THE BLOG
10/04/2007 01:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Casual Cruelty

The recent, self-aggrandizing declaration by James Dobson, that he may be quiting the GOP, brings hope to all that the menace of casual cruelty may once again recede into the shadows of American life.

Since the 1960s, Americans had worked hard to teach our children that both calculated and unthinking pain inflicted on others--be it through violence or humiliation--is a blight on our country. To be a good person, we have taught our children, is not only to reject casual cruelty, but to help build a society that rejects it. And America has become a better place as a result of that effort.

Since the 1970s, however, Dobson has worked to teach America's children the exact opposite lesson: that a healthy America begins with the act of inflicting pain on others. Dobson's casual cruelty is anchored in a sadistic view of parenting that he articulated in books that brought him great financial success--books that preached the notion that parents must inflict pain on their toddlers or else risk turning them into bad Americans.

While Dobson claims his sadistic method of parenting creates 'values,' America do not agree. Our 'values' come from a different place and can be summed up in just a few words:

end cruelty toward others

This idea has a very specific implication for American politics--that the purpose of our civic life is to band together and work in unison to end cruelty and sadism in our society. With occasional setbacks, American society has pushed forward in that direction.

As American philosopher Richard Rorty (1931-2007) once wrote:

the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century. The tone in which educated men talk about women, and educated whites about blacks, is very different from what it was before the Sixties. Life for homosexual Americans, beleaguered and dangerous as it still is, is better than it was before Stonewall. The adoption of attitudes which the Right sneers as "politically correct" has made America a far more civilized society that it was thirty years ago. Except for a few Supreme Court decisions, there has been little change for the better in our country's laws since the Sixties. But the change in the way we treat one another has been enormous

the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century. The tone in which educated men talk about women, and educated whites about blacks, is very different from what it was before the Sixties. Life for homosexual Americans, beleaguered and dangerous as it still is, is better than it was before Stonewall. The adoption of attitudes which the Right sneers as "politically correct"€� has made America a far more civilized society that it was thirty years ago. Except for a few Supreme Court decisions, there has been little change for the better in our countryâ€'s laws since the Sixties. But the change in the way we treat one another has been enormous

(Achieving Our Country, p. 81)

By teaching parents to treat their children with pain, Dobson tried to turn back the clock. Thank goodness he failed.

Rorty understood what Dobson did not: we may not agree with everything that our neighbors or our children do, but in disagreeing we must not be sadistic. To treat others with violence, to carelessly inflict humiliation--that is the fundamental violation of American values that we do not tolerate as a society. If a person's vision of the family violates that idea--as is so painfully evident in Dobson's view--then it will not last long in this country. Because Americans reject casual cruelty and they will continue to do so.

James Dobson has made his money bucking this idea, and he will likely continue to retain a certain influence and power in a fringe of the Republican Party (or his new "Dobson Party"). But his short-term success at forcing casual cruelty back to the heart of American life will never return to what it once was.

And not a moment too soon.

(cross-posted from Frameshop)