Cruel to Be Cruel

Frank O'Hara

Frank O’Hara


J.K. Simmons garnered an Academy Award for his portrayal of the cruel, exacting, excellence-obsessed music teacher Terrence Fletcher in the movie Whiplash.  Fletcher tells his struggling student that “there are no two words more harmful in the English language than ‘good job.’” In other words, Fletcher argues, he is merely hard on people for their own good, pushing them to achieve new levels of excellence.

Fletcher is echoing Hamlet’s assertion that “I must be cruel only to be kind.” Today in our success-worshipping culture the clichéd notion that we are doing people a favor when we are hard on them is repeated often by parents, teachers, and others who suggest that they only want the best for us while they are abusing us.

But we should ask to whom, exactly, is Hamlet being kind. Notice that Hamlet makes his famous cruel-to-be-kind assertion right after he stabs Polonius in fit of rage. Yet Polonius was merely guilty of eavesdropping, hardly a capital offense. However, Hamlet demurs when presented with an opportunity to kill Claudius, the man who murdered Hamlet’s father.  (Claudius is certainly a much more appropriate target for Hamlet’s sword than Polonius.)

Hamlet is a cruel, insufferable, whimpering coward who, like Terrence Fletcher, is usually cruel just to be cruel. For sport, Hamlet badgers poor, innocent Ophelia, a woman who simply wants to love him. Later Hamlet whines when he discovers that Ophelia has committed suicide.

So Hamlet abuses people for fun and Terrence Fletcher abuses people because he wants to win jazz competitions. They’re both losers in my book.

However, the obviously hypocritical and self-serving sadism of Fletcher and Hamlet notwithstanding, there certainly are times when it is necessary to be hard on people.

But when is outright cruelty justifiable?  I’m not a big fan of fussing and fighting, yet Alfred Kazin notes in his memoir A Walker in the City that sometimes a healthy screaming row is necessary in order to clear the air, so to speak: “In Yiddish we broke all the windows to let a little air into the house” (119).

And the poet Frank O’Hara makes a similar point:

Hate is only one of many responses
true, hurt and hate go hand in hand
but why be afraid of hate, it is only there
think of filth, is it really awesome
neither is hate
don’t be shy of unkindness, either
it’s cleansing and allows you to be direct
like an arrow that feels something

out and out meanness, too, lets love breathe

Some people enjoy hurting other people; I don’t.  It sounds pretty wacky to me, but according to physicists, all matter is connected. So maybe when we attack others we are actually attacking ourselves. Or maybe Allan Seager’s description of poet Theodore Roethke also applies to me: “his despair seems to prove that he already had the prime requisites of a poet, a tingling sensitivity as if he lacked an outer layer of skin.”

by Richard W. Bray


Tags: , , , , , , ,