Monday, May 4, 2009

Tortured Categories

Like Magritte’s painting that was not a pipe, this is not a post about waterboarding.

Lawyers don’t fall for trick questions like “Is waterboarding torture?” By instinct – well, maybe not so much by instinct as by habit – we answer “for what purpose?” There are lots of laws and conventions that deal with torture, and if those are to be applied to the allegation that waterboarding violates them, one must decide whether waterboarding is torture. But deciding the issue for that purpose decides it only for that purpose.

How we feel about a particular thing – as opposed to what the law should do about it – ought not to be affected by whether it can be characterized as falling into a category – for example, whether waterboarding can be characterized as “torture.” Aside from the derivative issue of whether it is immoral per se to violate the law, violating a law against torture by doing something that is deemed torture for purposes of that law is not the same thing as “torturing” for the purpose of deciding how we should, or do, feel about our government’s doing it in our name.

Our feeelings about waterboarding - at least insofar as those feeling are ambivalent - do not turn on whether the technique is effective. If the only question is whether waterboarding is a necessary or unnecessary evil, there’s not much left t otalk about. The answer would await only the evidence, difficult to get as that may be.

No, the question is interesting only if we assume that waterboarding is effective, and the queston then becomes whether it costs us more in national self-esteem than it seems able to gain us in national safety. Obviously, that formulation entails some notion of effectiveness. It’s easy to hypothesize the situation where waterboarding unearths an otherwise un-unearthable plot to destroy the country completely. But that hypothesis puts the proverbial rabbit in the hat. What wouldn’t it be ok to do in order to acquire that particular piece of intelligence? Life is risk, and we simply cannot justify everything we do by the remote possibility that it will prove to have been the only thing that could have prevented our utter destruction. The working hypothesis, then, is that waterboarding does produce positive results but cannot be presumed to provide an otherwise unattainable, nation-saving piece of information.

As a practical matter, we cannot measure “how we feel about ourselves” or what a given interrogation technique “gets us,” and to the extent that we could, the measures would be less subject to comparison than apples and oranges. But whether or not we can do any calculus on them, we do each feel a certain way about the facts as we know them, and under the bell curve of feelings about the use of any particular interrogation technique lies an aggregate level of discomfort that affects the national spirit.

The psychic cost of waterboarding turns to some extent on how we feel about torture and how equating waterboarding with torture affects our feelings about the former. We do not like to think of ourselves as a people who “torture.” One tortures for only two reasons: cruelty or weakness. In “weakness,” I include vulnerability to attacks of the sort torture might arguably discover. The average American does not want to think of himself either as cruel and or as vulnerable. Being a nation that “tortures” forces us to opt into one of those explanations.

Does being a nation that waterboards have the same effect? I would say “no.” The term “torture” includes all manner of monstrous acts, whereas waterboarding includes only that specific practice. Thus, the argument “waterboarding is torture” is a rhetorical device intended solely to say “you should feel as badly about your government’s waterboarding as you would about its inflicting your worst horror.” That seems to me a false argument. We should feel about waterboarding as badly, and only as badly, as we feel about our government’s waterboarding. I don’t know how I feel about that, but I don’t feel as badly about it as I would about the government’s inflicting my worst horror.

But, as I said, this is not a post about waterboarding. It’s a post about rhetoric, about the particular form of argument in which one tries to tar something with the dirtiest brush one can and thereby change its impact to that of the worst members of the category to which one assigns it. The game can be played in the opposite direction (look for the word “merely,” just,” or only”), but in these tough times, one sees more and more efforts by our politicians and editorialists to work the negative side of the street. Waterboarding and “torture” strike me as a good example of the tactic. I’m not sure how I feel about waterboarding, but I am pretty sure how I feel about torture, and I’m interested in how rhetoric can collapses the psychic space between them.

Such inquiries have led me to the conclusion that I don’t like nouns. I like verbs better. Give me a name like “Dances with Wolves” – there’s a man who literally is what he does. Yes, we have categorizing verbs, too, like to “torture,” but something about verbs resists the temptation to use them as categories. We are not asked “Is to waterboard to torture?” Instead, we are asked “Is waterboarding torture?” and then, if our interlocutor can get a “yes,” we are told that we do torture and are dared not to cringe at the thought. The noun defines the verb, and the verb defines us. And that doesn’t seem right.

There are, of course, other examples. My post about President Obama’s treatment of the AIG retention payments and Chrysler’s senior creditors was about the same phenomenon. The all-purpose insult “TARP Recipient” is applied equally to banks in need and banks that accepted funds to provide cover for those that needed them. And then even to those banks acting in a fiduciary capacity. It’s all the same sophistry, and it makes me mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it any more. (And don’t get me started on enthymeme!)


  1. Hold it! Magritte's painting was not a pipe because it was a painting. This post is not waterboarding because it's a post. That's not why this post is not ABOUT waterboarding. And, in fact, it is about waterboarding. It's an argument that calling waterboarding torture is a rhetorical device and, implicitly, that it is not fair. Why, because (a) it is only one form of (dare I say?) torture, rather than the whole spectrum of techniques that can be called torture, and (b) because it is not the writer's own worst horror. Both points are wrong. (a) If waterboarding meets the definition of an activity constituting torture, then it is torture, just as apples can be called fruit, even though they are only one form of fruit. There are many kinds of shovels, but you can call any one of them a spade without being guilty of the sin of rhetoric. (b) Nor does the fact that waterboarding may not subjectively be the writer's own personal worst nightmare disqualify it as torture if, objectively, it meets the definition. There may indeed be worse forms of torture even than waterboarding, e.g., those that permanently disfigure or disable or eventually kill the victim. But that something is not one's worst nightmare doesn't mean it isn't a nightmare, and the same is true for forms of torture. Is it really just sophistry to call waterboarding -- or to waterboard -- torture? How else would one describe it? Is it significant that the writer never offers any alternate descriptive term? Perhaps he might call it a terrifying and painful near-death experience simulating drowning. Or is that just another rhetorical phrase for "torture"?

  2. George -

    The original post is not about waterboarding; it is about rhetoric, and specifically about what I’ll call escalation by category. Waterboarding is just the maguffin. The post about President Obama makes the same point about the categories of “bonus” and “stakeholder.” In each case, the connotations of a category were deployed rhetorically to denigrate something or someone that fit the categories, although, I would argue, not relevantly so.

    And the hits keep coming. On May 7, Eliot Spitzer appeared on CNBC. The subject of Dick Grasso’s pay came up, and Spitzer kept working the word “non-profit” into the conversation, as if the NYSE were a charity. The purpose, I am sure, having seen a litigator or two in action, was category escalation, to make people think that Grasso’s pay for running the sanctum sanctorum of American capitalism was somehow subject to the same notions of “reasonableness” as might apply to social service agency. Whatever one thinks of Grasso’s pay, he got it for enabling the making of money, and Spitzer’s obsessive reference to the exchange’s non-profit status was therefore disingenuous.

    It may well be that the amount Grasso got was unreasonable even by commercial standards. (I have no opinion on that, not knowing what he accomplished.) And I’d be ok with the exchange losing its 501(c)(3) exemption on the grounds of private inurement. But the money he got, he got for commercial activity, so I do have a problem with Spitzer relying rhetorically on the connotations associated with a category into which the NYSE happens to fit, as if membership in that category were more important than the actual nature of the institution.

    And that’s the nub of it. The question is not whether something fits a category, but whether the fact it fits the category helps answer a question being asked. I don’t see that happening.

    You wrote:

    "If waterboarding meets the definition of an activity constituting torture, then it is torture, just as apples can be called fruit, even though they are only one form of fruit. There are many kinds of shovels, but you can call any one of them a spade without being guilty of the sin of rhetoric.”

    ...unless one’s intent is to commit that sin. I cannot infer that rhetoric has been committed from the mere assertion that A is a B, but I can so infer from certain categorizations. If I pat you on the rump with a child’s beach shovel, and you tell people to shun me because I hit people with shovels, what inference can I draw from your claim? As Thoreau said, some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.

    Such categorization is almost always intended to attribute to something some feature not obvious - or not present. Consequently, no effort is made at categorization when the class member's evil nature is already established.

    Consider, for example, three possible rules for interrogators:

    1. Interrogators may pelt suspects with grapes to extract information from them.

    2. Interrogators may pelt suspects with fruit to extract information from them.

    3. Interrogators may pelt suspects with watermelons to extract information from them.

    Supose that Rule #1 is in force, and interrogators have been graping suspects. I don’t know how I feel about living in a country that grapes suspects. Graping is no fun, but it is, after all, only graping. Of course, graping is a form of fruiting, but Rule #1 does not permit all forms of fruiting, nor have our interrogators engaged in all sorts of fruiting. What matters, therefore, is that we grape, not that graping is fruiting. So why mention it?

    I don’t want to live in a country that follows Rule #2, even if, to date, the only fruiting that has been practiced is graping. That’s because fruiting could include watermeloning, and I don’t want that on my hands. It would not be surprising, therefore, even if Rule #1 applied, to find opponents of graping referring to it as “fruiting,” which it surely is. That charge implies a sort of in-for-a-dime-in-for-a-dollar moral view and conjures up an unpleasatness that comes of our knowing that fruiting includes watermeloning, and we are not a people that watermelons. It’s as if, despite the fact that Rule #1 applies, we live in a country where Rule #2 applies.

    Escalation of the sort described from Rule #1 to Rule #2 would never happen if Rule #3 applied and our interrogators were indeed watermeloning suspects. Opponents of watermeloning would not remind us that watermeloning is fruiting. Why bother? Everybody knows that watermeloning is fruiting, and, more important, everybody knows it’s a particularly nasty form of it. The debate over its propriety would not turn on whether it’s fruiting, because calling it “fruiting” would not escalate its moral challenge. No point in demoniizing a known demon.

    The first sentence of the paragraph I quoted above announces a tautology (if waterboarding is torture, then waterboarding is torture). To give the sentence semantic content, one must understand it to contain an implicit statement that an appeal to the definition of torture will be of use in resolving the question “How do I figure out whether waterboarding is torture?” But outside of a courtroom, I do not see that anyone has asked that question, nor can I come up with a reason to ask it. The answer seems to need a question.

    I ended the main post with “And don’t get me started on enthymeme!” Your comment responds with what I think is an enthymemetic argument. “Waterboarding is torture” seems to me to be the minor premise of an argument, but I don't see the major premise. The context in which I raised the issue of waterboarding involved national self-esteem: Should we sleep comfortably in our beds knowing that rough men stand ready to do waterboarding in our name? Is “waterboarding is torture” a useful datum in that inquiry?

    The syllogism that makes that sentence relevant seems to be:

    If we torture, we will feel bad.

    Waterboarding is torture.

    Therefore, if we waterboard, we will feel bad.

    But that syllogism doesn’t work for me, because my subconscious takes a more granular view of things than that. My subconscious sees waterboarding differently from thumb screws. I don’t know why it does, but it does. So, if you’re trying to “talk to” my subconscious, you need to be as granular as it is; you need to persuade it that waterboarding is unacceptable on account of things inherent in waterboarding, not on account of what category includes it.

    I have no problem saying that waterboarding is torture. My problem is with the use of the noun "torture" to instill a sense of national embarrassment by playing artfully on each individual's own conjurings in the presence of that word, rather than using, say, "waterboarding," which has whatever effect it has without summoning the demons from the depths of the hearer's psyche that accompany the word "torture."

    Waterboarding is torture, but that does not make it ok to substitute the word "torture" for waterboarding everywhere it appears thereafter in any discussion of the matter. In some cases, the specifics of waterboarding matter, and in some they don’t. My sense is that opponents of the practice intentionally blur that distinction, using "torture" where "waterboarding" would be appropriately less prejudicial. Which is like using "bonus" for "retention payment" or "stakeholder" for "secured creditor" or "non-profit" for "stock Exchange."


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