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"I must be cruel, only to be kind;
—Hamlet, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4, 177–179
A situation where something sounds, appears, or feels like it is absolutely horrible or evil is actually an act of kindness. Essentially, it is a misunderstood action by the characters, who believe the action is being performed for nefarious purposes, while it is actually being performed to assist.
It could be a seemingly evil character kidnapping somebody to actually protect them or a trained doctor viciously stabbing somebody in the chest to relieve a collapsed lung. The root of this trope is the act is perceived, and only perceived, as cruel or evil. This is what distinguishes it from related tropes such as Shoot the Dog, because the act is not actually evil, and Stab the Scorpion, because the act is not discovered to be kind until much later.
Of course, since perspective is everything, many examples of this are only arguably "good". For example, many religions explicitly forbid the amputation of limbs, even for life-threatening injuries. Therefore, a doctor who removes the limb of a member, even under the pretense of saving a life, would likely be reviled for their actions.
Compare Shoot the Dog, Well-Intentioned Extremist, Percussive Prevention, and Kind Restraints. For the parental version see Tough Love. Also compare Break His Heart to Save Him and It's Not You, It's My Enemies, where a character abandons a love interest in an attempt to protect him or her.
Contrast Cruel Mercy, which is about being kind in order to be cruel.
Anime and Manga
- In Bleach, Matsumoto finds this to be one of Gin's most endearing attributes. He always did what was best for Matsumoto, even if it ended up hurting her or others. After the final battle Gin disappeared, leaving nothing behind for Matsumoto to use as a keepsake. She understands that he did this because a keepsake would have made her linger in the past; without it, she has to move on.
- It is likely this is also why he teased Rukia with the hope of escape. While it shattered her cool facade, she was much more at peace when she faced death afterward.
- Lyle Delandy (the second Lockon Stratos) in Mobile Suit Gundam 00, upon finding out that Feldt was attracted to his deceased twin brother (and was therefore showing signs of being attracted to him), acts shallow and callous towards her, causing her to slap him and run off. However, he did this so that she would not misplace her feelings for his brother onto him, and because he hates being continuously compared to his brother.
- In Rurouni Kenshin, this is the whole point of Seijuro Hiko XIII's rambunctious and loose upbringing for Kenshin in the Hiten Mitsurugi Style. As by tradition, apprentices must be forced to kill their masters to succeed them by unleashing the school's ultimate technique in the face of the Kuzuryusen, a unblockable Blade Spam high level technique second only to the ultimate technique, that is intended to not be held back to teach the apprentice the boundaries of life or death, and must be tapped into as basis for the ultimate technique. Knowing this too well as he had to succeed the same way, the XIIIth kept Kenshin at an emotional distance so that he wouldn't be broken or be torn at his death. Subverted in probably the most poetic way, Kenshin left before he could even complete his training, and the XIIIth survived the final test to tell him why he was so rough on him, and that he never held bad intentions for Kenshin to succeed in Hiten Mitsurugi.
- Sleepwalker had the ability to detect demonic possession in humans, and could use his warp vision on those people to break the demons' control over them and free the humans' minds. Unfortunately, a side effect of the beams was that the humans were briefly turned into Noodle People, and so other humans who saw Sleepwalker do this typically assumed that he was attacking them. This led to more than one fight between Sleepwalker and Spectra, at least until the Noodle People effects wore off and the woman that Sleepwalker zapped explained to Spectra what really happened.
- Hard Boiled: After Foxy's cover is blown and he is nearly beaten to death, another undercover agent Alan seemingly does Shoot the Shaggy Dog. It's actually a trick to convince the thugs that he has been killed by first slipping a metal lighter into his chest pocket while punching him in the gut and then using Improbable Aiming Skills to shoot exactly at it (breaking a few more ribs). It's cruel, but Foxy survives ( but not for long).
- The Artist: After George Valentin's film career crashes and burns with the advent of talkies, his valet Clifton remains in his service, even though Valentin hasn't been able to pay him for a year. Valentin coldly fires him and kicks him out of the house, in order for Clifton to find a better employer.
- The Dollmaker, published in 1954, has a scene where the title character slices open her child's throat with the knife she uses for whittling. She's hitched a ride with an Army general, and he's horrified, calling her a murderer—but the child is choking to death from croup, and the Dollmaker cut his (her?) throat to bypass the obstructed part of the windpipe so the kid could breathe while they head for the hospital.
- Ender's Game: Ender's entire journey through battle school, where he endures pure physical, emotional, social torture ends up making him an epic commander and thus saves all of humanity.
- Harry Potter: Several things done by both Dumbledore and Snape:
- Dumbledore's actions include giving Harry to the Dursleys, not making Harry a Prefect, and generally avoiding Harry during his fifth year.
- Snape's actions are more extreme, with slicing off George's ear and, of course, killing Dumbledore at the top of the list.
- Granted, the flashback seems to paint George's severed ear as something of an accident and not an overenthusiastic cover act.
- Kingsmeat: An Orson Scott Card short story featuring an alien species that conquers planets with human populations and devours all inhabitants. On one such planet one of the intended victims offers to cut off parts of selected humans and cook them for the aliens' meals, leaving him dishonored and loathed among his fellow humans. However, this offer prevents the aliens from actually killing the entire population, so, in effect, the dishonored man saved his planet.
- Percy Jackson: Features this as a major plot thread. "Demigods", born from the union of a mortal and a god, suffer serious angst because their immortal parent rarely acknowledges them. The gods usually have very good, compelling reasons for not contacting their kids.
- Twilight: Bella deliberately picks a fight with her dad, using some of the same words that her mother did when she left him, before storming out of the house, so that James won't go to her house and kill her dad.
- Jeeves to Bertie. He snarks at Bertie, manipulates him, gives him the cold shoulder when he most wants sympathy, gets him into trouble, and destroys his stuff. Why? Because he cares.
Live Action TV
- On Wild America Marty Stouffer raises a bear cub from infancy with the end goal of releasing it back into the wild one day. As that day approached he acknowledge that having been raised by a human would make the bear seek out people, which wouldn’t be a good thing for people or the bear. So the solution he came up with was to lure it into a trap using a bear trap that had been weakened so it wouldn’t do any permanent damage but still cause a lot of pain. Thus the aim of being cruel was to make the bear lose its trust of humans.
- Sliders: In one episode, our heroes pop into a new universe to find a woman trying to force her child off of a high balcony. They try to stop her, but she succeeds in pushing him off...only to have him sprout wings and fly around. The woman shrugs at the confused protagonists, saying "It's the only way they learn."
- Star Trek: The Original Series: The episode "A Private Little War. Mr. Spock is using a form of self-hypnosis to concentrate all of his metabolic activity into healing a wound. As he tries to fight his way out of it he asks Nurse Chapel to hit him, because the pain will help him back to consciousness. This leads to some confusion for Mr. Scott who doesn't understand that the slapping is actually helping Spock.
- In “This Side of Paradise” Kirk seeks to find a cure to a strange spore causing the Enterprise’s crew to become blissful at the cost of drive. Upon finding the cure, intense anger, Kirk first tries to cure Spock by throwing a torrent of racial slurs at him. He even lampshades it before hand by admitting it wouldn’t be a good idea to make a Vulcan angry. Fortunately for Kirk Spock snaps out of it in time.
- The episode "A Taste of Armageddon" has Kirk destroy the computers that are used to prevent all out nuclear war.
- True Blood: When Eric Northman imprisons a kicking and screaming Sookie and chains her up in his creepy basement, she does not know (and he does not bother to tell her) that it's all part of his plan to save her and other peoples lives by using Sookie's blood as bait. He also wants revenge for himself, so it´s not a completely altruistic act, but his cruelty still serves a higher purpose with clear benefits for Sookie in the end, i.e. her staying alive.
- In Burn Notice, Michael state that you have to be cruel to be kind when in hostage negotiations, because if you show too much sympathy for the hostage, you're going to give the hostage taker leverage. If you show you're willing to let them kill the hostage if they're too badly hurt, you've gained an advantage, as hostage taking is a business, where there is only one buyer for each product.
- Neal says these exact words in White Collar before intentionally turning off a woman he was flirting with to get a lead on a case. He is too much of a gentleman to pursue her interest and can't tell her what his true intentions are, so he settles with cheerfully informing her that she is the first women he's had a drink with since getting out of prison. She leaves.
- Not surprisingly, this is the subject of Nick Lowe's 1979 hit "Cruel to Be Kind"; the narrator's girlfriend uses the title phrase to justify the way she treats him ("It means that I love you").
- Hamlet: The Trope Namer. It is generally considered as the origin of the Stock Phrase. (See the titular character's quote above)
- Most modern medical procedures fall under this category, including (but not limited to) amputations, invasive surgeries, and organ removal. They all would sound quite barbaric to someone unfamiliar with the procedure, but are being done to save lives.
- Similarly, veterinarian procedures are very likely to be interpreted as an attack by the animal.
- Unlike CPR: Clean, Pretty, Reliable, actual CPR is an emergency procedure for a reason. Part of the reason we have CPR: Clean, Pretty, Reliable is because in live action media, demonstrating correct CPR techniques for the sake of showing what is correct and avoiding aforementioned trope could actually seriously harm the actor it was being done on. Among other things, the pressure of well-done chest compressions are enough to not only restart the heartbeat, but it can break the person's sternum, the rescue breathing can be enough to cause vomiting, and the combination usually causes a lot of pain for the resuscitated person later. The person doing CPR is most likely well aware of the potential consequences, but performs the procedure anyway because it can save that person's life, but only if it is done in combination with calling for qualified medical aid. CPR alone only guarantees a 2% chance of survival.
- The whole point of the Mercy Kill trope: killing someone (quickly and with a minimum of pain) rather than letting them die painfully or suffer a Fate Worse Than Death.
- The idea of sailors not learning to swim sounds incredibly stupid and impractical in modern times, but in the age of sail, someone who could swim a little but couldn't be saved would drown slowly, while someone who could not swim at all would drown quickly. Since nobody was actually forbidden to learn to swim, this was more being cruel to be kind to yourself.
- In terms of romantic relations, there are those who maintain that it is kinder to dump a romantic partner quickly and efficiently, rather than drag out the pain, if the breakup is a done deal. They hold that the pain is worse in the short term, but fades more quickly compared to false hope and dragged out melodrama. Not everyone agrees.
- There the ancient proverbs to the effect that "The cut of a sharp knife hurts worst and heals quickest."
- On the extremely mild end of the scale of cruelty, the "pull the Band-Aid off fast" school is all about being cruel to be kind.
- One of the hardest things a parent, coach or teacher sometimes has to do is the opposite of helping a student/child overcome self-doubt. Sometimes, one has to puncture a dream, shatter a hope, because the circumstances are such that it's just not going to happen and pursuing it can even be harmful. It's agonizingly hard to be sure (usually) when such kind cruelty is necessary, and then very painful to inflict it. An example would be an offspring or student who is pretty good at baseball, say, and dreams of playing Major League Baseball. The trouble is that he's just not that good, he's not pro material and the parent or coach knows it, and knows his dream could keep him from pursuing a more realistic and achievable goal. How to tell him without being more cruel than need be? (And of course how to be sure you're right that he really doesn't have what it takes!) Similarly, a couple can be head-over-heels in love (or at least infatuation) and totally wrong and unsuited for each other, and all their relatives and friends know it. How to tell them or at least get them to think about it before they jump into something?
- Anyone who has owned a pet and they get too old, sick, or hurt to continue living a life without pain and suffering goes through this. Considering a number of pets live anywhere from 5–15 years, that is a lot of emotional investment you've put into them, and they into you in many cases. Sometimes "putting them down" is better.