Sunday, November 19, 2006

Only a Social Misfit Can Save Us

Last week, my colleague invited John Conroy, a journalist for the Chicago Reader to speak on torture. He has written several pieces exposing how the Chicago police used torture in interrogation (here) and published a book entitled Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture. In the course of his lecture, in which he argued that any of us could become a torturer, he made reference to the Milgram experiment. I hadn't thought about Milgram for a few years; I used to show his film, entitled Obedience, to my Contemporary Moral Issues students. My goal was to show students how difficult it was for the majority of us to disobey an authority figure, and hence, why it is important to cultivate in us a robust moral character such that we would be able to dissent when necessary. However, I am clear-eyed that very few, if any, of my students internalized that message.

The only hope we seem to have, if we want to stop atrocious and inhumane practices, such as torute, is to be super-human--to transcend our hardwiring to obey. This message is depressing to me; we are all capable of dark and unspeakable acts given the right context and adequate fear. What lesson should we draw from this? We could see all criticisms of torturers as a kind of unfounded moralism. We could also give up on the belief that we are capable of overriding our primal instincts when we are afriad. If either of these views are the logical consequence of accepting the premise that anyone of us could be a torturer, then I think we are screwed.

Those who dissent, it seems, are those who already find themselves alienated from their social groups. Our heroes do not seem to be those capable of stupendous acts of empathy, but social misfits who could care less what is asked of them.

What do the rest of you make of this thesis?