (the mean person) can rely on other mean people ruining his tomorrows as well. For this reason, salient, visible features are crucial—in an anonymous world the mean person will want to target specific features like gender, ethnicity and visible religiousness (even shortness or slowness) in the expectation that his other comrades-in-meanness can do the same in future, and have done the same in the past.
Now in a non-anonymous community, the mean person can pick and communicate his victims more deliberately. The bullying gang therefore picks a particular target and works on them, rather than dissipating their cruelty randomly and ineffectively. But in an anonymous context, if a mean person wants to coordinate their efforts with other mean people they don’t actually know personally, then salient feature like race, sex, ethnicity or visible religion are helpful markers to direct their abuse.
If this is right, then it means that a lot of what looks like racism or sexism may not be actually based upon a belief that the category of victimized people is inferior, or a genuine value-commitment that they are hated. Rather, there is simply a free-floating meanness—a will to feel the power of abusing, harming and oppressing others (any others)—that converges on salient targets.
Even if this was the full story on racism and sexism (which it isn't), it wouldn’t mean that as a society it isn’t worth making the effort to rid the world of such bigotries. It is worth getting rid of these behaviours precisely for the reason that the mean person gravitates towards them. If racist and sexist behaviours were socially expunged, then the mean person would be robbed of that ability to organize their attacks that allowed them to get together collectively to oppress.
But an awareness of meanness would imply that dealing with racism and sexism may not be getting towards the moral root of the matter, which is the underlying desire to be mean. Robbed of an ability to organize targets in an anonymous world, the mean person might just direct their attention to other specific targets they know personally. They will vent their will to power on partners, spouses, children and employees.
Where to from here?
If some of what I have been saying here is along the right track, then why don’t we see a more concerted effort to focus on and rid the world of meanness? Why do we focus instead on particular, discrete manifestations on it—racism, sexism, bullying-at-school, trolling online, harassment at work, spousal abuse, vitriol on twitter? Is it because these more specified problems appear more manageable? Or is it because we don’t have the first idea why people are mean, or how to rid them of the vice?
If a person is simply selfish then it seems to me they are (morally speaking) at least manageable. One can speak in a Hobbesian spirit about the many benefits (security, material prosperity, social approval etc) that arise from moral action. Even more, one can show the person a picture of a world where many of their self-centred desires are met, even though that person accepts moral constraints. It is possible for us all to enjoy prosperity, after all. One person’s pursuit of happiness need not undermine the similar pursuits of others, and to accept moral constraints is not to renounce altogether one’s self-interested ambitions. That, in a nutshell, is why human rights have proven so successful as a moral idea.
But we cannot engage in this way with the mean person. They want to undermine the other person’s happiness, not as a means to something else, but for its own sake. There is no possible world where everyone gets their meanness kicks without everyone also being on the receiving end. This is what makes meanness so frustrating for any social reformer or moral philosopher. There seems to be nothing to work with, nothing that we can build out from towards virtue and duty.
So, in the end, I don’t have any simple answers. Maybe if people lived in a world where they could feel their sense of power in the world in lots of other ways (competitive sports, meaningful employment creating genuinely satisfied customers, direct charity work, relationships that cement their feeling of worthwhileness, artistic and creative pursuits, and so on) then they wouldn’t feel a need for the quick thrill of pushing people’s buttons and upsetting them. The guiding idea here is that the will to power is (as Nietzsche thought) an ineradicable feature of the human character. Since we can’t eradicate it, we need to recognise it and sublimate it—to mould it into a shape where it is no longer socially damaging.
But this is just one speculation. What I do think, though, is that meanness is real and that it is a powerful source of human misery. If we want to improve the lot of humankind, then we need to think seriously about why people are mean, and what can be done to face this problem.