Mind-Body Dualism and Torture

I talked a bit yesterday about the recent release of a lot of documentation regarding the American torture system. In this post I want to make a more general point about torture .

Before doing so, I felt it should be emphatically pointed out that ‘ticking bomb scenarios’, and torture as the tragic but necessary last resort to save lives, is fantasy – in particular, the main point of torture in this case was to gain evidence to support the invasion of Iraq, whether or not that evidence was true.

Anyway, the conceptual point that interests me is that I think there is a tendency to think of torture as a temporary thing – unlike, say, amputating a hand, the purely ‘mental’ nature of torture means that although it’s incredibly unpleasant while it’s going on, after it’s finished the victim is basically the same as before.

For some lucky people this will be true, but in general I think this approach is too ‘Cartesian’, too prone to seeing the mind as something floating above and unlike the body. But minds can be cut into and dissected just as much as bodies.

And that’s what torture has to do. The whole point is that the person themselves is against you, is refusing to obey. You have to get rid of that ‘person’ like a swollen organ. Take it apart. De-self this mind in front of you; abolish the resolve, the will, the sense of control and identity which gives it unity and meaning. For this, learn how it is constructed – for let’s not doubt that it is constructed, just as much as the brain, a structure of a million little experiences and decisions – and then un-construct it. With pain, fear, and misery as a scalpel. ‘Mental scarring’ is the phrase which comes to mind here and well expresses the very bodily nature of the mind. Mental amputation, mental injury, mental organ failure, mental surgery.

And so the effects are liable to be as permanent as the effects of physical mutilation. Flashbacks, panic attacks, nightmares; depression, anxiety, obsessions, compulsions. Withdrawl, inability to communicate, lack of motivation. Thoughts or acts of self-harm, violence, or suicide.

People are just as vulnerable psychologically as they are physically, and in a quite similar way. Sometimes its possible to forget this because of the image of the simple, individisible, mind-pearl, the Cartesian soul independent of the body and its messy complications, perfectly unified and integrated and rational, which can always ‘choose’ how to respond to stimuli, can use will and rationality to put things in perspective. That image is a fiction which we often like to indulge because it simplifies things and makes us feel more metaphysically secure than we are.

Moreover, it is a fiction which is not applied equally to all people; it has a more prominent role in the internal and external perception of privileged groups than that of oppressed groups, and the socialisation of dominant individuals will tend to encourage behaviour that fits into it (never admit you’re wrong, always appear decisive and informed, hide your feelings, etc.)

It is associated with the rational capitalist against the brutish worker (or, as we know from Aristotle, slave-owners and slaves), with the rational man against the emotional woman, with the civilised European against the semi-human African (or Native-American, or…) and certainly with humans as against any other species.

One plausible consequence of this would be that torture might make more sense to an organisation primarily staffed with dominant, privileged, commanding individuals – such as a government, or other hierarchy. That is, hierarchical structures might well (though I may be wrong) be prone to systematically minimise and trivialise torture and other forms of cruelty (consider initiation rituals, hazing; consider the Stanford prison experiment) because its full significance is inconceivable for one who sees the mind in a Cartesian manner, a manner in which people at the tops of hierarchies are perhaps disproportionately socialised into.

One Response to “Mind-Body Dualism and Torture”

  1. Lindsay Says:

    [T]he conceptual point that interests me is that I think there is a tendency to think of torture as a temporary thing – unlike, say, amputating a hand, the purely ‘mental’ nature of torture means that although it’s incredibly unpleasant while it’s going on, after it’s finished the victim is basically the same as before.

    Hmm. I see this as well, though I think the damage torture does is dismissed, not because it takes place in the mind, but because it is done to the body.

    I think the Cartesian mind-body dualism you cite tends strongly to devalue the body, and think the mind should be quite independent of it. (You mention this later in your post, too). I think if torture does end up doing lasting damage to a person’s mind, a mind-body dualist would say that person’s mind was weak, and too easily swayed by mere sensations of the flesh. They would not see that damage as something inherent to torture, as you (and I) do.


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