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Pyschology and Torture

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Pyschology and Torture Empty Pyschology and Torture

Post  RemOrb Sat Jan 10, 2009 1:07 am

Psychology and Torture

In late September, the American Psychological Association reversed a longstanding policy by voting to ban its members from participating in interrogations at United States detention centers, including Guantanamo Bay. Just a year earlier, the association had declined to take this action, but did pass a resolution listing a number of methods of interrogation -– sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, exploitation of phobias, loud music, harsh lights and mock executions were examples –- with which psychologists should not be involved.

What the association did this September brought it into line with the positions of the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, which declared in a May 2006 statement that “No psychiatrist should participate directly in the interrogation of person held by military or civilian investigative or law enforcement authorities.”

Why did psychology, generally considered to be one of the most liberal of disciplines, lag behind its sister professions? One answer can be found in the A.M.A.’s explanation of its prohibition: “Physicians must not conduct, directly participate in, or monitor an interrogation with an intent to intervene, because this undermines the physician’s role as healer.” The American Psychiatric Association is even more explicit: “Psychiatrists . . . owe their primary obligation to the well being of their patients.”

Psychology, on the other hand, is not exclusively a healing profession. To be sure, there are psychologists who provide counseling, therapy and other services to patients; but there are many psychologists who think of themselves as behavioral scientists. It is their task to figure out how the mind processes and responds to stimuli, or how the emotions color and even create reality, or how reasoning and other cognitive activities are affected by changes in the environment. Their product is not mental health, but knowledge; their skills are not diagnostic, but analytic -– what makes someone do something -– and it is an open question as to whether there are limits, aside from the limits of legality, to the uses to which these skills might be put.

Are psychologists experts for hire, or is it understood, as a matter of professional self-definition, that their expertise is to be deployed only for benign purposes?

As a matter of fact, psychological skills are purchased and deployed as commodities all the time. Law firms employ jury consultants to assess the psychological make-up of prospective jurists and give advice about the appeals and emotional triggers that might sway (i.e., manipulate) them. Every viewer of “Law and Order” knows the good-cop-bad-cop routine, a strategy of interrogation designed to put suspects off balance and gain their confidence by creating a false sense of comradeship. Cable TV’s most popular heroine, Brenda Lee Johnson of “The Closer,” plays both roles herself. Large corporations employ psychological profilers to help make them make personnel decisions. Sports teams hire “coaches” whose job it is to motivate players and make them more aggressive. Hospitals use the results of psychological examinations to decide whether or not a patient should be released. And of course the military employs psychologists in an effort to identify techniques that lead prisoners to spill what they know.

Once could try to draw a line between those techniques that are coercive and those that are merely facilitative, but the line would always be arbitrary, as we can see from a directive put out by Donald Rumsfeld when he was Secretary of Defense: “Interrogations must always be planned deliberate actions that take into account a detainee’s emotional and physical strengths and weaknesses” and “manipulate the detainee’s emotions and weaknesses to gain his willing cooperation” (“Memorandum for the Commander, U.S. Southern Command,” 2003).

What could the word “willing” possibly mean here? It can’t mean “of his free will” because it is precisely the point of the “planned deliberate actions” Rumsfeld speaks of to bend, if not break, the will of detainees. “Willing cooperation,” if it is achieved, is a theatrically produced state and the opposite of the real thing. (If there is a real thing; there has always been an argument that human agents cannot freely will anything, but that is not an argument I want to take up today.)

In fact, the moment psychological knowledge of causes and effects is put into strategic action is the moment when psychology ceases to be a science and becomes an extension of someone’s agenda. Employing psychological skills in the course of any verbal interaction -– be it a domestic conversation, classroom teaching, a performance in a law court, or an interrogation -– will always have the effect of subordinating the facts and the truth of the matter to the desire for an outcome.

This is precisely the accusation traditionally made against the ancient discipline of which psychology is the heir -– rhetoric, or the art of persuasion. The earliest rhetorical manuals were handbooks for lawyers; they taught the tricks of the trade: how to make an argument, how to disguise the weakness of an argument; what to do when the facts are not on your side; how to turn a negative into a positive; how to modulate your voice; how to position your body; how to flatter, pander, intimidate and obfuscate; in short, how to play the jurors and the judge so that they will dance to your tune.

The emphasis is not on what is true, but on what works, what gets results even if the results are obtained by torture. If the testimony you are citing has been elicited by torture, just say that “it was in order to discover the truth that our ancestors wished to make use of torture” (”Rhetorica ad Herennium“). That is, first torture and then defend the practice with any argument that can give it “an appearance of plausibility.” Physical manipulation and verbal manipulation bleed into one another; they are only slightly different ways of clouding minds.

In his “Rhetoric,” Aristotle acknowledges that it would be better if we could make our case without either browbeating or flattering the audience; nothing should matter except “the bare facts.” Yet he laments, “other things affect the result considerably, owing to the defects of our hearers.” And since our hearers are defective it is incumbent upon us to suit our methods to those defects. The ancient art of rhetoric comes into being because men and women are susceptible to base appeals; that susceptibility has been mapped and scientifically described by the modern art of psychology.

Can those arts be defended? The classic defense of rhetoric is that the techniques it catalogs are themselves morally neutral; the enterprise should not be condemned because some people misuse it. In other words, we just supply the knowledge; what is done with it is someone else’s responsibility.

The American Psychological Association flirts with the same reasoning when it regards the transformation of psychological insights into devices of torture as an instance of crossing a line. But that line is crossed whenever the knowledge psychology yields as a science of the mind is made into the technology of persuasion. Applied psychology can never be clean.


Male Number of posts : 9
Age : 41
Registration date : 2008-12-22

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