Digby has a great post up about the conflict between the actual scientific evidence about torture’s efficacy and the folk beliefs about it. In sum, being under a lot of stress is a surefire way to stop remembering things correctly, and to produce misleading information. And that’s just on top of the fact that a lot of people being rounded up and tortured don’t know anything, and the well-established fact that people who are being tortured will quickly and rationally cough up false confessions in hopes that the torture will cease. (Indeed,
Actually, I think “folk psychology” is the best way to describe the “feeling” people have about the efficacy of torture. They just “know” that people will tell the truth if they are given enough pain. We all probably believe deep down that we’d spill our guts if enough torture were applied, so naturally others would too. It’s truthiness about truth. But it’s one of those things like … well, aerodynamics. You just have to believe the engineers and pilots and the evidence before you that your plane won’t fall out of the sky even though it “feels” like it absolutely should. One hopes that the new interrogation team the Obama administration has gathered will listen to the science and jettison these methods from the interrogation arsenal once and for all.
I blame Hollywood, and not just “24”. Cop shows, horror shows, etc.—a lot of shows feature some scene of torture and interrogation, and this was true even before the war started. As a plot device, it’s great. If your hero is being locked up and tortured, you get scenes of them bravely bearing up and keeping their uncorrupted memories to themselves. If your hero has someone locked up, you get information to advance the plot, and you get pleasing amounts of ambiguity added to the hero’s character. Having a hero make Hard Choices that flout Society’s Rules is a time-honored way to keep a narrative edgy. And it’s my sense that torture usually works on TV, especially if the bad guy is the one being tortured. I’ve seen it work on “Buffy” and “The Shield” and countless other programs. If you lock up a suspect with the scary cop who doesn’t play by the rules, then a confession that’s accurate is usually the next scene. I don’t have a problem with this exactly, because these things are about the demands of narrative before anything else. But unfortunately, a lot of gullible people watch this over and over and it starts to feel like common sense.
But Amanda, you might say, you admit yourself that you’re an avid fan of the TV, and yet you don’t fall for this crap. It’s true. A lot of liberals who get that torture produces false confessions in real life enjoy the same programs that conservatives do that show torture as generally effective. (And movies do this, too.) What’s the difference?
Part of it is willingness to believe, I’m sure. But honestly, another part of all this is how sheltered people are. I think TV has an undue influence on what you imagine the world to be like if you don’t see a lot of the world. And frankly, the conservative movement seems above all other things to be a product of large numbers of Americans isolating themselves from reality and retreating into little bubbles. White flight is the main culprit—the explosion of exurbs has created this entire other America that is isolated from reality. I’m currently reading Rich Benjamin’s marvelously cheeky book Searching for Whitopia, and the one thing that comes up again and again is how allergic the residents of what he deems Whitopia are to reality. He describes their existence as much like those Russian nesting dolls. They escape not just the cities but the suburbs to live in a community that’s main value is that you don’t face much in the way of challenges from reality. And then you move into a gated community, and inside your gated community is your giant house that isolates you from the neighbors and likely has a super high tech security system to protect your from the imaginary criminals. Indeed, their commitment to living in a fantasy world is such that Benjamin goes house-hunting, and discovers that a charming house with an official historical landmark designation languishes on the market while ugly monstrosities that reference certain architectural traditions in a way that’s almost deliberately cheesy and fake get snatched up. The tacky wins hands down every time. Too much reality is unsettling.
And so the residents of these fantasy bubble worlds get most of their information about how the world works from TV. They get it from fictional shows that aren’t trying to reflect reality at all, and they get it from Fox News, which deliberately distorts reality. They have no reality-based reference point to check their assumptions against.
Once in awhile, you really get a glimpse of how out of control the American detachment from reality is getting. This ACORN nonsense is a classic example. You have two kids that have been demonstrated to have been lying about what happened when they decided to “catch” some ACORN members doing unethical shit. But they’re being taken seriously, while their victim—who has not been proven to be a liar—is mostly being ignored.
But that’s not even the worst of it. The thing that I think is making reality-based thinkers absolutely crazy is that anyone with two fucking brain cells to rub together should immediately have, as Auguste did, taken a look at what those kids were wearing and realized the insanely low odds that anyone they encountered could possibly think they were telling the truth. If you had even the barest understanding of what the world actually is like, then your first assumption should be that the few ACORN employees that did humor them thought this was all a harmless prank, and played along because they are good people with a sense of humor. Now, you can point out that they were being naive, and should have had their guard up since they had to know that the right wing has made them the next target in their continual effort to hurt and destroy at random, but that doesn’t mean that the most obvious narrative that a reality-based person would have come up with—that this looked like a joke, and was reacted to like a joke—should be dismissed.
Because she thought that it was a stunt by the three youngsters who came to her office — two of whom were later revealed to be videographer James O’Keefe, 25, and college student Hannah Giles, 20, of the new conservative news site BigGovernment.com, along with a third man she says was around their age but “a silent partner” — she decided to fight fire with fire, she said. “The crazy answers that came from me were in response to lies and shocking things they said to me,” she said. “They played with me, and I played back. It’s just that simple.”
And yet, everyone is caught up in this weird need to play along with the obviously stupid supposition that these kids made convincing pimps and prostitutes, while wearing what is obviously a costume they probably first put together for one of those charming “pimps and hos” parties that white college kids think are so funny. But you think about the American right wing, and how they naturally prefer the cheesy to the tasteful, the obviously fake to the authentic, and suddenly it makes sense. The basic ability to grasp the fundamentals of reality has been completely distorted. Believing these two made convincing members of the street prostitution community is a lark if you think god created everything 4,000 years ago and Stephen Baldwin is a serious person.
With that being what we’re up against, trying to get through the message that torture doesn’t work is damn near impossible.