Sometimes, a headline crosses the newswire that adds something extra to the “How can this be?” index. For example, how can there be a breed of humans that can justify the use of poison chemicals to kill and cripple innocent women and children? How could one tribe of Africans murder and maim hundreds of thousands of their fellow countrymen simply because they were born into another tribe? What kind of foul-up must there be in a person’s mental wiring to make him believe he’s justified in bombing a day care center because he’s angry with his government? Unfortunately, we have become sensitized to headlines that bespeak a mental callousness that exceeds our abilities to comprehend it.
This week, Science Daily News announces, “Everyday Sadists Take Pleasure in Others’ Pain.” This particular banner might cause some slippage in the ordinary working of our mental gears for a number of reasons. But what sends me in search of the back story is use of the term, “everyday sadists.” I may be the only one in the room stunned by this, but I didn’t know that “everyday sadists” exist. I thought sadism was real enough, but I believed it was a rare perversion and actual sufferers of this disease (if we call them “sufferers,”) were virtually invisible in the real world. The thought there is a class of sadists that might be correctly called the “everyday” variety is bizarre to the point of almost being unbelievable. It doesn’t take much reflection before we realize that a race of closet sadists walking among us undiscovered might be one way to explain some of the otherwise unexplainable headlines we’re expected to process.
Before we examine scientific evidence suggesting there really is such a phenomenon as an “everyday sadists,” let’s consider the term. “Sadist” stems from the works of an 18th-century French nobleman/novelist known in popular literature as the Marquis de Sade. His writings, scandalous though they were, gave a name to the psychological perversion wherein a torturer draws pleasure from the suffering of his/her victim.
In the latest issue of “Psychological Science,” a journal in the Association of Psychological Science, researchers from the University of British Columbia and the University of Texas El Paso announced the results of their recent study of sadistic tendencies. According to Erin Buckels one of the chief researchers, these tendencies, i.e., drawing pleasure from injury or pain experienced by others, may be a fully active trait in the otherwise normal personality.
Researchers devised a series of experiments where subjects were offered certain “research tasks.” Some of these tasks involved unpleasant duties such as cleaning a very dirty toilet. Others involved undergoing physically painful exposure to ice water. Some involved the gruesome graphic annihilation of insects.
Not surprising, those who skipped the dirty toilets and freezing water in favor of crushing bugs scored high on psychological scales measuring sadistic impulses. According to the “Science Daily News” article, “Participants with high levels of sadism who chose to kill bugs reported taking significantly greater pleasure in the task than those who chose another task, and their pleasure seemed to correlate with the number of bugs they killed, suggesting that sadistic behavior may hold some sort of reward value for those participants.”
There has long been a suspicion that, under the right circumstances, anyone might be provoked, persuaded or intimidated into some form of sadistic behavior. Personally, I have always been a hard sell on scientific studies which support this proposition. But, until today, I have seen no research which suggests that latent sadistic tendencies are a normal accessory in the average personality. You see where this may be going, don’t you?
Let’s assume that sadism, once considered an unhealthy perversion is, rather, a normal, misunderstood component of human nature. Let’s assume sadism only becomes a matter of public concern if the victim is a child or anyone else unable to give legal consent. Let’s assume an argument can be made for the proposition that sadists should be allowed to torture each other to their heart’s content so long as they do it behind closed doors.
Is the day far off when schools would be banned from denying employment to openly sadistic applicants? Is the day approaching when science will decree the end of perversion; that all behavior regardless of centuries of human disapproval, is not a matter of public concern?
Allow me to state and fondly embrace my own bias. Whether sadism is ever regarded as normal, I will always deem it more morally commendable to be kind, gentle and loving — no matter what the scientists might say. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
MIKE HINKLE is a retired attorney and Edmond resident.