It is May 1968. Raging in the streets of Paris, the (in)famous student uprisings. On the walls of the Sorbonne a slogan appears: “SOYONS CRUELS!” / “BE CRUEL!”

Someone comes up to you and asks: “Have you seen this writing on the wall? What is it telling me to do?”

Cruelty, by which I mean simply the disposition to inflict suffering, is not a topic we like to talk about. And yet it is all around us. One recalls the horrific cruelty of the deeds perpetrated during apartheid — scenes of torture, gruesome murder and gratuitous violence rise from the depths of memory. Then there is the cruelty of the post-apartheid South Africa in which we now live, the cruelty that results in the untold suffering we are forced to witness every day. Nietzsche writes: “Man is the cruellest animal” in which Seneca’s words reverberate eerily: “All cruelty springs from weakness.” (Put the two together like a sum, draw your own conclusions. Why not add Nietzsche’s other teaching that “to practice cruelty is to enjoy the highest gratification of the feeling of power”?)

Simultaneously, trivial banality permeates today the field of cruelty like the stench around a dismembered corpse. One of these so-called “truths” is of course the exhausted old Shakespearian cliché that justifies cruelty as a means to some laudable and innocent end: “sometimes one has to be cruel in order to be kind”. In another post, it would not be difficult to deconstruct this stupid little phrase which has rubber-stamped so much unnecessary suffering. It is fairly effortless to make it say exactly the opposite of what it currently says (“sometimes one has to be cruel in order to be cruel” or “sometimes one has to be kind in order to be kind’). No doubt, the phrase lies open for deconstruction — it deconstructs (itself). And it is perhaps precisely for this reason that it should be left, under this heading, to hang in the air.

In one of the few essays in which the meaning of the Foucaultian injunction to be cruel is directly investigated, James Miller attempts an interpretation — as opposed to a deconstruction — that begins by extrapolating from the context (emancipatory political uprising) in which the injunction first appeared on the wall of the Sorbonne. In other words, Miller knows well that the phrase was to a certain extent over determined: it came from a particular time, a particular context and so he insists on an interpretation in this light. Why in this light? What about re-interpretation? Re-inscription on the wall? Perhaps.

But Miller had good reason: his aim was to illustrate that, on the one hand and under certain circumstances, the phrase can point to a certain responsibility, in other words, it can amount to an ethical injunction. And on the other hand, he tried to show that the phrase under no circumstances amounted to a plea for sadistic gratuitous violence. In the context of the uprisings, BE CRUEL!, was used to convey the revolutionary sentiment (as Hannah Arendt once put it in her essay on authority) that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs and you can’t have a revolution without killing people. As Miller argues, BE CRUEL expresses a revolutionary demand to be uncompromising in your quest for the truth behind the establishments’ portly lies, ruthless in your honesty about the emancipation you wish to see and savage in your irreverence for “the tradition” that has perpetrated the most obscene excesses of injustice: “BE CRUEL in your resoluteness, welcome the harsh renunciation and sometimes brutal cost of relentlessly pursuing any vaulting ideal, be it wisdom, Godliness, or revolutionary purity.”

In my previous post much was said about the pursuit of human dignity as the founding ideal of the reconstituted South Africa. It cannot be gainsaid that the pursuit of this ideal (as is the case with the pursuit of freedom and equality) has come with cruelty. In this sense, the ideal has most certainly been cruelly pursued. But it is also the case that the adoption of the Constitution has, like most post-conflict constitutions, amounted to a certain “no” to cruelty, a certain refusal (even if, on the ground, there seems to be no end to the cruelty of the human heart). That, at least, is what is implied if we are to accept Friedrich’s diagnosis that these constitutions are to be understood as yearnings for peace.

But the excommunication of cruelty on the level of the ideal most certainly does not imply the paralysis of critical sensibility. On the contrary, one has to be cruel in your pursuit of the ideal of a world without cruelty, which is to say one has to be uncompromising in your critical disposition. To be cruel in this way is to question power and authority at every turn, to ask it for justification, to call it to account, to expose its unpalatable cruelties, to force it to explain itself. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is all too often simply dismissed as having ultimately amounted to a toothless, benevolent body that had to bear witness to much cruelty and, once the show was over, told the perpetrators that they could go and live without consequence.

But we should ask the question: did the TRC not precisely, through its amnesty mechanism, exemplify a certain logic of the “be cruel in order to be cruel (in your pursuit of the ideal of truth)”? In the end, the TRC was considerably cruel in its pursuit of the truth, coldly withholding amnesty unless and until full disclosure of unimaginable cruelty was made for the world to see. And this cruelty of the TRC was entirely justified.

The logic here can be brought to bear on present-day South Africa. All too often the reporter, the cartoonist, the painter, the poet is dismissed as cruel in her irreverence, savage in her ruthless exposures. But sometimes there are contexts, circumstances, positions in which a certain responsibility to humanity cannot be discharged without the cruelty that assumes the ruthless and uncompromising form of the just ideal.


  • Jaco Barnard-Naudé is Professor of Jurisprudence and Co-director of the Centre for Rhetoric Studies in the Department of Private Law at the University of Cape Town. In the United Kingdom, he is the British Academy's Newton Advanced Fellow in the School of Law at Westminster University and Honorary Research Fellow at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London. He is a board member of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) and of the Triangle Project, Cape Town.


Jaco Barnard-Naude

Jaco Barnard-Naudé is Professor of Jurisprudence and Co-director of the Centre for Rhetoric Studies in the Department of Private Law at the University of Cape Town. In the United Kingdom, he is the British...

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