Bad Trope: Cruelty Is Magic

This is an awful, and common, trope – the idea that cruelty is the way to build the perfect soldier, or to reveal super-powers, or to get to the ultimate truth about a situation. The idea put forward is that cruelty is incredibly effective, like a tool or a weapon just waiting to be deployed, instead of something more realistic, where cruelty is usually the easy way out of a complex situation. I’ll mention a few examples that leapt to mind as I thought about this awful trope, and at the end I have a long list of more, for any of you who are thinking that this trope isn’t that common.

The Borne Identity

One of the things that I like about the Borne movies, especially the first one, is that they make a few attempts to actually deal with how traumatized Jason Borne and the other secret government assassins are. One of my favorite moments is when he is facing off against another assassin in a field, and asks something like “Do you still get the headaches?” At which point the other assassin says he does, with a suddenly pained expression. Its this cool moment of honesty in the midst of a fight.

But the whole premise of the Borne Identity is that the best way to train a super-predator is by traumatizing them. This cruelty gives them preternatural abilities.

Jack from Mass Effect 2

When you do Jack’s loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2, you get deep into this experimental Cerberus facility where, basically, children were tortured in order to develop their telekinetic (biotic) abilities. Basically, space-Nazis tortured children in order to create the perfect weapon, Jack. I like how they characterize her, actually – I feel like in a lot of ways she’s a plausible person who would have come from that kind of background. If anything, maybe higher functioning than one would expect. But again, we have the idea that cruelty is, literally in this case, magic.

24 and Torture

I didn’t watch a lot of episodes of 24, but it was obviously a “ticking time bomb” kind of show, and there is an overwhelming mythology in America around the efficacy of torture in a situation like this. Torture is seen as a highly effective way of getting to the truth in a situation, especially when you don’t have the time to do the right thing because so much is at stake or whatever. 24 was out, of course, around the time of Abu Ghraib as well, and revelations about CIA ‘black sites’ used to torture information out of suspected terrorists (in some cases literally children, or random people kidnapped by mercenaries).

The Unsullied

The Unsullied are the ultimate military force of the World of Ice and Fire, and key to their training is horrific trauma inflicted on children. They have to attach to a puppy, and then kill the puppy. They have to go purchase a slave baby, and then murder the slave baby in front of the mother. Only 1 in 4 even survive the training. They are all castrated so that they will never have any desire other than to obey and to kill.

This…would not work. This in no way creates an effective fighting force. If it did, someone would have tried it in the real world, because every civilization ever has tried to find ways to train the best fighting force. Historically and in the present, the most effective fighting forces have been volunteer forces with plenty of quality equipment serving under ingenious leaders.

Abu Ghraib

As I mentioned above, the idea that cruelty is magic has real-world ramifications. I don’t know how much our fiction plays into this, but at the time I couldn’t help but see connections between how torture is portrayed in media and the torture that our government was using in the War on Terror. If you ask professional interrogators, they will tell you that torture does not work, but in fiction it pretty much always does. And we certainly keep returning to that method of truth-seeking.

US Border Policy

Right now United States policy on migration across our southern border boils down to inflicting trauma for no reason other than the belief that if we are cruel enough, it will solve the problems that are sending millions of human beings north. We believe so deeply in the magic of cruelty to solve our problems that we are willing to inflict it on tens of thousands of children, torn from their parents to be starved, sexually abused, given away to new parents; denied soap, toothpaste, medical care, even hugs.

There is something in us that desperately wants to believe in the magic of cruelty.

So What?

I suppose this is me asking fellow creative people to stop using this horrible trope. Cruelty doesn’t give you superpowers, and it doesn’t bring out the truth, and it doesn’t create super-soldiers. The pervasiveness of this trope is such that I can only imagine that it is contributing to our comfort with, and even support for, cruelty in the real world. Art mirrors life mirrors art and so on. I’m asking us to tell harder stories that reflect the truth of trauma – it isn’t magic.

Other Examples: (with thanks to my Facebook friends)

  • Artemis and Drizzt from Salvatore’s novels;
  • the Mord-Sith and Richard from the Sword of Truth/Legend of the Seeker series;
  • Hannah – the movie and the show;
  • the Sardaukar of Dune;
  • Carrie;
  • Ender’s Game;
  • the creation of the Orcs in Middle-Earth, as well as Gollum, and the Nazgul;
  • Batman;
  • Deadpool suffocated until his powers activated;
  • Eleven from Stranger Things;
  • the Maze Runner series;
  • Thanos telling Gamora that what he put her through made her strong;
  • the Kushiel series;
  • Asa Drake’s Bloodsong;
  • Cenobites from Hellraiser;
  • Trial of Flowers by Jay Lake;
  • the Wheel of Time’s Seanchan and damane/Egwene; Goetic magic;
  • Magic the Gathering;
  • Aberrant;
  • Divergent’s Dauntless;
  • Jessica Jones;
  • Game of Thrones’ Sansa;
  • Gundam;
  • the Broken Earth series;
  • Harry Potter’s Death Eaters;
  • Bioshock’s Little Sisters
  • Altered Carbon’s Emissary training, torture sims, etc.


6 thoughts on “Bad Trope: Cruelty Is Magic

  1. Interesting RW thing with the Unsullied. I had a USMC veteran student who’d done his whole tour in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. In talking to locals, he and his unit had to repeatedly assure them that rumors they’d heard about the USMC were false. Apparently, many Afghans had been told that every Marine had to kill a member of their own family to prove their loyalty (to the USMC, the gov’t?) before they could graduate from boot camp.

    Liked by 1 person

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