I bumped into this disturbing gem of mental sickness via a pandagon post. To summarize briefly: torturing people by simulating drowning can’t be bad because swimmers immerse themselves in water and have people yelling at them, and they’re fine. My initial thought was to provide the teeny, tiny, bit of critical thought required to dismantle this argument. Somebody beat me to it (also linked to in the pandagon post), and had come up with a half-dozen more and better examples than what I was thinking of.
Oddly, not a single person I know is compelled by the water-boarding = swimming-team = not-that-bad argument*. We understand a very simple and, I think, ironclad truth: when it comes to physically interacting with, controlling, manipulating, modifying or destroying another a human’s body, if consent is not given, a crime is being committed.
I started thinking along these lines with the intention of hitting-the-broad-side-of-the-barn with a commentary on the moral bankruptcy of the right-wing position–hey, sometimes I don’t want to think too hard before posting. Talking it over with my better half lead me to an insight that I had previously lacked. The red state author wasn’t glossing over the consent vs. non-consent distinction as a rhetorical ploy–he couldn’t face the reality that being in a consensual vs. non-consensual context changes the subjective human experience.
With morality put aside, why is it that so many people equate, say, standing at a music festival for six hours with standing blindfolded in a prison for six hours? This seemingly absurd position can only be maintained in the mind through a stunning lack of empathy. Immediately condemning this blindness as backwards and evil, as I did and tend regularly to do, also demonstrates a lack of empathy**.
Only two*** possibilities exist that could lead someone to be so callous to the reality of the human experience. First, he might have lived a life devoid of non-consensual relationships. Having no experiences in which his will is overridden by an asymmetrical power relationship, he has no understanding of being in such a position. Because he was always treated with respect and dignity, he cannot conceive of the alternate subjective experience that results from surrender and obedience .
I believe that, while possible, a human experience devoid of dominance is extremely rare. The most severe and, often, the longest lasting power disparity is between a child and its parents. I imagine that a childhood free of dominance, while not providing much experience with non-consensual actions, would probably result in a tremendous ability to empathize with suffering. I believe that this is the case because asymmetrical power relationships tend first and foremost to remove from the victim empathy for their own situation.
Let’s examine the other possibility that explains our red state author’s amazing inability to empathize. The second possibility is that he was immersed for his entire life in non-consensual action, in an environment of violent dominance. To avoid physical and emotional attack, he had to constantly surrender and obey. As an adult, he lives in a world in which he perceives asymmetrical power relationships as moral necessities that provide order and structure in an otherwise chaotic world.
If this is the case, any glimmer of empathy for a beaten, sleep deprived prisoner is coupled to empathy for his own historical relationship with those who held absolute power over him. This glimmer, should it ever occur, must be ruthlessly crushed within himself because he probably is still in close contact with his former captors and is, very likely, exercising similar dominance now over his own spouse and children.
I’m not attempting to justify the author’s advocacy of brutality. It is impossible to compare subjective experiences. We may dismiss empathetic feelings for any hypothetical suffering experienced by a white male political pundit. Clearly, there are others who spend their entire lives subject to the violent dominance of others: women foremost among them. It can be challenging to empathize with those who spend 18 years in prison when others linger there for their entire lives.
Rather, I am interested in the social mechanisms that disallow us from coming, collectively, to understand something as simple as “torture is always wrong.” Is it possible to make rational arguments that undo the damage done by a lifetime of dominance? Can we heap the evidence high enough that someone will concede that violent domination of another human being’s will is everywhere and always evil?
Empirically, the answer is “no”. Rational arguments have been made, the pile of evidence eclipses the sun, and yet the brutality proceeds apace. I’m not proposing a solution–I don’t have any. If there is a direction that will lead to a saner world, it involves a radical increase in empathy. Eventually, this implies empathy one human for another–currently difficult for the best of us, and impossible for most. It must begin initially where all change begins–we need greater empathy, first and foremost, for ourselves.
* I use the not-a-single-person-I-know argument alot. I am aware that plenty of people are not people-I-know. I would like to recommend a policy of not knowing people for whom this argument makes sense after any amount of consideration.
*** That I can think of.