Last week, I wrote about two conflicting schools of thought: 1) an orthodoxy promoted by Steven Pinker, Peter Singer, and others that human violence and war are decreasing; and 2) John Gray’s view that we’ve made significant moral progress is wishful thinking and plain wrong.
While thinking more about the question, “Are Things Getting Better or Worse?” two books and one documentary film caught my attention:
- Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation by historian Alfred McCoy
- An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots of Our Domination of Nature and Each Other by attorney and journalist Jim Mason
- See No Evil, a documentary film by Dutch filmmaker Jos de Putter, which explores the relationship between humans and three chimpanzees exploited in entertainment and experimentation. The film’s concluding question asks: “Who is watching whom, and who learns from whom?”
(All are incredibly captivating – though not necessarily light reading or viewing.)
I’ve come to five conclusions:
1. Torture is a slippery slope.
The ancient Greeks and Romans were the first to systematically use torture. The Romans first tortured slaves and then expanded the use of torture to cases of suspected treason and civil cases to obtain “confessions” – though many Romans acknowledged the unreliability of information obtained under torture. By the third century AD, citizens were divided into the honestiores (the privileged) and humiliores (the poor), who could only testify under torture (though some children and pregnant women were spared).
2. No one is immune from torture.
Anyone can perpetuate torture, and anyone can be a victim of torture.
The Christian Church opposed torture until the mid-thirteenth century when Pope Innocent IV authorized torture against heretics.
Eventually, the courts used torture to extract confessions, often at the discretion of judges.
By the twentieth century, communist, fascist, and authoritarian governments widely relied on torture to maintain control, while democratic nations supported torture perpetuated by authoritarian regimes.
Medical experts soon participated in torture – as observers, in medical experiments, and by condoning torture.
3. Euphemisms are dangerous.
As Alfred McCoy points out, there has been thin discourse, evasion, euphemism, and denial surrounding the issue of torture.
In 2007, the United States Central Intelligence Agency confirmed that it employed waterboarding as an “enhanced interrogation technique” on extrajudicial prisoners. Under the Bush Administration, lawyers argued for a narrow definition of torture under United States law, giving the Central Intelligence Agency the authority to use waterboarding – which is really a form of mock execution.
Euphemisms are the arch-enemy of moral clarity. These rhetorical devices are intentionally designed to cloud our everyday language and blunt our ability to see problems clearly.
In the United States, euphemisms surrounding torture – like “enhanced interrogation techniques” – have dampened democracy.
Euphemisms are also commonly used to describe how humans treat animals. Small gestation crates for pregnant pigs are called “maternity pens,” and laboratory experiments involving water deprivation and burns are called “negative reinforcement” and “noxious stimuli.”
In effect, euphemisms become ethical blinders and suppress justice.
4. Tragedy and crisis can be shaped into opportunity and hope.
Though torture occurred long before the Gestapo, Nazi atrocities motivated the international community. Soon after the Nuremberg Trials began, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. These international resolutions established that human rights transcended race, gender, religion, and ideology.
5. Activists really do change the world.
In 1973, Amnesty International began the Campaign for the Abolition of Torture – describing torture as a “social cancer.” It convened the first International Conference on the Abolition of Torture and then worked toward codes of ethics in the medical, psychiatric, and legal communities. By 1975, the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Being Subjected to Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In 1984, the United Nations approved the Convention against Torture by a unanimous vote.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Bush Administration reversed decades of progress against torture. However, the Bush Administration was not alone. Members of Congress, political pundits, and Harvard professors mobilized to justify torture.
After human rights activists pressured Members of Congress and the Obama Administration to be transparent about the US government’s use of torture, the United States Senate Intelligence Committee finally released an unclassified report addressing the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques on December 9, 2014. There was no clear evidence that the terror tactics saved lives, and the torture tactics were far crueler than had been disclosed to policymakers and the public.
Animal rights activists have also made a difference, in a relatively short amount of time. While I was at the DC Environmental Film Festival to participate in a Q&A after See No Evil was shown last week, I reflected on the plight of chimpanzees. For decades, activists have worked to liberate chimpanzees from laboratories, zoos, circuses, and as pets. We are now on the cusp of seeing that come to fruition.
Moral progress isn’t easy, but in many ways straightforward, if we have the moral clarity and conviction required to make substantial and meaningful advancements.