Why People Torture and Abuse

Uploaded 1/25/2012, approx. 3 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin, and I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.

Why do people torture? Why do people abuse others?

We should distinguish functional torture from sadistic abuse.

Functional torture is calculated to extract information from the torture victim or to punish her. It is measured, impersonal, efficient and disinterested. It's professional.

Sadistic abuse fulfills the emotional needs of a perpetrator.

Most perpetrators feel that they have lost control over their lives. Offenders, torturers, abusers feel out of control.

People who find themselves in anomic states, for instance, soldiers in war or incarcerated inmates in prison, this kind of people tend to feel helpless and alienated. They experience a partial or total loss of control over their lives. They have been rendered vulnerable, powerless and defenseless by events and circumstances beyond their influence.

So, they resort to torture.

Torture amounts to an absolute and all pervasive domination of the victim's body and existence.

So, when the abuser abuses, when the tormentor tortures, it's a coping strategy.

They wish to reassert control over their lives by asserting control over the victim.

But totally controlling the victim, they re-establish their mastery and prove their superiority.

By subjugating the tortured, they regain their self-confidence and they regulate the sense of self-worth.

Other types of tormentors channel their negative emotions, pent-up aggression, humiliation, rage, envy, diffuse hatred. They displace these emotions.

The victim becomes a symbol of everything that's wrong in the torturer's life and everything that's reprehensible in the situation in which the abuser finds himself, in which he is caught.

The act of torture amounts to misplaced and violent venting.

Many perpetrate heinous acts out of a wish to conform. Torturing others is their way of demonstrating of secret obeisances to authority, their way of cementing group affiliation, connection and adherence to the same ethical code of conduct and common values.

Such abusers, torturers and tormentors, bask in the phrase that is heaped upon them by their superiors, fellow workers, associates, teammates or collaborators.

Their need to belong is so strong that it overpowers ethical, moral or legal considerations.

Many offenders derive pleasure and satisfaction from sadistic acts of humiliation. To these people, inflicting pain is fun.

They lack empathy and so the victim's agonized reactions are merely cause for much hilarity.

Sadism is rooted in deviant sexuality. The torture inflicted by status is bound to involve perverted sex, rape, homosexual rape, voyeurism, exhibitionism, pedophilia, fetishism and other paraphilias, aberrant sex, unlimited power, excruciating pain. These are the intoxicating ingredients of the sadistic variant cocktail of torture.

Still, torture rarely occurs where it does not have the sanction and blessing of the authorities, whether local or national.

A permissive environment is sine qua non.

The more abnormal the circumstances, the less normative the milieu, the further the scene of the crime is from public scrutiny, the more is egregious torture likely to occur.

This is especially true in totalitarian societies where the use of physical force to discipline or eliminate dissent is an acceptable practice and part of the regime.

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Sam Vaknin discusses the differences between cruelty and sadism, emphasizing that while both involve causing pain, their motivations and psychological underpinnings differ. Sadism is about deriving pleasure from inflicting pain and is often premeditated and creative. It is a form of hedonism and is outward-oriented, recognizing the victim as a separate entity to be annihilated. In contrast, cruelty is reactive and self-regulatory, linked to narcissism and often a response to mortification. It is about restoring a grandiose self-image and involves unnecessary excess. Cruelty sustains a narrative of moral superiority and retributive justice, and it requires the victim's recognition of being hurt. Unlike sadism, cruelty can provoke counter-cruelty and is situational, potentially stopping when the situation is resolved. Sadism, on the other hand, is a permanent trait.

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