Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Aversion of the Modern Mind to Torture (and Other Such Myths)

Reading through Susan Nieman’s Evil in Modern Thought, I came upon this quote:

One can find Hegelian indications of progress in subsequent Western history itself. The abolition of slavery, which he didn’t live to see, and the demand for gender equality, which he didn’t even begin to imagine, can both be read as confirmation of Hegel’s claims about freedom…And the abolition of public torture represents progress not belied by all the horrors of twentieth-century history. Foucault claimed that modern substitutes for torture are subtler forms of domination. But the fact that we can barely stand to read descriptions of things we would have brought our children to watch a few centuries earlier marks an advance in human consciousness that seems hard to reverse.
I wonder what world it is she is living in. I will grant to her that capital punishment has become infinitely more “humane” (if such a thing as execution of another human being could ever be considered in any respect humane) and certainly is no longer a form of entertainment, but that by no means suggests that modern culture has lost its taste for truly perverse violence. The only thing that has really changed, the only “advance in human consciousness” is our ability to enjoy torture virtually and thus to alleviate (if only in our own minds) the guilt of that delight.

Exhibit A: The Saw franchise which has grossed over $730 million over six films, each of which has elevated torture to new heights of creative depravity. These films graphically depict – making full use of our great modern advances in cinema – forms of human cruelty which would be totally unthinkable to the minds of those “barbaric” people of a few centuries ago – mostly because they make full use of our great modern advances in cruelty. I imagine a greater number of children had both the permission and the leisure time to enjoy watching Cary Elwes saw off his leg or Shawnee Smith thrown into a pit full of syringes than any medieval child viewing the public torment of a criminal. Is there really any qualitative difference between the child brought to the torture and execution of a dissident and the child who pays to see innocent people graphically tortured and slaughtered by a lunatic? Perhaps there is, but I don’t know that I would rule in favor of the modern delight in malice quite as freely as Nieman does.

Exhibit B: I realize of course that for many people the knowledge that the violence is virtual is enough for many people to expiate themselves from the charge of perversion, even if that knowledge must be deliberately suspended in order to enjoy the films. So I offer as a second example the case of Nicholas Berg, the American civilian beheaded in Iraq in 2004. While many have suffered dearly at the hands of militants (on both sides) in the Middle East, Berg was unique, at least in 2004, in that the video of his beheading became an overnight sensation on the Internet. The very fact that it was real rather than virtual did not generate the kind of disgust that Nieman might suggest it should but instead fueled its meteoric rise to fame. It was my senior year of high school when it was released, and everyone, even my teachers, were discussing whether or not they should or had watched it. The measure of someone’s “coolness” was temporarily determined by whether or not the video had been watched (something not unlike the present 2girls1cup phenomenon, though that is a perversion for a different time). The video is even still available and linked rather openly from the Wikipedia article about his death. It would seem, if Berg is any indicator, that the only reason why a taste for public torture has been replaced by an insatiable thirst for virtual torture is become the former is less readily available. That may represent an advance in cultural norms, but it certainly doesn’t substantiate a belief in an advanced “human consciousness.”

Exhibit C: It is hard to choose only one video game from the almost infinite list of titles available. Should it be the games where people are made gods in control of civilizations with the sole goal of crushing other civilizations (e.g. StarCraft, Age of Empires)? Or perhaps games where the users is trained to kill personally (e.g. James Bond, Halo, Resident Evil, Call of Duty)? Certainly it is not my intention to enter into the debate of whether or not virtual training in violence leads to actual violent tendencies. My only interest is to demonstrate that our cultural aversion to violence in actuality has not been suppressed so much as transformed into a “guiltless” obsession with the macabre. You’ll never be so disturbed as you are when you realize that you are no longer disturbed to hear adolescent boys rejoicing over a perfectly lethal “headshot.”

I am, of course, drawn to that trustworthy saying, deserving as it is of full acceptance: of sinners, I am the worst. In fact, I am particularly guilty on all three accounts. I have watched all the Saw films, and many more, many that would still turn the stomachs of any reasonable person who might watch them. If you are not familiar with the various and perverse works of Takashi Miike, I don’t recommend that you become acquainted with them. Certainly I am a lover of violent video games, the present or one time owner of almost all the examples I listed and many more. What is worse, I even watched (perhaps more out of social necessity than actual pleasure) the Nicholas Berg video and other films of actual deaths. My point is by no means strictly to offer a critique for our continuing and pervasive love of violence. (Though one is sorely needed, I am in a better position to receive it than offer it.)

My purpose is to point out that we have by no means evolved from our more barbaric ancestors who were so gruesome as to be spectators at public torture. We not only embrace the concept of public torture, but we buy overpriced popcorn to enhance our enjoyment of it. We allow ourselves and our children to be transported into fantasy worlds of violence where they are allowed to act out the most heinous kinds of crimes, acts which we would never imagine them capable of in real life much less tolerate them. The monumental atrocities of the 20th century alluded to in the quote are not exceptions which cloud the rule of the evolved human consciousness. They are points of rupture where the deeply rooted, constantly nurtured desire for mayhem of the most sadistic kind bursts forth from a modern humanity which has, if anything, devolved.

History, if it can actually comment on it at all (and Nieman admits that it can’t really), categorically rejects Hegel’s optimistic view of human progress rather than confirm it. More important than Hegel, however, is the personal realization that you are by no means truly more evolved than your ancestors. We have all only developed news ways to cope with old guilt while still succumbing to our basest carnal desires. We satiate our lust for violence, adultery, power, and countless other vices virtually rather than actually, but we satiate them nevertheless. Even if the act is “virtual,” our subservience to the sin is no less actual than ever before. This, after all, is the critical issue both spiritually and in the evaluation of our ‘advanced human consciousness.’

1 comment:

  1. Another example of virtual torture is the way torture gets subcontracted out to friendly regimes western governments arm and train. Or prisoners have been threatened with deportation to Egypt or Pakistan if they don't co-operate. A truly innovate spy agency would reform its itself along the lines of Nike's business practices; it would only be a brand, everything else is put up for tender.