Sadism can be described as the psychological need to inflict harm on another human being, and it often manifests in the form of cruel actions. It is a subclinical form of malignant narcissism (Buckels et al., 2013). Many people have sadistic thoughts, and indeed, anger can at times elicit such thoughts; yet, sadists are not satisfied with having fantasies or thoughts where they indulge in the idea of harming others, they actually take actions where they consciously inflict such harm on other human beings. There are telltale signatures that can help you spot a sadistic offender. According to Reale et al. (2017, p. 4) ‘the most important indicators of sadism are (a) that the offender is sexually aroused by sadistic acts, (b) the offender exercises power/control/domination over the victim, (c) the offender humiliates and/or degrades the victim, (d) the offender tortures the victim or engages in acts of cruelty, and (e) the offender mutilates sexual parts of the victim’s body’. Nevertheless, more subtle forms of sadism occur in everyday life and these do not always involve physical violence. Pfattheicher et al. (2017, p. 338) state that ‘the very essence of sadism is that sadists are motivated to dominate and to control other individuals by harming them because they experience pleasure through their cruelty […], for instance when killing bugs or harming an innocent person’.
Some researchers believe that the tenet of sadism is disempowering and controlling the victim, rather than the infliction of pain per se. Either way, sadism is harmful and those who engage in it tend to get a boost out of the harm and helplessness they are causing. For instance, Debardeleben in Hazelwood and Michaud (2001, p. 88) cited and quoted in Luyn (2007, p. 21) state: ‘the wish to inflict pain on others is not the essence of sadism. The central impulse is to have complete mastery over another person, to make him or her a helpless object of our will. . . . And the most radical aim is to make her suffer. Since there is no greater power over another person than that of inflicting pain on her. To force her to undergo suffering without her being able to defend herself. The pleasure in the complete domination over another person is the very essence of the sadistic drive’. Sadism can happen in multidisciplinary settings, from politics to healthcare, and education; as well as in personal life. Sadism can happen through actions, policies, decisions, and narratives; and it can be pervasive, problematic and persistent. Sadism can be internalised by the superego (Freud, 1923) quo when it is culturally hypernormalised and exhibited by authority figures. Now, one might wonder, is sadism de facto or is it de jure? That is, does sadism encompass actions which violate the law of a jurisdiction (de facto), or does it also involve actions that are perfectly legal (de jure)? The answer is: both. Do people in general struggle to understand sadism because of the same reasons they struggle to understand the definition of what constitutes torture? Nowadays, someone can correctly feel like they are being tortured, but de facto sadists will argue “Oh, it is not torture!”. Well, if it involves the infliction of mental, emotional, psychological, or physical harm on another human being; then yes, it is legally correct to say that it is torture. Moreover, psychologically speaking, it is also correct to say that if someone consciously and deliberately inflicts harm on another human being, then indeed it is sadistic cruelty. Whether consciously or unconsciously, intentional or unintentional, everyday sadism can harm anyone, so it is important to have awareness about how to protect yourself in these unprecedented times.
But how can we clarify intent? Well, de jure sadism occurs when the state creates regulations which are harmful to people and does not fulfil its substantive and procedural obligations to prevent harm. For instance, people who suffer from pituitary brain tumours often develop a very low stress tolerance (i.e. a high propensity for adrenal fatigue). If the jurisdiction creates and designs institutional mechanisms which are based on the induction of stress contingencies, then it can be said that the jurisdiction has indeed created a sadistic environment that induces medico-legal injury on these people. This happens with many different types of minority groups. The point that is most concerning about all this is that in the institutional bias of ‘some people need to be stressed out in order to develop X or Y ability’ or ‘stress can be positive and productive’ is ultimately where the sadistic factor is really found. I always think: ‘Do women need rape?’ The answer of course, quickly becomes: ‘No, women do not need rape!’; so the next question is: ‘Do people need obstacles, adrenal fatigue, degradation, and all other forms of inhumane treatment in order to learn?’, the answer should equally be: ‘No, because that is a breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it is sadistically cruel’. But, why is it so difficult for de jure decision-makers to understand this basic principle? De jure sadism also occurs when de facto sadism is not investigated adequately, nor processed through the legal system, or when there are no substantive and procedural mechanisms for its prevention.
No wonder there is a lot of de facto sadism. If a human being’s conscience is in a way partially constructed by the social and legislative norms of the world around them, and if such a status quo has sadistic protocols; then it can be expected that people in general will also develop attitudes, and show manifestations of such sadistic tendencies which are of course internalised and culturally inherited. Now, the worst type of experienced sadism is when someone has both, de jure and de facto sadists around them and against them. This happens to minority groups of all types, not just to people with pituitary adenomas. The Hostile Environment Policies 2014-2016 were a great example of state-led cultural and attitudinal sadism. Webber (2019, p. 77) states: ‘In the UK, these policies are collectively known as the “hostile environment”, policies which have the avowed aim of making life impossible for migrants and refugees who do not have permission to live in the UK, and which remove such migrants from the rights to housing, health, livelihood and a decent standard of living, liberty, freedom of assembly and association, family and private life, physical and moral integrity, freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment, and in the final analysis the right to human dignity and to life’. Indeed, the UK revealed at that point in time that it was culturally acceptable to hate immigrants; and in the legal industry you and I both know that justice is about what is correct or incorrect according to the principles which guide morals, behaviours, and so on. So it is clear that the UK does not want all those immigrants walking in the streets. It is clear that the world is filled with inequalities which create all types of problems forcing people to escape their homes and visit their international neighbours asking for first aid. So what can be done in order to balance all this? Abusing, torturing, and humiliating the disadvantaged is not the answer though. Furthermore, having our prime minister incorrectly call the legal human right of claiming asylum ‘illegal’ (Grierson and Sabbagh, 2020) is an attack against truth, and an offence against the international community. There is no such a thing as an illegal asylum seeker. I suppose the UK might have to create an asylum office in every country so people can apply for asylum without having to risk their lives crossing the channels. That would be a procedural solution to the concern of the contingencies of asylum travel. An asylum embassy, consulate, or something of the sort. Does it exist? No, because visas— like democracy— are business. Asylum, however, is the state of the global human condition; so what, Elon Musk can’t invade Mars fast enough?
Buckels, E. E., Jones, D. N. and Paulhus, D. L. (2013) ‘Behavioral Confirmation of Everyday Sadism’, Psychological Science, Los Angeles, SAGE Publications, 24(11), pp. 2201–2209 [Online]. Available at https://pmt-eu.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/f/13ueeno/TN_cdi_crossref_primary_10_1177_0956797613490749 (Accessed 11 August 2020).
Freud, S. (1923) ‘The Ego and the Id’ [Online]. Available at https://www.sigmundfreud.net/the-ego-and-the-id-pdf-ebook.jsp (accessed 14 November 2021).
Grierson, J. and Sabbagh, D. (2020) ‘Boris Johnson accused of scapegoating migrants over Channel comments’, The Guardian, 10 August [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/aug/10/boris-johnson-hints-at-law-change-to-deport-migrants-who-cross-channel (Accessed 11 August 2020).
Luyn, J. B., Akhtar, S. and Livesley, W. J. (2007) Severe personality disorders, Cambridge, New York, Cambridge University Press [Online]. Available at https://pmt-eu.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/f/h21g24/44OPN_ALMA_DS5189773850002316 (Accessed 28 July 2019).
Pfattheicher, S., Keller, J. and Knezevic, G. (2017) ‘Sadism, the Intuitive System, and Antisocial Punishment in the Public Goods Game’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications, 43(3), pp. 337–346 [Online]. Available at https://pmt-eu.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/f/gvehrt/TN_sage_s10_1177_0146167216684134 (Accessed 26 July 2019).
Reale, K., Beauregard, E. and Martineau, M. (2017) ‘Is Investigative Awareness a Distinctive Feature of Sexual Sadism?’, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, pp. 1-18 [Online]. Available at https://pmt-eu.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/f/gvehrt/TN_medline29294688 (Accessed 26 July 2019).
4 replies on “The Contexts of Everyday Sadism”
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