Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Cynicism Dump

Politics was never one of my strong suits. There are plenty of areas of nuance and history that I haven't had the time or energy to wrap my head around. There are, however, some topics that seem pretty black and white to me. Take torture for example.

Torturing prisoners for any reason, including interrogation, should be self-evidently wrong, exposed whenever it's suspected, and it should constitute political suicide to be caught associating with, much less condoning, people who engage in torture. Even if something stops torturers from being put on trial, there should be a strong cultural pressure to shun those people and deny them any sort of aid or comfort. They should feel isolated from civilized society because they violated basic principles of conduct and embraced barbarism.

So, why do I feel like I'm in the minority in that attitude? It probably doesn't help that I live in Texas, where nearly anyone I meet could be a landmine of right-wing and/or theocratic insanity. My dad has to tiptoe a lot around work. Thankfully, he found out one of the newer employees is of like mind, so they can talk freely together.

I don't watch the news nearly as much as I probably should, and I keep lapsing on the Daily Show and Colbert report. I hope this is just a perception I inadvertently developed from leaving television behind for so long. If someone in the mainstream media's been trying to drill the administration for its abuses, let me know.


Dunc said...

So, why do I feel like I'm in the minority in that attitude?

Because you probably are. Unfortunately, a great many people are barely-concealed savages, desperately looking for excuses to exercise the most appalling forms of power over other people. You can really hear the glee when they manage to find someone they can plausibly claim "deserves" it. Just why that should be is a difficult question, but it does seem unarguably true.

Here in the UK, I'm only slightly disturbed at how rapidly many people have gone from endlessly moaning about the incompetence and perfidy of government to begging for the imposition of martial law. (If you don't follow the news much, you may not be aware that we've been experiencing some rioting recently.) I say "only slightly disturbed" because I'm already beyond the event horizon of cynicism on such matters...

Given the choice between (a) fixing a problem in a way that helps everyone but doesn't involved punishment, and (b) punishing someone of lower social status in a way that actually exacerbates the problem, most people will go for option (b). It's more about establishing and maintaining hierarchies of social dominance than anything else, IMHO.

The best explanation I've encountered so far comes from Alice Miller, in her book "For Your Own Good" - she argues that the whole dynamic arises because people have a deep need to believe that their parents are good people who always do the right thing, and we live in a culture in which physical or emotional punishment in the service of establishing unquestioning obedience is regarded as an essential part of child-rearing. Therefore people come to believe that punishment and obedience are the essential basis for social relations - because they have to believe their parents wouldn't have hurt them if it wasn't really for the best. Even seriously considering any alternative approaches feels like a betrayal of (or disobedience to) the parent. And so we end up with a hideously perfect self-perpetuating cycle of abuse and justification... Her ideas still contain rather too much Freudian bullshit for me to completely accept, but I can't help feeling that she's on to something there.

Bronze Dog said...

The evening after I posted this, I watched an episode of The Daily Show. I suppose we're still worse off in the US, since apparently you Brits will still queue up and wait patiently for looting, since it's only fair that each rioter gets a turn at stealing expensive electronics.

Jim Roberts said...

Dunc, I've always preferred the more simplistic tribal explanation - we want what's best for the people in our tribe. If your definition of your tribe is broad, then you oppose torture and savagery because these are acts against your tribe. If your tribe is narrow, then the farther out someone is from meeting your tribe's criteria, the more likely you are to support barbarism against the person.

This is the reason why you see so many religious people who're in support of this kind of behaviour. Almost by definition, an organized religion is a kind of tribe.

Dunc said...

Dweller - that's almost certainly part of the dynamic, but I'm not convinced it can be the whole story, because all too many people are only too happy to do these sorts of things to members of their own (metaphorical) "tribe", or even their own (literal) family. Indeed, it's in those sort of contexts where you see the very worst that people can do (outside of actual warfare).

Jim Roberts said...

Dunc, I'm not sure exactly what you're meaning there - if you're talking about how child abuse and spousal abuse can be worse than what those people do to strangers, some such offenders either have a pathology that makes them likely to hurt family simply because family is nearby. They'll hurt them because they're convenient.

These people are a tribe of one - call them sociopaths, narcissists, whatever label best fits.

Some others - some of whom I have to deal with more often than I like - believe that their abusiveness is "for their own good." Doesn't justify the behaviour, but the intent is a positive one, however foolish.

Aquaria said...

Bronze Dog, you have my sympathy. I'm here with you in Texas, and it's just astonishing how barbaric the locals are. Some of it is tribalism--but a lot of it is just plain selfishness.

I call it the star of their own show mentality. So many Americans seem to think that the world revolves around them, and everyone else should get out of their way while they do what they want.

It's reflected in every part of American life now--the horrible drivers who will blithely pull out of McDonald's without even looking to see if anyone's coming and then getting mad and screaming at the driver they pulled out in front of when they're t-boned (I experienced this a few years ago). The people who will stampede women and children in an attempt to get into an event or big sale. The fans at a baseball game who will steal a baseball from a little girl's hands. The Little League parents who harass umpires and other teams over their awful brats, who are just as disgusting of bellowing pigs as their parents--how can they not be? The people who dump their garbage wherever, whenever.

So why are we surprised when the politics are vile? It's only a reflection of the electorate behind it.

Dunc said...

"Some others - some of whom I have to deal with more often than I like - believe that their abusiveness is "for their own good." Doesn't justify the behaviour, but the intent is a positive one, however foolish."

Yes - my point is that it's that sense of moral justification which allows them to plumb the ultimate depths of human evil and depravity. And in fact, it's precisely that dynamic which is behind most of those cases of spousal or child abuse which you're ascribing to "pathology". If you actually listen to what these people say about their actions, they almost always believe that their crimes are justified.

It's not a coincidence that child abusers are virtually always themselves victims of almost identical abuse.

Anonymous said...

I'm for such methods as torture because I think it's necessary. It isn't a question of whether it's "deserved". (If we all got what we deserved, we should all be terrified.) Contrary to some of the opinions of those above me, the vast majority of people, especially in a predominantly Christian community, are not sadistic monsters.

Reasonable corporal punishment for children is unarguably a necessity for building their character, and their hold on moral values. This, ideally, would end some time before adulthood. We do not live in an ideal world.

Confinement is definitely a form of psychological torture, albeit a very light one. However, I don't believe it reduces the chance of criminal activity sufficiently on its own. In anything remotely like a decent society, moral standards would be deeply-rooted enough that acts of violent crime would be somewhat rare. I am not convinced a large-scale decent society currently exists.

No sane person enjoys seeing pain in others. A parent who spanks their child does not enjoy doing so (or if they do, something is very wrong), but they do so because it is necessary. The same is so of torture. If someone has committed acts on the line of murder and rape, it is not only acceptable but essential that they be punished in such a way that they will be significantly discouraged from doing so in the future. (Ideally with some psychological help offered to them as well.) The best way to do this is to cause a carefully measured amount of physical pain.

No sane person wants to see torture being used. But unless you can find a way to discourage violence without actually enforcing punitive action, it's the only reasonable action. I have sympathy for the rapists and murderers who would be going through it- they're very sick in some way. If it's at all possible, they should be rehabilitated, and in some cases punishment isn't necessary for that. I'd rather people neglected to perform acts of murder and rape out of a sense of moral integrity than out of fear for the consequences. But I'd rather they remained peaceful out of fear for the consequences than that they actually performed such acts.

djfav said...

The Constitution be damned. Torture is cruel and unusual, and goes well beyond punishment. If you can't tell the difference between the two, then you're a fucking moron.

Bronze Dog said...

Try reading for context. There's a difference between punishment and torture, especially since this is in a specific context: The prisoners I'm speaking of by and large haven't even been found guilty of anything, yet, since they're being held indefinitely without trial.

Torture is being used to coerce confessions, gather (unreliable) information, and for some nutbars in covert places to get their jollies without fear.

Now, you might be able to draw a legitimate comparison between the current prison system and torture (in which case, you'd find more people here protesting that system's abuses), but trying to compare timeouts in the corner for children to torture is just insane.

djfav said...

And FFS, how is torture supposed to rehabilitate someone? If anything, it's the torturers that need rehabilitation.