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Torture and argument - Input Junkie
December 12th, 2014
01:31 pm

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Torture and argument
I'm against torture. I think it's vicious, and there's no reason to believe it's a good way of getting reliable information. It has bad side effects, like torturers coming home from the war and getting jobs with police and security.

However, and as happens so often, not everyone agrees with me.

I would like more people to agree with me on this issue, and saying yet again that torture is bad probably isn't going to help much. Pro-torture and anti-torture people have really different moral intuitions on the subject.

So, does anyone know of someone who believed torture was legitimate, then changed their mind to be opposed to it?

I'm especially interested in what changes the minds of people who have no experience with torture, since they're the vast majority.

Also, there were a couple of talk show hosts who let themselves be waterboarded, and concluded that yes, it's torture. Anyone know whether they also concluded that torture is bad?

This entry was posted at http://nancylebov.dreamwidth.org/1057471.html. Comments are welcome here or there. comment count unavailable comments so far on that entry.

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From:kalimac
Date:December 12th, 2014 08:12 pm (UTC)
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One person who let himself be waterboarded and concluded that it was torture was Christopher Hitchens. I believe he also concluded that torture was bad, but that had better be double-checked. (I have no time to do that right now - commenting on the fly.) It was curious, because on other issues he was usually firmly allied with the sort of people who sing "up with torture."
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From:madfilkentist
Date:December 13th, 2014 01:02 am (UTC)
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This article by Hitchens (I hope Nancy has turned off the feature that flags almost all links as spam) is relevant. He doesn't come out and say that torture is bad, but the tone of the article, including a parallel to Lincoln's quote that "if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong," strongly implies that if waterboarding is torture, then it's wrong; and waterboarding is torture.

He was pro-war. That's not the same as being pro-torture.
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From:kalimac
Date:December 13th, 2014 03:44 pm (UTC)
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Your last sentence sounds as if you're correcting me. But I didn't equate the two positions; I said they're usually held by the same people, and it's interesting that Hitchens was an exception.
From:nancylebov
Date:December 13th, 2014 04:12 pm (UTC)
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"The kind of people who sing "up with torture" " is vague-- I assumed you meant Republicans.
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From:kalimac
Date:December 13th, 2014 04:51 pm (UTC)
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There is a high correlation between them and Republicans, yes. But by "the kind of people who sing 'up with torture'" I merely meant a slightly whimsical expression of "the kind of people who favor using torture," whether they be Republicans or anything else.
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From:nancylebov
Date:December 13th, 2014 04:11 pm (UTC)
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I'm reminded of LOTR, where war is entirely acceptable, but killing the helpless (including capital punishment, presumably) is unacceptable.
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From:kalimac
Date:December 13th, 2014 04:57 pm (UTC)
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That's not really the same thing as being "pro-war," though, particularly when the context of saying "pro-war" is that of Iraq. Iraq was the offensively-initiated war in its purest form, while the favored characters in Tolkien conduct war defensively. Sauron invaded them first. He's not just a vaguely possible future threat, let alone a minor one they're determined to squash like a bug, let alone (if the book's statements are credible at all) one they have to make up stories about in order to justify attacking him.
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From:houseboatonstyx
Date:December 13th, 2014 12:30 am (UTC)
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This is slightly orthogonal (if that's possible), but it's a middle way I haven't seen much.

Torture is always wrong, no exceptions.

If you think the deed worth doing, it's worth paying extreme penance for. Hopefully deed and penance all in secret, continuing to uphold the standard in public.
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From:metahacker
Date:December 13th, 2014 12:46 am (UTC)
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So, I think almost everyone (modulo the sadists) thinks torture is bad; but some people think it's _justified_, and they work backward to "it's good" because it's hard for some heads to hold the contradictory thoughts of "we do things that are wrong because the alternative is worse".

Killing people is wrong. But many of us are okay with killing people if we convince ourselves it's the only way to safeguard other lives. Locking people in a concrete box is wrong, but we generally agree it's preferable to some other outcomes.

We use this "but it's useful" argument to justify torture. The problem is that torture (a) isn't useful and (b) attracts the sadists. We've got reams of data that shows that information extracted under torture--or even under the sort of coercion that police seem to think is effective--is unreliable. We wish there were a magic ability that would force information from a person, especially when that information could safeguard lives and liberty, but such a thing hasn't been found yet.

Torture corrupts the torturers, inflicting major psychological damage on them and putting them in the unenviable position of having to justify, to themselves, their own horrible actions. This makes it stubbornly hard to eliminate once it's infected a system.

One of the ways torture stays in the system is to recruit torturers to convince other people of its utility, regardless of the data, regardless of its deleterious effects. The "hurt him until he tells us" meme is very strong, repeated everywhere in fiction (hell, I repeat it at one point in a book of mine), and almost certainly wrong in every important regard.

Once this element is removed--once torture is revealed mostly just to be mean-spirited creativity by sadistic people--it gets easier to convince people that it's "wrong". They know it's wrong; but they ignore that thought, just like we ignore the wrongness of killing, because of its utility. Remove the utility, and it gets easier to admit that the action itself is abhorrent.

The world already decided it was wrong, legally, two lifetimes ago; all we're seeing now is people committing war crimes and claiming innocence to avoid their punishment.
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From:heron61
Date:December 13th, 2014 05:50 am (UTC)
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The "hurt him until he tells us" meme is very strong, repeated everywhere in fiction

One of the things I loved most about the (generally excellent) show Burn Notice was that we were repeatedly shown that torture did not work and that there were other means of interrogation that were both more humane (although definitely not pleasant) that worked better. I wish that this had spread to more TV. Instead, I'm seeing a return to the old "hurt them until they tell us" nonsense, often combined with the exceedingly dubious justification that because it allegedly works it's sometimes "necessary". I think if that sort of nonsense could be erased from TV & movies, attitudes might change somewhat.

What I'd most like to see is torture used in one of three ways:
1) By sadistic villains to show how sadistic they are.
2) By villains who want to extract fake confessions or otherwise make the victim say whatever the torturer wants them to say (which torture is highly effective at doing).
3) By Villains and would-be heroes who are both sufficiently inept to believe that it works to get victims to reveal accurate information and morally bankrupt enough to use it.

I'd be overjoyed to never again see media where torture is used by "hard men & women making hard choices".
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From:nancylebov
Date:December 13th, 2014 03:06 pm (UTC)
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I'd like to see more portrayals of torture producing false information-- offhand, the only media example I've got is a movie called Blaze.

I'd like to see it made clearer that torture methods are just invented by people who don't know what they're doing.

I'm not sure what you mean by sadists, but I'd like to see torture portrayed as driven by anger, not smiling movie villains.

And I'd like to see the physical and emotional damage caused by torture, even when it's done by the "good guys".

I have a fantasy of a tv series set in a torture recovery unit (do such things exist?) in a hospital, as an effort to convey that torture happens to real people.
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From:nickys
Date:December 13th, 2014 09:36 pm (UTC)
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> portrayals of torture producing false information

Every witch trial ever is a good example.

If you torture people they'll admit to flying on broomsticks and all sorts of stuff like that.
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From:nancylebov
Date:December 13th, 2014 10:56 pm (UTC)
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What happens on stage seems to have a larger effect than what people think than what they know in words.
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From:adrian_turtle
Date:December 13th, 2014 11:03 pm (UTC)
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Your point 1 is problematic, in practice. Way too many people recognize torture as wrong, but only classify an act as "torture" if it's being done out of sadism or malice. Somebody who does exactly the same thing because they truly believe it to be necessary is not a torturer. (It's like the way we know it's morally appalling to cut somebody's hand off, except if we're talking about a surgeon amputating the hand in order to save a life. That's obviously a different kind of thing.) For the torture victim, it doesn't matter if the torturers are sadistic or frightened or angry or vengeful or curious or emotionally shut down and just following orders.

I've read fiction about "necessary" torture, where one torturer is shown as morally ok because he or she doesn't like doing it but tortures only because it's so necessary. The Beka Cooper books, by Tamora Pierce, are much more solidly opposed to torture...but I think that's partly because they were written after Abu Ghraib.
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From:madfilkentist
Date:December 13th, 2014 01:20 am (UTC)
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How often do we see people changing their minds on anything really fundamental? It does happen, though. I think most of them fall into two categories: (1) wholesale conversions, which generally aren't very carefully thought out, and may be followed by another conversion; and (2) a long process of thought, at the end of which the person holds new opinions without any moment of sudden reversal. People in the second category often don't like to talk about what they believed before, so we don't learn about their change.

Let's go for a little self-revelation. I was once much more pro-war than I am now. I actually supported the Vietnam war. Today I'm ambivalent about US involvement in World War II. I updated my views over time to match my developing understanding of the facts with my principles; there was no "What was I THINKING?" moment that I can recall. The most sincere reversals on torture are probably of this kind. It's easier for people to reverse themselves when they haven't taken a public stand, so you don't hear about them.
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From:kalimac
Date:December 13th, 2014 03:43 pm (UTC)
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ambivalent about US involvement in World War II

That's a good test case. What would you have had us do in response to Pearl Harbor, or is your answer simply a frustrated "I don't know"?
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From:madfilkentist
Date:December 14th, 2014 12:23 am (UTC)
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The question to me is whether the US's course unnecessarily led to Pearl Harbor. There's reason to think the US left itself open to a first attack by Japan as a way to get into war, though certainly Roosevelt wasn't expecting a near-crippling attack on the US Navy. After Pearl Harbor, it would still have been possible for the US to go to war just with Japan. On the other hand, what Hitler was doing really needed stopping. On the hand after that, this led to an alliance with Russia that allowed Stalin to expand his own empire, causing subsequent problems that narrowly missed nuclear war.
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From:adrian_turtle
Date:December 13th, 2014 11:24 pm (UTC)
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does anyone know of someone who believed torture was legitimate, then changed their mind to be opposed to it?

I've always believed that "torture" was illegitimate, but my understanding of "torture" has expanded quite a lot. There are a lot of techniques that seem designed to terrify or hurt without leaving marks--and I used to believe that some of them were almost torture, or alternatives to torture, rather than recognizing that they actually ARE torture. My understanding was based on spy stories and historical fiction--I had thumbscrews, electric shock devices, drowning, etc filed under "torture" in my head; but not stress positions or solitary confinement or mock executions.
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From:andrewducker
Date:December 16th, 2014 02:52 pm (UTC)
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