Archive for February, 2010

Torture and the Emperor’s New Clothes

Monday, February 15th, 2010

Is waterboarding torture?

This has been the subject of debate in the United States in recent years.

Those who argue that waterboarding is not torture explain that it is actually an “enhanced interrogation technique”. Here is an ABC News article from 2005 describing enhanced interrogation techniques. And here is a 2007 article from the Britain’s newspaper The Independent about whether waterboarding is actually torture.

Those who argue that waterboarding is torture point to the fact that the experience is dangerous and traumatic, with potentially very long-lasting physical and psychological effects.

I believe waterboarding is torture. But that is not the point of this post. Instead, the point of this post is that waterboarding is a euphemism, and one that we would do better not to use.

Linguists have often argued in the press against the use of euphemisms, which they depict as a linguistic means of circumventing or refashioning public policy. For example, “detainees” instead of prisoners; “enhanced interrogation techniques” instead of torture; “collateral damage” for killing civilians; etc.

Creating terms or phrases to recast an activity or event obfuscates the truth for political purpose. If a person who is captured and kept against his or her will is a “detainee” rather than a “prisoner”, then the captors ostensibly don’t have to follow the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war.

I would argue that when we use the term waterboarding, we are colluding in this obfuscation. If you read descriptions of waterboarding, you will learn that it is a process of drowning someone. Since the purpose of torture is to get someone to talk, the process is stopped before the victim actually drowns so that they can spill the beans.

Now, if you were to go swimming and were to get too tired to swim, you might drown. That would be an accidental death.

If you were to go swimming and someone were to hold your head under water until you died, that would be murder.

Essentially, waterboarding is interrupted murder. It is not “simulated” drowning: the victim’s lungs do get filled with water. There is no simulation there. If your lungs are filled with water, it’s not like drowning. It is drowning. And drowning another person on purpose is murder. To begin the process of murdering someone, whether by drowning or by any other means, that is torture.

When we use euphemisms like “harsh interrogation techniques” or even “waterboarding”, we are like the crowds amassed to watch the emperor parading his new clothes. Remember, the sly thieves posing as tailors said the property of the cloth they were weaving was that only fools and those unfit for their jobs couldn’t see the cloth. No one wanted to speak up and declare the emperor was naked for fear of losing their job or being ridiculed.

It’s the same situation now. We are pretending the emperor has clothes on when he doesn’t.

Torture is torture. Waterboarding is torture. Torture is wrong. Waterboarding is wrong. The emperor has no clothes.

J.K. Rowling’s Commencement Address

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

I found it inspiring. You may like it, too.

What Is Wealth?

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

I know someone who thinks that all would be well in her life if only she were to meet a rich Prince Charming whose affluence would iron out the wrinkles of her life. It’s a common enough fantasy–one needs only to look toward the purchase of lottery tickets, the many get-rich-quick schemes around, and the stories we tell each other through film, theater, and books to see how widespread is the idea that someone else and their money can right the wrongs in our own lives.

While it is normal to envision and fantasize a better life, the flaw in this particular line of thinking is that it places the power of changing one’s circumstances in the hands of others, those either of Fate or of the ideal mate. If I wish for someone to come solve my problems, then at best I commit myself to waiting and at worst I fall into a kind of stupor in which I have relinquished agency for my own life.

I would warrant that once I’ve relinquished agency for my life, no matter how many winning lottery tickets I come across, I would never be satisfied, because the underlying desire I have to be architect of my life would be left unsatisfied. Until I grab the reins for my own journey, nothing else will taste sweet.

Alright, then. Let’s assume for a moment that one decides to take ownership of one’s own well-being, rather than wait for outside events to unfold themselves in some storied, fantastical way. Where would one start? How does one achieve well-being?

What if the true measure of wealth, instead of money, were actually the following?

  • Having what you need and
  • Expressing gratitude for what you have*.

According to¬†Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, there are levels of needs (physiological, safety, loving/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization) that are common to all humans. Once one meets the needs of one level, one moves to the next level in order to begin to meet the higher-level needs.

A different understanding of human needs is put forth by Manfred Max-Neef with his concept of “Fundamental Human Needs”. Rather than a pyramid-styled hierarchy, Max-Neef proposes that we have a series of human needs that include subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom. According to Max-Neef, each of these needs is human and common across cultures and human history. What changes is how we seek to fulfill each of them.

If either Maslow or Max-Neef is successful in approximating what is important to the human condition, then focusing exclusively on money and material wealth misses the point. For while it can help you meet some of the needs listed above, especially the needs related to physiological or subsistence, safety, and participation, it will not help with all of the needs. If you need to develop in creativity, for example, material wealth can do nothing for you. What this means is that whereas money is a tool you can use in meeting your needs, it is not more than that.

Going back to my friend’s fantasy, let’s pretend for a moment that she does meet a rich Prince Charming. Let’s say they meet, they fall madly in love, and they marry, setting themselves up for a comfortable life together. All the treasures at Prince Charming’s disposal would not help my friend meet all her needs as a human being. No matter what the amount in her bank account, so long as she looked to Prince Charming or his money to satisfy her desires, she’d still be poorer than she wanted to be.

She’d have food, shelter, clothing, and distractions in abundance, but these alone would not meet her needs, either according to Maslow or Max-Neef. This is because the human needs of participation, work, belonging, community, creativity, spontaneity, etc., cannot be purchased. Life is much, much richer than money, and to live as if money were the best measure of human satisfaction is to pauper one’s life.

* (More on gratitude later.)