ABSTRACT

How and why a person comes to be able to inflict pain on another being has been the focus of attention of innumerable thinkers. The multiple ways of interpreting such acts has led to the creation of many different words that aim to convey the speaker’s particular interpretation of a specific deed—antisocial, delinquent, violent, sadistic behaviour are some of them. One person’s “fight for freedom” is another person’s “vicious murder”. One couple’s exciting sexual practices can be somebody else’s idea of cruel exploitation of dependence. One person’s view of tattooing as enhancement of beauty can arouse horror in others at the violence against the body’s integrity. A toddler’s grabbing or pushing can be seen as exploratory or self-assertive, much as it can be interpreted as destructive and sadistic. Clearly, the interpretation of a piece of behaviour depends entirely on who it is that is putting it forward. Each of these interpretations involves an assessment of what feelings, motivations, and intentions underlie the other person’s actions. But the complexity of this situation becomes compounded when an observer sets out to assess not only the violent act, but also the unconscious elements that can, supposedly, be inferred from the behaviour under consideration.