Rebecca Gordon is the bad-ass philosopher who argues that Jack Bauer is wrong to use torture. She is an applied ethicist who is engaged all the time with forging a dialectical relationship to the rest of the world, with current political realities, with torture as a government supported institution hidden in plain sight, with torture and Alisdair MacIntyre’s virtue ethics, with torture as a practice, about what Obama should do, about ‘enhanced interrogation’, why Jack Bauer is wrong, why Anscombe thinks certain thought experiments can erode ethical thinking, about whether her approach is universal, about rival approaches and whether there are reasons for optimism around this depressing reality. Come gather round people…
3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?
Rebecca Gordon: It was an accident. I’d spent the previous 30-odd years as an activist in a variety of political movements, supporting myself as a bookkeeper and accountant. In 2000, it seemed that many of the movements I’d worked in (for women’s liberation, for LGBT in solidarity with people in Central America, against apartheid in South Africa and for racial justice in the United States) had reached a kind of stasis. A long phase of my personal life was also drawing to a close; my partner and I had been caring for my mother for some years; now she was dying. It seemed like a good moment to do something new. Naturally, I thought, “I’ll go back to school.”
Next question: What to study? Mathematics? History? Small particle physics? I decided I might as well do something that encompasses the whole shebang and study theology. So I wandered over to the Graduate Theological Union, where I thought I’d spend a couple of years and emerge with an M.Div. from Starr King School for Religious Leadership. Once you’re enrolled at GTU, you can take classes at any of the nine schools, and U.C. Berkeley. So I did. And, against all my expectations, I fell in love with scholarship.
The Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California gave me a full ride for the first two years of a doctoral program in Ethics and Social Theory. As I worked on the dissertation, I began teaching in the Philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. Now I had something entirely new to learn about: how to teach. For the last nine years I’ve had the privilege of talking with an economically, racially, and nationally diverse group of young people about their own deepest values — at the time in their lives when they are trying to figure out who they want to be in the world.
The work that became Mainstreaming Torture began as my dissertation at the GTU.
3:AM: You say that the world of philosophical ethics is divided into two very distinct segments – theoretical and applied ethics and that in the academy the theoretical is more esteemed. But you are an applied ethicist – so are you out to change the world – and do you think the academy should be too?
RG: I would never presume to seek to “change the world” as an individual actor. That is a project for many people thinking, deciding, and working together in organized ways. My goal for the students in my classes is that they emerge thinking of themselves as citizens – not necessarily, or only, of a single nation, but of the world. Do I think the academy should be out to change the world? I think that much of its work inevitably does change the world, and not always for the better. I think that those of us located in the academy have a responsibility to recognize that our institutions are embedded in a larger society, and that, as is true for any institution, we exist in dialectical relationship to the rest of the world.
3:AM: You’ve recently engaged with the highly topical issue of torture. Was the motivation political awareness of what’s happening recently?
RG: Yes, and no. Yes in that I began thinking and writing about state torture within two months of the terrible attacks of 9/11. And no, in the sense that I had long known that my own government supported torture regimes in many places, including Greece, the Philippines, and large parts of Latin America.
In 1984 I spent six months in the war zones of Nicaragua. There I met survivors of torture at the hands of the counter-revolutionary force the Reagan administration was (at that time illegally) training, arming, and supporting, known as the contra. The contra had an intentional strategy of terrorizing civilians in rural areas, torturing them to death and leaving mutilated bodies to be discovered by others. I met at least one torturer as well.
A few years later, I served as interpreter for a U.S. delegation to El Salvador, just a few weeks before the murders of six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the Universidad Centroaméricana in San Salvador. At that time, the Salvadoran government enjoyed military and political support from United States. During our two weeks in El Salvador, one of our key contacts in the labor movement there was arrested. We were able to visit him in prison, where he described how he had been tortured. Not for information, but as a matter of course.
Within a few weeks of the 9/11 attacks, it became clear to anyone who wanted to know that one result was that people were going to be tortured. Of course this wasn’t the first time the U.S. government has been involved with torture, but September 11 did mark a real change. Almost overnight, a question that many people believed had been resolved – whether or not torture is wrong – was reopened. In November of 2011, Jonathan Alter, a mainstream liberal columnist, wrote in Newsweek, “In this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to … torture.” He wondered whether it might be a good plan to deport the Muslims living in the United States whom the FBI had rounded up to “Saudi Arabia, land of beheadings.” Americans who weren’t thinking about new methods to “jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatest crime in American history” had failed to recognize that they lived in a transformed world. “Some people still argue,” wrote Alter, “that we needn’t rethink any of our old assumptions about law enforcement, but they’re hopelessly ‘Sept. 10’—living in a country that no longer exists.”
The people the FBI had rounded up turned out to have nothing to do with 9/11, but some of them were held for more than half a year in cells in Brooklyn, NY, where they were subjected to treatment that has since become very familiar: 23-hour-per-day isolation, short shackling, beatings, sexual humiliation, exposure to freezing temperatures, and in at least one case, anal rape with a police flashlight.
The more I think about institutionalized torture, the more I realize that it is hidden in plain sight all around us – in U.S. jails an prisons, and even in institutions for people with disabilities. So yes, it is topical. And it has been going on for a long time.
3:AM: Are you approaching this via virtue ethics, four cardinal virtues and Alisdair MacIntyre and what is the best way to understand what torture is?
RG: I’m going to reverse the order of these questions, because I think that once we understand what institutionalized state torture is, it becomes clearer why I think MacIntyre’s contemporary virtue ethics provide a useful way of understanding torture’s moral implications.
The torture that I am concerned with is institutionalized state torture – the kind of organized, intentional program carried on by governments. It’s not Jack Bauer saving Los Angeles on 24. It’s not some brave person preventing a ticking time-bomb from going off by torturing the one person who can stop it. We must stop thinking of torture as a series of isolated actions taken by heroic individuals in moments of extremity, and begin instead to understand it as a socially embedded practice. A study of past and present torture regimes suggests that institutionalized state torture has its own histories, its own traditions, its own rituals of initiation. It encourages, both in its individual practitioners and in the society that harbors it, a particular set of moral habits, call them virtues or vices as you prefer.
Here’s my definition of institutionalize state torture: It is the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering by an official or agent of a political entity, which results in dismantling the victim’s sensory, psychological, and social worlds, with the purpose of establishing or maintaining that entity’s power. This definition can be expanded to reveal its legal, phenomenological, and political dimensions.
The language about “intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering by an agent of a political entity” mirrors the definition found in the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane, or Degrading Treatment, to which the U.S. is a signatory. A phenomenological definition describes the ways in which torture reduces and distorts its targets’ orientation in time and space, its effects on language, and its destruction persons’ social connections. The “political” portion deals with the purposes of torture, which when it is institutionalized by a state, has much less to do with “intelligence gathering” than it does with political and social control.
So what does this understanding of torture have to do with virtue ethics and Alasdair MacIntyre? I would argue that when we understand torture as an ongoing practice, we can begin to see how it affects moral habits. (I’ll say more about how MacIntyre’s approach in answer to a later question.) The “cardinal” virtues have been around in “western” philosophy since Plato and Aristotle (although the latter’s catalogue of virtues was more varied and variable.) These virtues are courage, justice, temperance or moderation, and wisdom. In Mainstreaming, I describe ways that each of these is distorted by the practice of torture. ‘
Courage becomes not the ability to withstand fear and pain, but the ability to overcome instinctive squeamishness and inflict it.
Justice is tricky to define, but one thing is clear, which is that torture subverts the usual temporal order of legal justice. Ordinarily, trial precedes punishment. In torture, the order is reversed, and in many cases, no trial ever occurs.
Temperance can be thought of as a properly measured response to the joys and pleasures of life. In torture, what is prized is moderation in enjoyment of causing suffering. That is, interviews with torturers suggest that they have little respect for peers who torture because they like doing it. Thomas Aquinas includes the subsidiary virtue of humility within the category of temperance. Torture belies the humility that allows us to recognize that no human being can know the contents of another person’s mind. We cannot identify with certainty the “really bad guys,” who may in fact turn out to be unlucky men scooped up and sold on an Afghan battlefield.
The wisdom I am concerned with is practical wisdom, what Aristotle calls phronesis, and Thomas prudence, right reason about things to be done. It is the intellectual virtue, that allows us to think properly about moral questions. In Mainstreaming, I said,
“In commenting on the perpetrators of great evil, including torturers [Hannah Arendt] observed that the one thing they appeared to have in common was “something entirely negative; it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.” Elsewhere she writes, “Without taking into account the almost universal breakdown, not of personal responsibility, but of personal judgment in the early stages of the Nazi regime, it is impossible to understand what happened.” The inability to think about what is happening around one, or to make a moral judgment about it, is a dangerous habit indeed.
The practice of institutionalized state torture requires precisely this “quite authentic inability to think” both in people directly involved, and in a public that learns not to think too hard about what is being done in our name for our supposed protection. I sometimes think it’s useful to talk about “culpable ignorance,” the failure to acknowledge something we could know if we chose to. Not that we haven’t had help getting there. I’ve argued that in the case of the “war on terror” the government’s “rhetoric of denial, the theater of fear with its manipulation of threat levels and [what William Cavanaugh calls] the ‘striptease of power,’ the apologias for torture by present and former government officials: All these serve to diminish ordinary citizens’ capacity to think clearly about moral questions.