Review: Cruelty or Humanity by Stuart Rees

Cruelty or Humanity  by Em.Prof. Stuart Rees, is essential reading in our present tumult and bedlam of human cruelty.

Rees is a stalwart man of peace; he is the founder of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney and of the prestigious Sydney Peace Foundation and Cruelty or Humanity is his unflinching Summa Pax propelled by his deep concern to address the dire human suffering caused by political players and policies.

“The absence of regular commentary on the business of inflicting cruelty prompts this book’s aim, to show cruelty in the play of politics, in the design and implementation of state policies and in non-state responses. If truths about worldwide cruelties become evident, the elimination of such practices should become a key consideration in any future crafting of policies and in the advocacy of values which influence political cultures.”

Rees is definitely not Octavio Paz’s “Pious, omniscient, and armed’ dogmatist”, for his intellectual brawn and moral grit is tempered by genuine warmth and compassion reflected in his lifelong modus operandi of collaboration, cooperation and empowerment.

Implicit in choice is empowerment and the title Cruelty or Humanity nails it; Rees offers us the most significant moral choice of our lives and times.

Rees defines cruelty as,

‘Cruelty refers to a wanton and unnecessary infliction of suffering on body and mind. The adjective ‘wanton’ describes conduct without regard to what is right, just or humane.’

and humanity as,

‘A common humanity refers to a quality of living, as in the enjoyment of political and economic rights, and to a set of values, as in the acknowledgement of responsibility to care for others.’

One of the most powerful axioms designed too keep us infantile and silent is,  ‘Politics and religion are not polite subjects at a dinner party.’ Parrying this gag. Rees cites Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska,

“We are children of our age,

it’s a political age……

Whatever you say reverberates,

whatever you don’t say speaks for itself.

So either way you’re talking politics.”

And he draws on Irish poet Louis MacNeice conveyance of the moral fall out of choosing to play dumb, blind and deaf,

‘I am not yet born, O fill me with strength against those who would freeze my humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton’.

As automatons of the cruelty system, we go way past the bystander factor to active instrumentalists of the impunity for violence and so, don’t think that this crucial educational experience is not for the faint-hearted- it welcomes them to grow up.

Throughout the eight chapters, 1 ‘Perpetrators and victims’, 2  ‘Values, attitudes and behaviour’, 3 ‘Explaining cruelty’, 4 ‘Cruelty as policy’, 5 Humanitarian alternatives’, 6 ‘Cruel or compassionate world?’, 7 ‘Humanity on a bonfire’, 8 ‘A language for humanity’, Rees  mines the ‘Geological strata of cruelties [that] reveal prominent layers’ of authoritarianism, superiority, inequality, efficiency, fear, concealment, the banality of evil, sadism, torture, cruelty and inequality as domestic and foreign policy, penal practices, deception, denial, cover-ups, alliances of cruelty, arms trade, victim stigmatising, invasive technology and AI.

The most stringent litmus test of a moral civilisation is its treatment of children and repeatedly Rees shows all nations fail  – across the world the political, institutional, sexual and economic abuse of children is rife including the exploitation of child labour by Western companies e.g. ‘Nestle, H&M, Philip Morris, Walmart, Victoria’s Secret, GAP, Apple, Disney, Forever 21 and Hersheys.

Rees’ plethora of examples of injustices steadily piling up on each other brought  to my mind the image of the mountain of shoes of Auschwitz victims and, maintaining the metaphor, with that comes the thought, out there, are innumerous more mountains of stories of horror and suffering beyond those of Ahed Tamimi, Sekai Holland, Njero Mugo, Raif Badawi, Sunao Rsuboi, Liu and Liu Xia Xiaobo, Setsuko Thurlo, Ken O’Hara et cetera.

Rees’ insights and incisive analysis are not daunting when we understand  ‘soft’ cruelty e.g. school-yard bullying and the extremes of political bullying have the same source – human beings and Rees presents the same solution to both –  decency and action i.e.  honouring universal principles and values, practising non-violence,  pursuing of justice with dignity, ensuring human rights-directed economics and education, committing to earth reverence and guardianship, interdependence and cooperation, nuclear disarmament, utilising ethical power and humane governance.

The assembly of poets in this book reminds me of the 12th century Sufi poet Farid Ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of Birds. The assembled birds go on a quest to find the ultimate spiritual leader and ultimately discover each are made in that ideal image. We are leaders. Such is empowerment.

‘Protecting planet Earth [and humanity] rests on citizens being curious, reflective, showing concern for others and being prepared for conversations about justice, which includes a conception of humanity inseparable from the health of planet Earth.’

Cruelty or Humanity: Challenges, Opportunities and Responsibilities, Stuart Rees, Policy Press, 2020

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Dr. Vacy Vlazna is Coordinator of Justice for Palestine Matters. She is the author of East Timor: Reveille for Courage, editor of a volume of Palestinian poetry, I remember my name and writes political commentary for a number of independent online magazines. She was Human Rights Advisor to the GAM team in the second round of the Acheh peace talks, Helsinki, February 2005 then withdrew on principle. Vacy was convenor of Australia East Timor Association and coordinator of the East Timor Justice Lobby as well as serving in East Timor with UNAMET and UNTAET from 1999-2001.

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