Blogs > Cliopatria > Torture and class discussion

Jun 17, 2004 3:57 pm

Torture and class discussion

This was first posted as a reply in Rebunk.

I often struggle with whether or how to express my opinions in a class. I'm pretty good, I think, about not taking contemporary politics into classes where they are irrelevant. My World to 1500 students are safe.

It's much harder in courses that cover contemporary American or World history. My general approach is to let them know that when we get to my life time that I am a participant as well as a historian. I discuss some things that I did and believed, but I make that in the form of a warning, that no matter how hard I try to be objective I may slip from time to time.

Then, in practice, I make sure that I express the best arguments against those positions as well as the arguments supporting them. I think this works fairly well, as in most classes I have some students expressing contrary views.

However, I am really wondering how I'm going to deal with the attempts of this administration to legitimize torture as a proper tool for some interrogations. When it came up this Spring--mostly though not always in a course online discussion area--I attempted to be objective.

However, I was appalled at the students who do not simply support torture in a sort of"ticking bomb" hypothetical way but consider it as a logical part of the current war. One in particular expressed this with considerable eloquence and with reasons that, apart from morality, had a considered logic to them.

(For those in the audience who might be suspicious, I did not consider lowering his grade. His comments met my criteria. They were carefully worded and founded on fact. Besides, grading as a form of censorship is abhorrent to me.)

So, as it becomes more and more obvious that the Administration's views are quite similar to that student's, do I have a moral obligation to make clear how horrid that is? Or should I hold to my established way of doing things?

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

E. Simon - 6/25/2004

Chris -

I might be interested in checking out your references, but I hold no hope that they will be any less garbled than your reply. I believe the questions I posed were exceedingly simple; your overly and unnecessarily rambling response may give you psychological comfort, but it's a false shield, counselor - BTW does playing the lawyer make you feel justified in not answering questions? I could accuse you of having a superiority complex, but then, how could I? You're just a humble servant of humanity!

Again, I would refer you to Mark's posts - which you seem to respect. Who governs this global system? How democratic is it? How is it's power checked? If values are universal, who determined that? I certainly disagree with *your* values. Do you agree with Saddam Hussein's values? If not, why is his claim to sovereignty as he saw it or the way in which he discharged it more important than ours, or for that matter that of the Iraqi people? Who's being the hypocrite when it comes to how sovereignty is defined and practiced? Who created the U.N. in the first place? I remember a quote by Bill Cosby: I'm your father. I brought you into this world... and I'll take you out.

I like how as someone who throws around the epithet "hypocrite" as liberally as yourself, you say I have no legal background and then refer to me as a positivist! This is almost like accusing a non-physicist of holding to Einstein's bias/skepticism against quantum mechanics! Very interesting. As a non-biologist, which side of the debate do you come down on when it comes to whether or not a virus is alive?

I'll save you the massive caloric expense channeled through your digits and cut to the chase. Mark was right. You're a deontologist. Your perceived duty is what drives you. The fact that it was arbitrarily chosen (although in your own mind, perhaps, assigned) is what gives you no moral basis.

As for your outrage at not obtaining a section 8 (or whatever the hell it's called) when it comes to enforcing 1441, just consider that an act of civil disobedience. Jury nullification. A citizen's arrest. I'm sure there's an understandable analogy somewhere deep down in your loftily elevated legally superior soul.

Ralph E. Luker - 6/20/2004

Senator Biden, speaking to the Attorney General, certainly thought there was an argument. In fact, he claimed that that is why we don't torture: because we don't want our own men and women in arms to be tortured if they are captured.

chris l pettit - 6/19/2004

You betray your positivist roots Mr. Simon. I know that you do not have much of a legal background from a previous discussion, but I must stress again that what you are failing to realize is what is inherently wrong with US legal philosophy and analysis. You immediately jump to "enforcement" (in this case reinforcement). What are we "reinforcing?" The US interpretation of international law and morality? If this is the case then you fall right back into the whole issue of "sovereignty" and its basis in the whole "enforcement" argument...namely that the US is the sovereign and is therefore able to break the very laws it claims to "enforce" as long as the "end justifies the means"...again the misinterpretation of Machiavelli rears its well as the logical extension that the state with the most power claims sovereignty and the right to violate the sovereignty of every other state in order to "enforce" its law. you fail to take into consideration that there are universal values reflected in all cultures...and freedoms that we as Americans give lip service to supporting and promoting before trampling all over them. In all your whining about "enforcement" you nowhere can defend the violation of universal rights by a country supported by a small minority of the global population and nations. Does the UN have "enforcement" problems? Yes, but the US is in no small way responsible for a large number of those problems through its selfish manipulation that would be called extortion and bribery if it happened on a local level or is called that when it happens to US. Your hypocrisy is palpable. Does the international system need revamping? Yes, but the US has done nothing but destroy the framework in favor of a "might makes right" philosophy. Perhaps now you understand why "might makes right" is far from erroneous, but actually absolutely accurate to describe US actions on an international scale. You simply have no llegal, ethical and moral basis. As I say above...if this is your position, please just admit to that and we can discuss the merits of the position (I hope you are an atheist). Power philosophies and realpolitik can have no viable moral or ethical basis and as a historian you should be able to see that in the absolute failure of the systems of the past...we need a new progression to a truly global community. The sooner we as humans (you would foolishly label us Americans, a sub-group of human beings based on an invisible line and jigoistic philosophy) wake up and work towards peace the better. I highly recommend you and everyone else visit the website of the Centre I work for. You could learn a lot from the site and texts offered.


E. Simon - 6/19/2004

One thing I never understood about the way you go on about what you erroneously refer to as a "might makes right" philosopy...

If right can't be reinforced by might, then what prevents the refrain of violations of others from being a strictly voluntary exercise? Is the relegation of preventive justice to a voluntary basis "right?"

You might as well remove not only punishment in sentencing from the legal system, but the whole concept of disincentives, period.

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/18/2004

Ralph, I did not mean to be avoiding the holocaust example. Someone who denies the existence of the Holocaust is simply wrong, just as someone who said George Washington was not our first president would be wrong.

The student I'm discussing stuck to the facts or made assumptions that I could not refute out of hand.

To put my initial question differently, to what extent do we teach ethics?

Hugo Schwyzer - 6/18/2004

The student involved was writing a paper on "historical controversies"; he chose David Irving and Holocaust revisionism. It was a smart paper -- and he traced the history of revisionism well. That was his job -- in his conclusion, he made it clear that he supported the revisionists -- but I had already told them they were allowed to include personal feelings in their conclusions, as long as their analyses were sound. He was right about the origins of revisionism, wrong about the Holocaust itself. I only graded him on the first.

John E. St. Lawrence - 6/18/2004

With apologies to Xian identity movt.'s everywhere, I've found the reference, and it's to Aryan Nations. Not quite the same thing.

The model, apparently, is Louis Beam.
Al Qaeda seems to have learned that in order to evade detection in the West, it must adopt some of the qualities of a "virtual network": a style of organization used by American right-wing extremists for operating in environments (such as the United States) that have effective law enforcement agencies. American antigovernment groups refer to this style as "leaderless resistance." The idea was popularized by Louis Beam, the self-described ambassador-at-large, staff propagandist, and "computer terrorist to the Chosen" for Aryan Nations, an American neo-Nazi group. Beam writes that hierarchical organization is extremely dangerous for insurgents, especially in "technologically advanced societies where electronic surveillance can often penetrate the structure, revealing its chain of command." In leaderless organizations, however, "individuals and groups operate independently of each other, and never report to a central headquarters or single leader for direction or instruction, as would those who belong to a typical pyramid organization." Leaders do not issue orders or pay operatives; instead, they inspire small cells or individuals to take action on their own initiative.

...which makes the chance of stumbling into something like the torture advocates' "ticking time bomb" scenarios vanishingly small.

John E. St. Lawrence - 6/18/2004

I do not want to be tortured. I do not want to torture anyone (really).
But I don't think either of those statements constitutes an argument. The Golden Rule is more common in the breach than the observance, imho, so there are no guarantees, so there is no reasonable expectation of causality, so there is no arguement.

John E. St. Lawrence - 6/18/2004

the average Al Qaeda captive (this exchange was before the Iraqi revelations) was more likely to have important information than the average captured German soldier

In that case there is a factual problem with his argument. AQ is now bewilderingly decentralized, having learned from an American terrorist model (some Xian identity movement, iirc).

Ralph E. Luker - 6/18/2004

Wouldn't you say that a second very good reason to be opposed to torture is that one doesn't want to be tortured?

John E. St. Lawrence - 6/18/2004

Since the student is not part of the chain of command, I'm not sure what danger his writings pose.
However, a colleague of mine once had a student who explained every event in history through references to _The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion_. The student was quite bright (you'd have to be for that kind of mental gymnastics), and his discovery of that text was something of a revelation for him.
The difference between the two scenarios is that a history instructor cannot ethically leave a student to use a defective source. The student must be confronted, not because of the inhumanity attached to the subject, but simply because he's wandered off in the wrong direction while under our supervision. How a student emerges from our classroom reflects on our abilities as educators, after all.
But I don't think that that responsibility extends to correcting a student who is eloquently explaining how to break the law, so long as he himself is not involved in illegal activity.
The best argument against torture is that it produces so much bogus information that it's useless, and there are other means of finding things out that do not gratify our sadism. This was clear enough in medieval jurisprudence, which was infested with torture, so I guess they ought to know.

chris l pettit - 6/18/2004

I would have to support Oscar and Hugo on this topic. It seems to me that the way the argument is phrased is very significant. For example, if a student makes a strictly economic argument regarding a historical occurrence that acknowledges a lack of morality, legal, or ethical substance or correctness, but wants to demonstrate how a case can be made economically, that seems to me to be an acceptable notion. One can definitely debate and attempt to demonstrate (in a civil fashion) either the errors in the argument or the failure to take into consideration other aspects of the events in question, but it seems very questionable to lower a grade because someone chooses to argue only one aspect of a problem instead of dealing with it as a whole.

If you will allow a personal anectdote, many of my lesser grades in law school came due to the fact that my social or legal philosophy was directly opposed to that of the professor's. In my experience, I learned more in courses where the prof would debate me and demonstrate the errors or weaknesses in my viewpoint without having it effect my grade than in those where my grades suffered simply because the prof did not like my viewpoint. Isnt the interaction supposed to be like a conversation? We are not omnipotent, and should not adopt the god syndrome that I have experienced from so many academics. Even a mistaken or biased viewpoint can offer us some glimpses of truth if it is well presented.

In history it may become a bit more difficult, but I think that we can find texts that support just about every viewpoint we want to express, as well as any interpretation of history we want to adopt. It seems that, at least in terms of a torture discussion, it comes down to philosphy, moral beliefs (or disregard for them), jurisprudential postion, and whether one adopts a "might makes right" Machiavellian attitude or whether one believes in human rights and a non-power approach. How anyone could make a case that a lowering of grades was not due to the bias of the professor is beyond me. If someone defines their terms, presents a decent argument (not i did not say defensible, simply decent in terms of format and presentation) and makes a case, even if it is very narrow, how can a professor justify a lowering of a grade? Does an argument have to be defensible on a professor's scale to be an acceptable one? Or can it be defensible on a narrower scale...or broader one? When do we step onto the proverbial slippery slope in terms of making that decision.

The denial of the Holocaust is something that I think we all agree is factually incorrect...and in a specific history class it may have be cause for a lowering of a grade. But in terms of a historiography paper I can see why the student could present such an argument and not have it affect his grade if he did it in a certain manner.

In terms of grades and the fact becoming a major part of another work, aren't we getting a bit confused? Grades are not the only way of making a point, and telling a student they are wrong through a lowering of a grade is only one method of demonstrating a bad position. A professor can just as easily excoriate the student for the narrowmindedness or overall historical weakness of his/her positions without failing to acknowledge the quality of the paper as a whole or the presentation of the argument. I totally agree that if the subject of the paper had to do specifically with the Holocaust the student would have to take responsibility for looking at things in a broad fashion, but if it is a narrowly focused part of a larger work, a case can be made that the student is entitled to make their argument and that the professor should demonstrate the problems with that argument in other ways than grading.

As a human rights scholar, I do not think that one can make any viable argument for torture unless one completely decries all moral, legal, ethical, and religious standards and doctrine and adopts a strictly positivist, Machiavellian, "might makes right" attitude where the torturer is the sovereign making the law and is therefore above the reaches of the very law it is making. This seems to be the reasoning of the current administration and its supporters...the so called "greater good" argument...that in order to bring freedoms the sovereign must be allowed to violate them. Is this a fallacy and completely untrue? Of course...but according to the philosophy articulated above which cares for nothing but individualism, power, and the might of the sovereign while denying all moral and ethical fabric, it is a viable and sustainable argument. We can debate the philosophy, but not the correctness of the argument when one acknowledges that one is approaching torture or whatnot with that philosophy. It is one reason why I get so frustrated with certain scholars on the website that try and defend such measures with human rights or ethical language. if they would call a spade a spade and simply acknowledge the philosophy they are ultimately adopting, that would be fine and we could debate the merits of the might makes right philosophy, but when one tries to make a moral, historical, ethical, or legal claim when there is not becomes a hypocrite and loses a great deal of credibility.

Peace and Solidarity


Ralph E. Luker - 6/17/2004

Oscar and Hugo, Aren't you avoiding Tom's point that the Holocaust happened, that the evidence in support of that is overwhelming, and that denial in the face of overwhelming evidence is not tenable? It may be one thing, if the student said it once, but if it became a significant part of a major piece of work I should think that you'd have to say that the student assumed a major responsibility of proof. It's hard for me to imagine how a student could sustain that responsibility in a major piece of work.

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/17/2004

I agree. But the problem here was not incorrect facts. The problem was that the student assumed that the decision to use torture should be made solely on the basis of the likelihood of its effectiveness. He argued that the current situation was different than in World War II because the average Al Qaeda captive (this exchange was before the Iraqi revelations) was more likely to have important information than the average captured German soldier.

Whether or not that is true, I do not know, but his assumption was plausible. Some of the other students made pretty good moral arguments against this; I have no idea what a majority truly thought. But my impression was that most of the people arguing against torture felt like they had to deal with the effectiveness arguments and were not quite sure how to do that.

I think the Iraqi revelations changed some of that, but I did not have time to tell exactly how.

Hugo Schwyzer - 6/17/2004

The opinion he shared was as part of a longer paper about historiography -- a very fine one, in fact. If he had been writing a paper on the Second World War, that would have been one thing -- but here, he was performing admirably (regrettably) on my assignment.

Tom Bruscino - 6/17/2004

I do not know how you came to grades in your classes, so this is kind of presumptuous, but we're here so....

Since denying the Holocaust is, in fact, absolutely wrong, that should have been enough to drop the student from an A to a significantly lower grade. I'm sure that someone could make a perfectly calm, articulate, and superfically logical argument that the moon is made out of hardened marshmallow cream, but calmness and articulation do mot make the argument correct. Our students hear enough, too often, that every opinion has value, when the truth is that lots of opinions are just plain wrong. I'm not sure what we are doing if we don't penalize students for defending incorrect views in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Hugo Schwyzer - 6/17/2004

I haven't the slightest problem with telling a student, politely, that their views are morally reprehensible (though I do try to show why it is that I have arrived at that conclusion). But I always reassure them that I have no intention of ever penalizing them for expressing even the most abhorrent of views.

I had a white supremacist once in class; bright, thoughtful, very angry and troubled -- but a great writer. He saved most of his venom for his papers, but in classroom debates, he stayed calm and articulate. I was afraid for his safety at times, but I had to honor his right to speak -- even when he denied the Holocaust... He got an A.