Why Are British Institutions So Bloody Cruel?

The British are, in my (quite wide) experience, the most civilized of peoples. And yet some of their institutions – for example Family Courts – are barbaric. Here’s the probable cause.

First another example to add to the horrorshow on which the Alice story is based:

When one mother was recently breast-feeding her newborn baby at 3 o’clock in the morning, no fewer than nine police officers and social workers entered the hospital room to wrest the baby from her.

These nine people and the hospital staff that let them in and the courts that enabled this are all from a Christian nation, the religion which has for 2,000 years held a mother with her baby as one of its most sacred icons. And they are British, from the same culture that abolished slavery. So why this institutional cruelty? And why don’t we see it in the two other nations I’ve lived in, the US and Italy?

Well, for starters, about two thirds of people are actively cruel. In the 1960s a Yale psychologist called Stanley Milgram showed experimentally that 61%-65% of any randomly selected group of people will commit acts of torture if they’re instructed to do so by an authority figure. (In the experiment the participants were deceived into believing that they were inflicting pain when they were not -  nobody was actually tortured). And none of the 35% who objected to the ‘torture’ insisted the project be stopped or went to check on their ‘victims’. A participant later wrote:

While I was a subject in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority…

The two-thirds number is solid – men and women are the same, it doesn’t depend on the environment, and it’s been replicated throughout the world. The link gives several possible explanations as to why people do this, and all have in common a readiness to cede control to an authority figure. As, for example in the Rwandan genocide, when an entire racial group flipped to mass murder because the radio told them that a minority of people were cockroaches (see Hotel Rwanda). And, of course in the German Holocaust (‘I was only following orders’) and the Japanese mass murder and torture of prisoners and civilians, both in WW2.

But the UK is not at war, and is obsessively picky about ‘discrimination’, so what’s going on? One likely amplifier is that the naturally cruel people – the submissive two thirds – will tend to move into hierarchical and rule-based  organizations – the law, police, social services – that provide the structure that gives them both direction from above and power over others. But that must apply in all cultures, so why is it unthinkable that our local sheriffs in Virginia or the men and women from our Carabinieri barracks in Lazio would gang up to tear a newborn from its mother’s breast?

My guess is the cause is the UK’s still-feudal society, which bows to authority figures (even inventing new ones, called ‘Celebs’). In my experience Americans, although more obedient to social norms than the British, do not trust authority – the nation was founded on rejecting it – and are very critical of their institutions. And in Italy the ruling elite is (correctly) despised as corrupt, and the cops behave decently because they share that opinion. So neither society is feudal.

A second factor is dehumanization – if people see others as lesser beings, they’ll treat them as such. But that’s much less likely to happen in the egalitarian US, or in Italy where it’s everybody against the bent elite.

From which it follows that those nine people and their judicial and medical henchmen took the baby because: a) they were potential torturers selectively clustered in rule-based positions of power, b) one of them told the others to do the deed, and c) they all considered mother and baby to be less than human.

The downside for the UK’s governing elite is that when/if that perception flips, i.e. a new authority figure delegitimizes and dehumanizes them, they’re toast.

Literally, as The Correction demonstrates.

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