Monday, March 20, 2006

Fun-Packed Holiday Reading

That was the Dandy Summer Special 1973. Spring 2006 offered less innocent pleasures:

The Ginger Man, by J. P. Donleavy. Since any lunchtime drinking I get to do takes place in the pub of the same name, I thought I should finally get round to reading this. What can I say? It's Withnail and I with wife-beaters.

Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture, by John Conroy.

Hardly what you want to be reading on the beach, but highly recommended nonetheless.

Conroy's book focuses on three cases of torture used either in or by democracies in the past 35 years: During internment in Belfast in 1971 by the British state, by the Israeli army in the village of Beita in 1988, and by Chicago police officers during an investigation into a murder in 1982 (the initial case later revealing widespread use of torture by particular officers).

The more interesting chapters from this reader's perspective, however, were those that bracketed these case histories. The first of these outlined the history, use, evolution, and decline in the use of traditional torture techniques (i.e. away from inflicting short-term violent pain and towards long-term, slow, self-inflicted pain, incurred by stress positions, sleep deprivation, starvation, etc. all of which are less recognizable as torture because they tend to constitute an extension of ordinary bodily deprivation, thereby being less “cruel and unusual.”)

Conroy also identifies four central features that manifest themselves in societies that adopt a policy of torture:

1: The class of people whom society accepts as torturable has a tendency to expand.

“In the Roman empire, the rules changed so that slaves were eligible to be tortured not just as defendants but also as witnesses to crimes committed by others. Then freemen lost their exemption in cases involving treason. By the fourth century, freemen were regularly being subjected to the same excruciating machines, devices and weapons previously reserved for slaves, And the crimes they were tortured for, as either witnesses or as the accused, had become less and less serious.”

2: It is easy to condemn the torment when it is done to someone who is not your enemy, but it seems perfectly justifiable when you perceive a threat to your own well-being.

3: In places where torture is common, the judiciary’s sympathies are usually with the perpetrators, not with the victims.

4: Torture arouses little protest as long as the definition of the torturable class is confined to the lower orders; the closer it gets to one’s own door, the more objectionable it becomes.

The book's penultimate chapter focuses not on those actively engaged in torture but on those who allow torture to happen by virtue of their non-intervention, referred to by Conroy as by-standers. Here he makes use of several pieces of research in social psychology, for instance the bystander experiments on intervention reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which found that individuals are less likely to engage in socially responsible action if they think other bystanders are present. This might strike one as counterintuitive, but research tended to lend credence to the idea of a "diffusion of responsibility": when subjects believed they were the only individuals present at the distress of another person, they were more inclined to help. By contrast, when there were more people around (or so the subjects thought), they were less inclined to respond. Subjects were inclined to look to everyone else in the group to define the situation, resulting in complete immobilization. It took particularly bold individuals to be courageous enough to break the deadlock.

Efforts to identify common characteristics of such bold interveners are made in Perry London’s “The Rescuers: Motivational Hypotheses about Christians who Saves Jews from the Nazis.” London identifies three personality traits linked to altruistic behaviour: 1: a spirit of adventurousness 2: an intense identification with a parent who set a high standard of moral conduct, and 3: a sense of being socially marginal. Whereas Dr. Ervin Staub’s “Helping a Distressed Person: Social, Personality and Stimulus Determinants” discovered a strong correlation in the student subjects of his experiments between cleanliness and an unwillingness to help others in distress. Staub hypothesizes that students who value cleanliness are more likely to be conventional in outlook and inclined therefore to conformism. Presumably this also means higher levels of trust and faith in the authorities and a belief in the ordered nature of the world. Those who suffer pain in some way deserve it. Staub also found that those students who ranked ambition highly as a value were less likely to intervene to help fellow students in distress, but also that when a demand was made directly of a subject, they were more likely to intervene positively, in effect, the obverse conditions that give rise to diffused responsibility, in which no one is specifically called upon to render aid.

It's also worth noting Conroy's observation that when torture is made public in democracies, there are five identifiable stages in the response of the regime to such publicity:

1: Total denial.
2: Trivializing of the abuse (Nothing more than hazing, for example).
3: Disparaging of the victims
4: Attempts to justify the treatment on the grounds that it was effective or appropriate.
5: Charging of those who take up the cause of the tortured as aiding enemies of the state.

A timely book and one that ought to be on reading lists in police and military training schools everywhere. The rest of us should have our own copies, too.

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