Thursday, January 19, 2006

Richard Rorty on George Orwell and Torture.

The image accompanying this post may be blocked by New Jersey hackers. "Errors" will be inserted many times in the text. I will make corrections each time I discover such an "error."
"The purpose of torture is torture."
-- George Orwell.

In commenting on George Orwell's views of our possible post-totalitarian future, Richard Rorty says in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989):

I do not think there are any plain moral facts out there in the world, nor any truths independent of language, nor any neutral ground on which to stand and argue that either torture or kindness are preferable to the other. (p. 173.)

Two pages later, we find Rorty saying:

In other words, what matters is your ability to talk to other people about what seems to you true, not what is in fact true. (p. 176.)

If there is something that we describe as "what is, in fact, true," as distinguished from what we merely claim to be true or "what seems true to you," then there is more than just truth-talk available to us, but something that is the case with regards to truth. ("John Finnis and Ethical Cognitivism" and "Why I am not an ethical relativist.")

There are many other examples in this essay of Rorty lapsing into truth-talk. Also, the essay is about a moral judgment that "cruelty" is evil and should be avoided. Rorty does his best not to say this directly. With regard to that judgment concerning cruelty and evil, I concur. I wonder whether Rorty admits that, in some sense, such a judgment is "true"?

One interesting aspect of Rorty's thinking -- this is true of most good philosophers and Rorty is one of our best -- is the disagreements that he has with himself. The tensions in his writings are fruitful because they result from his perceptions of complexity and ambiguity in life.

Rorty wishes to acknowledge and face honestly those complexities and ambiguities in the world, and also in himself. This honesty in confronting imperfections is the only way of being a writer. It is also an ideal job description for a philosopher.

I try to avoid Eric Heller's "true believers," welcoming a skeptic's self-doubts and reservations, qualifications and limitations, in the quest to believe some things, truly and genuinely -- but also with a proverbial grain of salt.

This essay on Orwell and political cruelty is more timely now than when it was written, deserving careful attention in light of recent events. I wish to focus on the idea of a post-totalitarian future as a possibility contemplated by Orwell. By this I mean a future when totalitarianism wins "not with a bang but with a whimper." A world in which we have gotten used to a technological and conditioned "Dictatorship of Distraction." I wish to focus on the character of O'Brien, the inner party man, professional State torturer. Today, O'Brien is a postmodern Eichman, living next door perhaps. A Jewish Mengele maybe? ("What is it like to be tortured?")

This character of O'Brien anticipates many political events in the second half of the twentieth century. O'Brien is a synthesis of a bureaucrat and therapist. These are corrupt or "lesser versions" of the categories of lawyer and psychiatrist. O'Brien is the ultimate example of self-alienation, distanced from his humanity and that of others, but also from the views that he holds publicly, from the relationships that he pretends to have, from the feelings that he pretends to experience.

O'Brien may be the greatest example in contemporary literature of a character who is intelligent, yet almost autistic in his lack of affect. My concern is that he is becoming a recognizable presence in American and world politics today. O'Brien has now become a "prototype" of the corporate or government man or woman, of legal functionaries found in many nations around the world, especially in the most powerful nations. He is anonymous, lives in the shadows, wears a gray suit. This personage is not to be confused with the responsible government officials, who are also to be found in every nation, seeking to make the world better and often embarassed by this and hesitant to say it publicly. ("The Wanderer and His Shadow.")

O'Brien can pretend to feel, but he can't really feel any more. He can express the arguments for position A, persuasively or even eloquently, without believing or accepting those arguments; he can do the same for the opposite set of arguments, or position B. This is not unusual for advocates, but O'Brien can also believe both of the arguments, simultaneously, if asked to do so by the authorities. I mean that he will actually believe both of those positions, at the same time, until he is told to believe something else. What he is asked to believe and say may not coincide. He is not troubled by this. He is an emptiness to be filled by others, for a fee. (That's you, Alex Booth.)

State torturers say that they "like" people, because they enjoy "tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes." (p. 177.) (Terry and Diana? "Terry Tuchin, Diana Lisa Riccioli, and New Jersey's Agency of Torture.")

If O'Brien is asked to commit horrible tortures as "part of his job description," he will do so and not allow it to get to him. "You can't take things personally," I was told by a torturer. This is easier for those who are no longer persons, than for the rest of us, who may find it impossible.

The good torturer (think of Doris Lessing's paradoxical title: "The Good Terrorist") will take pleasure in destroying the psyche of another human being, as I say, in order to rebuild it in accordance with specifications provided by the highest bidder, without any qualms at all -- like a spoiled child building a model airplane and then destroying it, only to build another.

This may be O.K. when it comes to model airplanes, but not when it involves human beings, whose own judgments concerning their values are disregarded in the supremely evil gesture of destroying a mind.

Torturers claim to be able to transform a person into anything, into a Communist or a Catholic, or whatever is required in six weeks. A free human being must stand up against all efforts at conditioning, while remaining open to the possibility of rational persuasion in a civilized conversation. Torture has, apparently, become a sub-specialty in American psychiatry, a kind of playground for forensic psychiatrists, who are adept at creating the psychological equivalent of Auschwitz (Gaza?) in which to place their victims:

The point that sadism aims at humiliation rather than merely at pain in general has been developed in detail by Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. It is a consequence of Scarry's argument that the worst thing you can do to somebody is not to make her scream in agony but to use that agony in such a way that even when the agony is over, she cannot reconstitute herself. The idea is to get her to do or say things -- and, if possible, believe and desire things, think thoughts -- which later she will be unable to cope with having done or thought. You can thereby, as Scarry puts it, "unmake her world" by making it impossible for her to use language to describe what she has been. (p. 178.)

By taking away another person's ability to use language, to recognize or define truth (or to reject the concept, for that matter) for him- or herself, a torturer deprives a victim of humanity. By preventing someone from writing and publishing, torturers hope to destroy that person's capacity to raise criticisms or to protest. This deprivation of humanity is a way of making a victim an empty shell, like the torturer, a walking intellectual corpse.

My daily writing experience is a war against computer crime. I can never be sure of writing from one day to the next. As my computer is shut off by hackers, I realize that their ultimate goal is to shut me off. By destroying the messenger, you can refute the message -- or so they think. ("An Open Letter to My Censors.")

By forcing a person to accept incoherent ideas and falsehoods ("everything is relative!"), the torturer wins. Torturers create a world in which truth is made only by power. Goodness is defined through the infliction of pain, so that the torturer's deepest wish is fulfilled. The torturer wins when he or she is accepted by the victim as the "god of the torture chamber." On the other hand, so long as a victim can win the arguments by continuing to think, so long as he or she remains a philosopher (whether that word is used or not), the torturer loses. ("Terry Tuchin, Diana Lisa Riccioli, and New Jersey's Agency of Torture.")

Philosophy is a defeat of all attempts to make truth into power. Philosophy is also a denial of the claim that power is truth. This is because philosophy is free thinking, available to all, and it is also thinking freely -- even concerning the relationship between truth and power -- unrelated to status or wealth, influence or physical condition, rank or privilege.

The power of argument alone is the essence of philosophizing. Philosophy is power against unjust power. The only force recognized in genuine philosophical discussion is the force of the better argument. I am indebted to Professor Rick Roderick for a memorable statement of this position.

Philosophy requires confidence in the possibility of communication, leading to agreement and mutual instruction. To philosophize, whether in a prison cell or torture chamber, even if one is covered in shit or blood, is to affirm one's humanity and dignity. Philosophy makes my true partner in dialogue -- in this case Professor Rorty (or Ms. Schulz or Mr. Holt in other posts) -- into my brother or sister, because the search for truth and goodness is shared. Any true philosophical dialogue is a communal or shared project. "Come, join us ..." is the greeting that Socrates offers to his conversational partners and adversaries, including those who seek his destruction. ("The Allegory of the Cave.")

O'Brien wants to cause Winston as much pain as possible, and for this purpose what matters is that Winston be forced to realize that he has become incoherent, realize that he is no longer able to use a language or be a self. Although we can say, "I believed something false," nobody can say to himself, "I am right now, believing something false." So nobody can be humiliated at the moment of believing a falsehood, or by the mere fact of having done so. But people can, their torturers hope, experience the ultimate humiliation of saying to themselves, in retrospect, "Now that I have believed or desired this, I can never be what I hoped to be, what I thought I was. ..." (p. 179.)

In resisting conditions of torture, it is essential to retain one's self-definition, in terms of one's values and life-goals, no matter how laughable or hopeless such views may be made to appear by torturers. Even the worst person who is a victim of torture, in the midst of his or her agony, is the moral superior of his torturer. In a moral sense, it is always better to be Steven Biko than one of his South African tormentors and murderers, or one of the judges who permitted such horrors.

Any human being may be destroyed easily enough; defeat, however, is something you can only do to yourself. Whatever they do to you, however much they may destroy the conditions of your life, you may choose to be untouched by injustice. Think of Nelson Mandela or Dr. King. ("New Jersey's Feces-Covered Supreme Court" and "New Jersey's legal System is a Whore House.")

Hold on to hope, valuing and thinking, no matter how alone you feel yourself to be, and you will always hold on to your future self or capacity for transcendence. Hemingway says, "A man [or woman] can be destroyed, but not defeated." It is the unwillingness to be defeated that allows us to say -- even in room 101 -- what Winston Smith could not say: "Torture me, but not those I love."

"[The goal is to torture] Winston for the sake of causing Winston pain, and thereby increasing the pleasure of [inner-party] members, particularly O'Brien. The only object of O'Brien's intensive seven-year-long study of Winston was to make possible the rich, complicated, delicate, absorbing spectacle of mental pain which Winston would eventually provide. The only point in leaving [the walking corpse] sitting in the Chestnut Tree Cafe alive, for a while, is that it can still feel pain when the telescreen plays "under the spreading chestnut tree/I sold you and you sold me." ... As O'Brien says, "The object of torture is torture." (pp. 179-180.)

Finally, for survivors of such horrors -- and of events like 9/11 -- the remaining task is the challenge of coping with memory and anger, directing those emotions in constructive channels towards the improvement of society, by eliminating torture and terrorism, while making positive contributions to our communities and demanding justice. (Again: "Terry Tuchin, Diana Lisa Riccioli, and New Jersey's Agency of Torture" and "More Censorship and Cybercrime.")

Paradoxically, it is that "solidarity" which both Professor Rorty and I defend, that requires victims of torture to work for the just treatment and respect, along with insisting upon the due process rights of all persons -- even of their torturers, as they are brought before the bar of justice. All of them will be forced to accept responsiblity for their actions. We must believe that this will be so, no matter how difficult it is to do so. Victims must believe that they will come face-to-face with their tormentors, in a setting where rationality and equality are primary considerations. This is what I understand by legality and legal ethics.

Such a view of even a torturer's right to humane treatment and due process of law, is the crucial philosophical distinction between civilized responses to evil and evil as the loss of humanity. Nuremberg, but no Abu Ghraib. It is at such moments of respect for the humanity of our tormentors that we may hear what Wordsworth calls: "The still, sad music of humanity."

We must never become what torturers or terrorists are.

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