Does fear of vulnerability explain our culture of cruelty?

During a recent Republican presidential candidate debate sponsored by the Tea Party and CNN, audience members cheered the suggestion of leaving a man to die for lack of health insurance coverage.

As reported by Amy Bingham for ABC News, the debate moderator posed to candidate Ron Paul a “hypothetical question about whether an uninsured 30-year-old working man in [a] coma” should receive health care:

“What he should do is whatever he wants to do and assume responsibility for himself,” Paul responded, adding, “That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risk. This whole idea that you have to compare and take care of everybody…”

The audience erupted into cheers, cutting off the Congressman’s sentence.

After a pause, Blitzer followed up by asking “Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?” to which a small number of audience members shouted “Yeah!”

Fear of vulnerability

Differences of opinion over health care policy are fine, but how do we explain this spontaneous expression of cruelty?

In a recent essay (see below for details), Dr. Brené Brown, a leading scholar and commentator on shame, vulnerability, and moral courage, believes that cruelty is often a manifestation of our fear of vulnerability:

Cruelty is both a type of invulnerability shield and the outcome of a culture that is collectively losing its tolerance for vulnerability. In a world facing political, environmental, economic, and social uncertainty, we rage and humiliate to discharge our own fear and anxiety.

Could this explain the reactions of the Tea Party debate audience? It’s the most charitable explanation I’ve encountered: By cheering the possibility of leaving someone to die because he doesn’t have health insurance coverage, they are shielding themselves from the reality that they are one job loss away from being in the same position.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of this cruel, punitive, “I’ve got mine” thinking around this country right now. If we don’t start to recognize our common vulnerabilities, a lot of people will suffer for it.


Brené Brown’s “The Strength of Vulnerability” appears in End Malaria: Bold Innovation, Limitless Generosity, and the Opportunity to Save a Life (2011), a collection of 62 essays by leading thinkers and business leaders, compiled as a fundraising book to combat malaria by the Domino Project, associated with

12 responses

  1. David,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about why some do such cruel things as bullying, humiliating others, withholding aid etc. I have been thinking about the why for years. With bullying, there is evidence that it occurs in a variety of relational contexts such as school, workplaces, senior citizen communities, close personal relationships. Whether the interactions meet the criteria of bullying or not, what is clear to me is that people are raising the flag that how we treat each other at times is demeaning, dismissive and hurtful…denying each other’s humanity or more broadly their value and worth. The idea that perhaps we do so because we are afraid of and for our own selves, our perceived inadequacies, our vulnerability to harm and thus are on the defensive, looking for others on to whom we can project our fears and thus justify our own mistreatment of them is a powerful one. If there is any substance to this, then we need to focus on how we acknowledge and address those fears in ways that build each other up and draw us together rather than atomize us into our own personally constructed hells of fear.

    • Loraleigh, hopefully that understanding all of these oft-interconnected dynamics will lead us to treat one another better and toward some change-oriented practices. (As one of the pioneers in workplace bullying/emotional abuse research, you’re helping us do just that!)

      But we sure have a long ways to go, and forces out there are benefiting from stoking a divide-and-conquer mentality that plays on “our own personally constructed hells of fear,” as you so well put it!

  2. You could be right about the fear of vulnerability being the impetus for such responses to questions related to health care issues. However, in my personal experiences of conversing with such people, I have concluded that the most prevalent mindset is the “pull yourself up by your own boot straps” philosophy. The interesting thing is that, typically, those are the people who have never needed to do that. Their parents were or are professionals. They don’t have thousands of dollars of debt for school loans because their parents paid for their educations – some as high as Ph.D’s or M. D.’s. They really do believe that every person in America (by definition) arrives at the same level of advantage. Therefore, all of us who have been out of work (because of the greed of our fellow Americans) have really been too lazy to find jobs – because everyone can find work in America — because that’s what America is.

    They don’t deal with the different job market, the higher cost of education, the unfair interest rates for school loans, the higher cost of health care, the plummeting of the housing market, etc., because those things really have never touched them.

    We live in a performance based society (not to mention the inherent cruelty that you point out), and if one’s “performance” doesn’t reap the prescribed level of benefit, he or she has done it wrong — and in some cases, apparently, also deserve to die.

    When I heard the exchange in the debate that you reference, I wondered why the question wasn’t asked, “What if the person in the coma was your son or daughter?” Then, what would you do? (I only heard the re-runs, so perhaps that question was asked, but I haven’t heard it).

    Of course, the answer is, their sons or daughters have more insurance than they need.

    • Mary, in our political realm, certainly that bootstrapping philosophy plays into attitudes toward public aid of any type. Reminds of what Gov. Ann Richards said of George W. Bush, using a baseball analogy: He was born on 3rd base, but thinks he hit a triple.

      • David,

        I had not heard the Ann Richards’ quote — but I love it. Thanks very much for all of your comments and educational efforts for us.

  3. Wow, this makes a lot of sense to me. The state I live in is full of people who hate the poor and homeless (and also full of people who help them). People are very vulnerable here in ways they may not be in other states. It is strange how they can’t see themselves as becoming ill, having a mental health problem or getting old. They believe anyone who has a problem has caused it and does not deserve any help.

  4. Celia,

    What you so clearly described is what is captured in M. Lerner’s “Just World Hypothesis”. In essence, this argues that when random acts occur we are motivated to somehow maintain a sense of justice and safety in our world. In essence, good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people. In order to feel safe, we attribute the cause of the act to something the victim did. By doing this, we convince ourselves that it will not happen to us because we would not do the things that lead to this situation. Recognizing that the world is full of uncertainty and always has been and that bad things sometimes happen to good people, really challenges our desire for a sense of security and safety.

    • Loraleigh, as I read your comment I couldn’t help but think how these ideas have been drummed into us. I don’t know when/how I first used that defense mechanism, but it sure does work, doesn’t it!!! That is, at least until something bad happens.

      And with apologies for detouring into the philosophical/spiritual, on a less punitive, more crunchy granola level we even see these notions pop up in the Westernized version of karma….good people set into motion more good (that comes back to them), while bad people do the same with bad.

  5. I wouldn’t call the emotion that drives cruelty “fear of vulnerability.” There is no scientific basis for such a lenient excuse. There are simply people who enjoy inflicting pain on others and even such that not only enjoy inflicting pain but actually relish seeing those suffer on whom they have inflicted pain. A sentiment called “Schadenfreude”, a German term that is not translatable, though certainly practiced plenty right here in the USA.
    Let’s please call a spade a spade and not get caught up in semantics. Bullies are brutes and I really don’t care why. What I do care about is that there are laws against this form of torture and that those laws are upheld by the courts.

  6. In my opinion, much of what fuels the Tea Party is frustration that we live in a society that eschews traditional values we believe promote health, financial stability and happiness, while expecting those of us who reap the benefits of living by those strictures to pay for the results of relative standards, lack of discipline, and rejection of traditional roles of family, faith communities, and social structure. While 30+% of our income supports governments largesse and we donate another 10% to faith and charitable activities, we are expected to bear the responsibility for those who do not choose to graduate from school, to become employed and marry before having children, to sacrifice buying things for caring for people, all the while being mocked for our “conservative” values. In our families, the family IS the safety net. While we may not be materially “successful”, we take care of ourselves and our own. When others seem ready to take more than 50% of our income to take care of “others” and begin to impinge on our ability to provide for our own aging parents and children and grandchildren — we are screaming “Enough!” Our society is sowing depravity and irresponsibility and wanting to reap rewards of self-discipline, humility and service to God, and sacrifice for others. We don’t lack compassion. We simply no longer can afford the idiocy.

    • wow Terry Landolt. You have definetly put into words what is happening to us.
      the next question is how do we halt this mudslide..and bring sanity into the situation?

    • Actually, income tax rates in the United States have dropped considerably over the past 30 years. Even in states with high income and property taxes, very, very few people are taxed 50% of their income. And esp. with tax deductions, there’s not a lot of folks who pay 30% of their income in federal income taxes. This is especially the case for taxpayers of modest incomes.

      I’d also be interested to see the percentage of people (Tea Partiers and otherwise) who truly tithe (10%). The last time I saw IRS figures for charitable giving, the averages didn’t come close to that figure. Maybe the Tea Partiers are more charitable, however, and make up for the rest of us who don’t always hit that mark.

      In any event, a huge chunk of federal income tax revenues go to support not those horrible, irresponsible people who have rejected God, family, education, and community, but rather military expenditures. I happen to believe in a strong military, but I think it’s misleading to characterize all these tax revenues as going to undeserving, unworthy, lazy slackers.

      In addition, taxes in general go to help the very “aging parents and children and grandchildren” that you want to see helped. Medicare? Schools? Student loans and Pell grants? Parks and playgrounds? Social Security? Unemployment benefits?

      Furthermore, what of people who, through no fault of their own, do not have that family safety net that you and other Tea Partiers are fortunate to have? Are we to dismiss them as human beings? You are fortunate that if you lose your job and health care, your family will rush in to pay your rent/mortgage, put food on your table, and cover the cost of major surgery if necessary. But the rest of us could use a helping hand in dire times and circumstances.

      Yup, there are indeed people who have squandered opportunities and who, on the whole, take more than they give even though they were handed chances to make something of themselves. In my less forgiving moments, it angers me that everyone else has to cover for them.

      You talk about God and faith: I don’t claim to be a devout Christian — while I do believe in a higher being, I’m still filling in the details. But I can’t help but think that if some of the Tea Partiers tried to emulate the compassion and example of Jesus Christ, they wouldn’t feel so ripped off and aggrieved.

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