March 29, 2007

Rape and Dogmatism

by PG

In Saturday's New York Times, Slavoj Zizek opined,

In a way, those who refuse to advocate torture outright but still accept it as a legitimate topic of debate are more dangerous than those who explicitly endorse it. Morality is never just a matter of individual conscience. It thrives only if it is sustained by what Hegel called "objective spirit," the set of unwritten rules that form the background of every individualís activity, telling us what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.

For example, a clear sign of progress in Western society is that one does not need to argue against rape: it is "dogmatically" clear to everyone that rape is wrong. If someone were to advocate the legitimacy of rape, he would appear so ridiculous as to disqualify himself from any further consideration. And the same should hold for torture.

This comparison bothers me on multiple levels. First, I would consider it somewhat factually inaccurate. The precise wrongness of rape continues to be discussed, and by august persons. Richard Posner infamously has claimed that in the absence of laws against it, normal people would commit rape and molestation, and that rape is illegal because there are substitutes that do not require the use of force. We implicitly countenance rape among prisoners, refusing to hold prison officials responsible for the abuse of the human beings in their charge so long as the abuse is perpetrated by someone not in the prison's employ. Some who support harsh treatment of terrorist suspects have claimed that the criminally convicted often are worse off than detainees, because given the choice between being raped and waterboarded, some likely would choose waterboarding.

Which brings me to another troubling aspect of Zizek's comparison of the legitimacy of rape versus that of torture. Most people don't consider rape to have any possible morally good goal. Even those like Posner, who think rape is part of a pursuit of simple sexual satisfaction, don't consider this self-interested desire ever to be sufficiently important as to outweigh the emotional harm done to the victim, even if the assault was committed with little violence and no significant physical health consequences. Those of us who have recognized rape as being motivated by the desire to exert power over a non-consenting person see the act itself as morally repugnant because that desire is evil, even if the non-consenter never is aware that the rape occurred. On the rare occasion when rape is used tactically by governments and militaries, it generally is to commit genocide, break the will of a population and subjugate it as a whole. That is, it is not used against specific individuals, but against any woman who is seen as a representative of a larger group.

All this is quite different from the mainstream discussion of torture. Aside from a few truly sick individuals like Rush Limbaugh, even conservatives were displeased by Abu Ghraib because the acts that got the most attention were purposeless torture, done for the soldiers' own amusement rather than to extract information. Only a small minority of Americans believe that we should harm others for the sake of harm; the vast majority of those who contemplate torture as acceptable do so because they sincerely believe that it can be a means to an intensely valuable end. (Hence those long discussions about how many people, would have to be at what magnitude of risk, at what probability, to justify what level of torture.)

Finally, I think it's worth noting that even torture advocates like John Yoo and other Bush Administration supporters consider one particular type of assault to be impermissible: sexual assault. I rather doubt that this is because they find it to be necessarily too awful to perpetrate against terrorists if it would somehow prevent the nuking of NYC. Instead, this seems to be the one type that might cause them to agree with anti-torture moralists like Jeremy Waldron: rape is too destructive of the rapist's own standing as a human being.

March 29, 2007 10:35 PM | TrackBack

PG, please identify anywhere where I have claimed that I "support harsh treatment of terrorist suspects" or retract the hyperlink. One can oppose prison rape without supporting torture, and one can certainly quote Ezra Klein without supporting torture.

Posted by: Ted at March 31, 2007 11:16 PM

The link was supposed to go to another post that I'd found clicking through your links, and the "copy" must have still been set to your URL instead of that one when I Ctrl-V'd. It has been fixed.

That said, your attitude toward the treatment of Gitmo detainees certainly seems to take it lightly by deriding those who take it seriously, and without the disclaimers that even an anonymized David Lat felt obliged to make. From what I can tell, when you've taken Gitmo seriously, it's only been to demand that people not compare it in any way to concentration camps. However, if you have in fact been opposing harsh treatment of terrorist suspects, then I apologize for the false impression I had gotten.

Posted by: PG at April 1, 2007 07:48 PM

Likewise, I must protest. I've been outspoken in my opposition to torture, as searching my blog for the words "torture" would reveal. The closest I've come to supporting harsh treatment of prisoners is probably the post where I asked what, short of torture, is acceptable interrogation technique--bribing them with chocolate? making them stand up for hours? But since I didn't answer the question, I don't know how you could infer that I support harsh treatment of prisoners.

Posted by: Jane Galt at April 2, 2007 09:26 AM


If you click the link, you'll see that it directs to a specific comment on your blog, not made by you but instead by someone called Earnest Iconoclast, who states, "I saw the video where the report was waterboarded. He was terrified while it happened but was essentially unharmed afterwards. I'd much rather be 'tortured' via waterboarding or sleep deprivation or whatever else our military does than forcibly raped by a violent criminal in an American prison. I'm also sure I'd rather be in Gitmo than a maximum security prison."

I used this person's thought to support my statement, "Some who support harsh treatment of terrorist suspects have claimed that the criminally convicted often are worse off than detainees, because given the choice between being raped and waterboarded, some likely would choose waterboarding."

If you think that the comment does not support the statement, please let me know. Regarding your own attitudes on torture, from what I can tell you are opposed to making it official, but you find it morally permissible even for people who are not facing an immediate threat to themselves or their own loved ones. You said, "And I think that our operatives are probably so tempted when they face down the evil men who seek out soft civilian targets to sow terror." To get back to the point of my post above, you have no trouble imagining circumstances in which you would torture; I assume you can think of no circumstances in which you would rape.

Posted by: PG at April 2, 2007 12:48 PM

For the record, I don't actually SUPPORT the harsh treatment of terror suspects. I would classify my stance more as not supporting the gentle and loving treatment of terror suspects. My comment in the blog was more based on the fact that waterboarding was much less horrible that I'd been led to believe by the way people talked about it in the media. For example, the reporter consented to being waterboarded multiple times even after the first time. It's bad and torture is bad. But being violently raped by a convict in a US prison would be much worse. I doubt the reporter would have consented to being violently raped even once...


Posted by: Earnest Iconoclast at April 2, 2007 01:04 PM

That I have correctly noted that a number of opponents of Gitmo have incorrectly cried wolf and falsely used the word "torture" to describe mild interrogation techniques less coercive than that used in any inner-city police department does not mean that I support or defend waterboarding.

And, yes, I find it offensive when people equate Gitmo with a Nazi concentration camp. That doesn't mean that I support or defend waterboarding.

Posted by: Ted at April 4, 2007 10:40 PM

Ted, I assume you read the NYT article you linked, and therefore are aware that neither the reporter nor anyone quoted in the article about the ethics of doctors' assisting interrogators in finding detainees' psychological weak points described this as torture. The most negative description quoted was "abusive interrogation strategies." The NYT reporter called them merely "coercive interrogations." Nor did the part of my post where I'd accidentally linked you use the word torture, only "harsh treatment."

If you know of an inner-city police department that uses information obtained by medical professionals in order to coerce information from arrestees, I'd be interested to hear about it, as such people probably are violating ethical requirements including that of patient confidentiality, which is now also protected by federal statute through HIPAA: "interrogators were told that a detainee's medical files showed he had a severe phobia of the dark and suggested ways in which that could be manipulated to induce him to cooperate." While detainees obviously do not have such privacy rights, arrested persons certainly do.

Just out of curiosity, what is your position on waterboarding?

Posted by: PG at April 5, 2007 12:53 PM
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