A lot of evil is done in the world by people
who can’t imagine that they
have any power to hurt anyone.
It’s their sense that nothing is at stake in their
behaviour towards others that leads them to ignore
the rules of politeness and humanity – and to
kick people as if they were plated in armour.
They are – in this respect –
paying homage to childhood.
Think of the situation of a young child, of
perhaps six, who has fun mocking a parent’s
double chin or the wrinkles around their eyes.
To this child, the parent is still, in many ways,
an invulnerable deity. They live in
a remote, impressive world of work,
credit cards, driving and the news. How could
someone of such stature be hurt by a comment
about their less than perfect physique by
a tiny person who can’t spell properly?
But the child is missing the point. Their
words do hurt. They can make their parents cry
(in private). The child simply can’t grasp how
desperate and anxious their parent might be,
how every morning they might stare in dismay
into the bathroom mirror at the visible signs
of ageing that speak to them relentlessly of a
wrongly lived-life. The parent, out of dignified
generosity, has shielded their child from their
own fragility. And now their child is paying
them a beautiful if misguided, compliment:
a belief that they are beyond suffering.
Something related may happen when employees get
together to gossip about the person they work for.
In their imagination, the boss is so far above
them that it couldn’t possibly matter what they
say about them. It’s only when they themselves
move to senior positions that they start to
realise how vulnerable the person in charge might
feel, how completely normal it is to want to be
liked (even if you have a seat on the board)
and how imperfect your self-esteem might be.
This idea casts a useful light on the activity
of particularly dangerous people online.
Their venom isn’t the expression
of a feeling of power.
Rather, the troll tends to feel like a medieval
vagabond outside a heavily fortified city,
hurling insults and threats at what
they take to be comfortable inhabitants
sleeping behind meters of stone walls lined
by vigilant troops. They want to hurt,
but they don’t in any way actually imagine they
can; that is what renders them quite so vicious.
True kindness may require us to take
on board a very unfamiliar idea:
however young we are, however
forgotten and ignored we feel we are,
we have a power to cause other people serious
damage. It isn’t because we aren’t wealthy or
revered in elite circles that we thereby lose a
capacity either to comfort or to wound strangers.
We become properly moral, and properly adult, when
we understand that we may all, whoever we may be,
ruin someone’s day, and on occasion, through a
few incautious and misplaced words, their life.