A Recipe for Cruelty with Conscience. Wonder Ponder and its first Visual Philosophy for Children title: “Cruelty Bites”
In 1963, when Hannah Arendt attempted to explain the character and mind of one of the protagonists of the barbarities that occurred during the Second World War, she coined the expression “the banality of evil”. By this expression, she did not mean to suggest that those responsible for barbaric acts (torture, murder, rape, massive extinction) were innocent and should not be brought to trial and condemned. What she wanted to point out was that these acts were not the result of an exceptional capacity for human cruelty and that, ultimately, the criminal acts had been perpetrated within the framework of a system: an industrial and bureaucratic regime of mass murder, geared to exterminating human beings.
Those responsible for the barbarity had acted in compliance with orders, plans and rules, without stopping to think, without reflection, without questioning what they were doing or their responsibilities. Somehow, they found their practices to be something “normal”. “Evil” was not, thus, a human affair, but a systemic result: an apparatus, an engineering part, a set of guidelines for action with no need for legitimization.
In addressing the problem of the banality of evil, Hanna Arendt, who was harshly criticised for this idea, proposed a radical departure from the idea that human nature was either essentially good (Rousseau and the bon sauvage) or essentially bad (Hobbes and “man as a wolf to man), and underlined the complexity of the historical, social, cultural and political conditions (the human condition) in order to then warn of the need to pay careful attention to the banalisation of evil in order to prevent it from happening again.
Seventy years after the end of World War II, a one hour news programme on TV suffices for us to see that, far from disappearing, the banality of evil seems to have intensified. On the other hand, a chance to watch children socialising will also inform us that in differing degrees, and with different consequences –without the aberration brought by war–, boys and girls are capable of carrying out acts of cruelty that are banal.
Why don’t human societies ever stop and think about cruelty? Why is it so hard for us humans to think about everything we do every day, voluntarily or involuntarily, where cruelty manifests itself in more or less harmful ways? And what could be done to think about these issues together with the new generations where boys and girls carry out or anticipate acts of cruelty of varying degrees and different forms?
I know we cannot compare the act of torturing a person to death and such “childhood mischiefs” as making a toad puff smoke until it explodes or squashing ants, but I think that if us humans are going to be cruel, we had better at the very least be aware that we are cruel, and be aware of the ways in which we are cruel. It may help us to correct ourselves.
In this regard, today I’d like to introduce you to a title that aims to raise awareness of cruelty and its various forms. To visualise the problem. Talk about it. Think about it. Reflect upon it.
The first title from the Wonder Ponder “Visual Philosophy for Children” imprint offers us a recipe for this: even though, we are warned, there are no real recipes.
- one box, 17 x 17 cm.
- 14 cards with scenes containing a brief illustrated narration about cruelty on the front and lots of questions on the back
- 3 cards for creating scenes of one’s own
- 1 card with ideas for wonderpondering
- 1 card with a brief guide of essential concepts to be sprinkled on all the above
- 1 poster for hanging on your bedroom wall and look at while we are digesting.
One of the sides of the box says Open, look, think. In any case, I imagine the order can vary. For instance: look, open, think. Or think, look, open. Or open, think, look… And thus successively and alternately, as guests wish.
As to myself, before opening the box, I realised that it is a very well designed affair, which I then verified upon opening it and finding the ingredients listed above. The line of design brings to play a comprehensive communication project. Idea, concept, texts, images, illustrations, ways of use, suggestions for appropriation, ways of sharing, goals, target readers and questions: over one hundred more or less open questions.
And when I say ‘bring to play’ this is no metaphor. The Cruelty Bites box can be used as a board game of sorts. And this is great, because there is a great deal of ‘game’ to it. But it’s not long before we realise that there is also a great deal of ‘book’ to it, and not only because of the ISBN featured on one of the cards containing information about the authors and the project, but also because of all the editing work behind this Visual Philosophy for Children project: it is a book where the pages are not bound to give the power to the reader to define and change the reading order.
he cards show very different cruelty scenes, ranging from the image of a lion devouring a goat to a girl squashing ants, or a scene of school bullying. The scenes are illustrated in an expressionist style, with a touch of art naïf, very much in the line of 1980s punk fanzines. I think the illustrations, by Daniela Martagón, are very appropriate for children, especially considering that they are expected to engage in the creation of new cruelty scenes of their own. Under the illustrated scenes, a brief caption (one or two lines) makes one of the illustrated characters speak, reinforcing with words the act of cruelty represented in the illustration.
On the back of the card there is a set of very direct questions, sufficiently close to the world and daily lives of children, purposefully set out in no particular order, so as not to systematise a discourse. These questions seek to prompt a broad and deep discussion on the act of cruelty illustrated on the front, a discussion which, following the Socratic method, promotes conversation and listening, allows the expression of agreement and disagreement and encourages giving reasons to justify opinions:
Does punishment work? Do you think punishment is cruel? Always? Or is it sometimes OK? Is it always cruel to make someone do something they don’t want to do? Can animals be cruel? Has anyone ever laughed at you when you have fallen or had an accident of some sort? Would you like to live in a zoo? If the huntsman killed Snow White, who would be responsible for her death? The huntsman or the queen? Are some lives worth more than others? Is there a difference between eating chicken and eating cat? Have you ever killed something by accident? How did you feel? Is it possible to be cruel to oneself? Where is the line between playful teasing and being cruel?
As I was saying, the project has a very well thought out design. It is evident that it reflects and incorporates extensive experience working with children, bringing philosophy to them, which is what one of the authors of Cruelty Bites, the writer Ellen Duthie has been doing for years. For the last two years, she has been offering her work to the public through one of her blogs: Filosofía a la de tres.
It is also evident that Cruelty Bites is the result of another side of the author’s work, that is very much part of the best of Children’s Literature, whereby she stands well away far from confusing literature and self-help, or self-help and “emotional literacy” (sic) with this proposal of bringing philosophical reflection to the young, to play thinking and think playing, to encourage reflection and dialogue without indoctrinating, seeking to stimulate “their own thoughts and arguments and to build a visual and conceptual map of the issue addressed”, as it says under the box of the game or, in other words, on the back cover of the book.
In my view, this visual philosophy for children proposal (it is recommended for ages 8 and over but I think it could be used for younger children) aids the mis-en-scene of the different issues addressed; after cruelty, which is the theme of this first title, themes for future titles include personal identity, possibility and impossibility, freedom, reality and imagination, happiness and the meaning of life. Cruelty Bites marks the beginning of an ambitious project which, I am sure, will succeed, because it is contagious of enthusiasm and addresses a need to speak with children, a need that is increasingly felt in homes and educational settings.
And I have to say, this book-game, certainly got me hooked. Not only did I spend a long time thinking about cruelty, I also illustrated and created my own scene on one of the cards included for this purpose: