Tortured Euphemisms
May 16, 2011

“I’m a strong believer that it’s important to look forward and not backwards.”

That was President Obama’s platitudinous defense of his administration’s decision to refrain from investigating the institutionalized torture of the Bush era. What happened happened, there’s no use in crying over spilt blood, etc. Better to just leave the ghosts of the past be and move on with our lives.

Except, if there’s one thing history and B-horror movies have taught us, it’s that you need to reckon with those ghosts sooner or later. Pretending they don’t exist just makes them more aggressive. Thus the dreary spectacle of yet another Great American Torture Debate. [1] The second Osama Bin Laden’s corpse hit the water Marc Thiessen and John Yoo began scribbling feverish little celebrations of our great victory in the War on Terror: that victory being that we finally, beyond a shadow of a doubt, proved that torture “works,” probably, whatever that means.

I won’t bother with a step-by-step refutation of that argument. The claim, like its authors, is beneath contempt. And besides, others (what up, Marcy Wheeler) are doing a way better job at it. What I do want to talk about is The Great American Torture Debate’s stunted little goblinoid brother, The Great American “Torture” Meta-Debate. The question at the heart of that argument being: When is it permissible for a serious journalist to use the word “torture” to refer to the practice of torture? When is it far better to stay away from the T-word and instead use some kind of anemic neologism like “enhanced interrogation” or “harsh questioning” or “super sad unsnuggle discomfort times?”

This week New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane uses his Sunday column to describe how various departments of the Times deal with the matter. He notes that while the editorial department occasionally gets to call torture by its true name, other sections have to resort to a litany of half-assed euphemisms. [2]

No doubt you already know the reason why. Since alumni of the Bush administration continue to insist that the practices they authorized did not constitute torture, disagreeing with those alumni in print is — in the words of NYT executive editor Bill Keller — tantamount to “taking sides.”

That this is transparently ludicrous is an old point, but one always worth repeating. The Bush administration did authorize torture. Various key members, having discovered that they have no reason to fear repercussions, have basically admitted this. I say “basically” because they still need to maintain a certain amount of deliberate obscurity for the purposes of legal protection and basic decorum.

But to this day the Times — despite some mild chiding from its public editor — remains complicit in the maintenance of this obscurity. And that complicity severely undermines the paper’s pretensions to objectivity. By refusing to “take sides” on a simple empirical matter, the editors of the Times have burdened their coverage with a distinct pro-authority bias. Because the important argument isn’t over whether or not the Bush administration authorized torture. It’s over whether the the definition of torture is really so ambiguous that you can even make the case that something as obviously barbaric as waterboarding doesn’t count.

In that argument, the Times has clearly taken a side.

[1] If you haven’t yet read Dahlia Lithwick’s take on the subject, please do so.

[2] My favorite half-assed euphemism is “tough treatment,” which sounds like it belongs in a Sunday Styles profile of CIA interrogators who make their detainees practice the violin for at least one hour a day and do SAT prep for two.

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Torture Without Torturers
November 21, 2010

Via Andrew Price’s Twitter feed, an article on the psychology of the great American torture debate:

2009 study by Carlsmith and Sood delves into the motivations behind support for harsh interrogation techniques. They discovered that support levels for harsh interrogation techniques did not really correlate with conceptions of the efficacy of the techniques themselves.

“Those who support harsh interrogation make an a priori assumption that a detainee is guilty of some heinous act (e.g., killing U.S. troops), and is therefore deserving of harsh treatment,” Carlsmith explains, but “those who oppose harsh interrogation, by contrast, entertain the possibility of detainee innocence, and thus reject the notion that the detainee deserves harsh treatment.” Carlsmith emphasizes that “both groups seek the same outcome — namely, that the detainee receive his just desserts; the main difference is in the “assumptions they make about the initial moral status of the detainee.”

Carlsmith’s research helps in understanding the division between Americans on the topic of torture, where a majority of Americans support harsh interrogation even while a sizeable minority opposes it. “I’m trying to understand how reasonable people can reach diametrically opposed position on seemingly fundamental moral issues,” he says. “In the case of torture-interrogation, both sides are seeking to be moral. The difference is that those who support torture focus on the detainee’s past (immoral) behavior, while those who oppose it don’t.”

It strikes me that there’s another dimension to this as well, though. I don’t have the research to back this up — though hopefully Carlsmith and Sood, or others, might do some further studying — but the people I’ve encountered who defend America’s torture regime either deny the amount of pain inflicted or categorically refuse to classify it as “torture,” or both. There’s also a distinct separation and depersonalization at work here, not just with regard to the detainees, but also to the torturers themselves. For all the talk about “giving the military the authority to do what they have to do,” and so on, we lose the main point about whose responsibility this is: ours. This is still a republic, and if we sanction members of our government to torture others without legal consequences, then the onus falls on us.

I think this changes the context of the debate significantly. Defenders of torture are willing to stand alongside authority figures who, presumably in the interests of their safety, commit unspeakable acts. But are these defenders willing to assume responsibility for the acts themselves? The less we allow them to hide behind abstraction, the better.

Objective Journalism and the Politics of Language
July 2, 2010

Cover of "The Oxford English Dictionary (...
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I’ll stop annotating my column attacking “objective” journalism soon, but there’s one important point in there I want to expand on. I wrote, “Human language is too complex, too subjective, and too ambiguous to express non-mathematical propositions in wholly mathematical, objective terms,” but word count restraints kept me from presenting a more detailed argument for that claim.

Conveniently, the past couple of days have presented me with the perfect example of what I was talking about: Adam Serwer (whose new solo blog you should bookmark straightaway) writes about a study showing that the New York Times would only refer to waterboarding as “torture” outside of its opinion pages when the waterboarders were not American agents.

The Times’ defense of this position is worth reading, because it makes clear the impossible choice with which they were presented. Impossible, at least, if you have an ideological commitment to “objectivity,” because, in this case, the whole notion of an objective option is ludicrous.

The definitions of words, after all, are not natural facts about the universe. They can shift and mutate. They’re formed by consensus, by context, by speaker and listener. With that in mind, the Times has a point in one respect: yes, to call waterboarding torture is to take an ideological position. Sure, you could marshal all kinds of evidence to suggest that the practice of waterboarding conforms to the definition of the word “torture”; you could point to historical precedent and cite the Oxford English Dictionary. But historical precedent doesn’t mean much given how mutable language actually is, and to argue that the Oxford English Dictionary is the set-in-stone record of the whole English language as it exists right now is, itself, a hotly contested (and, I think, faintly ridiculous) claim.

So the Times finds itself unable to call waterboarding “torture.” They’re objective! And to take a position on the precise definition of a politically electrified word is wholly inappropriate when done from a place of objectivity. There’s simply no objective authority or phenomenon you can refer to in advancing your claim.

On the other hand: waterboarding is torture. It has been torture. People like Joe Lieberman started shifting their own definition of the word “torture” after it was discovered that the United States waterboards. It was a craven, naked manipulation of the English language, a deliberate attempt to undermine the relative stability of language and meaning in order to cover for, well, torture. And the Times, by couching references to waterboarding in euphemisms like “harsh interrogation techniques,” aided and abetted that process. By refusing to call the process by what it was universally understood to be before the United States started doing it, they were providing cover.

The Times’ defense suggests that this charge doesn’t bother them a great deal. But consider this: by providing cover, and tacitly accepting a warping of the English language also accepted by barely a quarter of English-speaking Americans, they are taking a political position—and, for that matter, a minority position.

So this was the impossible position for the Times: on the one hand, they could take a position that would superficially appear “objective,” but would also be morally atrocious. Their other option was a position that does not appear objective, but would at least be morally permissible and conform to the overwhelming consensus on the meaning of English words.

But the Times, seeing a position where there was no “objective” choice, went for the option that would at least maintain the illusion of objectivity. Maintaining this illusion was more important to them than doing the morally right thing.

But in attempting to maintain the illusion, the Times revealed something else: that the doctrine of objective journalism is not some perfectly cool, dispassionate filter through which to view the world, but a dogma of its own that can have just as great a distortive effect on one’s observations as any acknowledged bias.

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