Torture, novels, and contingency

Do novels spread human rights and discourage torture? UCLA history professor Lynn Hunt argues that they do, according to Gordon S. Wood’s review in the 8 April 2007 New York Times Book Review of her new book Inventing Human Rights: A History. In the eighteenth century, when novels were invented and became wildly popular, people became acutely sympathetic to the plight of others. Hunt believes that the first trend caused the second: "Novels made the point that all people are fundamentally similar because of their inner feelings" (Hunt, qtd. by Wood in his review). As it became easier to imagine the feelings and interior lives of other people, it became harder to justify treating them with cruelty or systematic inequity.

Wood is skeptical; he sees the correlation but not the causality, writing that "this heightened novel reading seems much more a consequence than a cause of the new feelings of equality and sympathy." Though Wood doesn’t have room in his review to name them, I imagine that he would point to underlying socioeconomic changes.

It does seem a little impious to find the cause of something as weighty as human rights in something as light as Tristram Shandy. But wouldn’t the spread of literacy into even one’s private pleasures count as a powerful socioeconomic change? I confess that I find myself attracted to Hunt’s thesis, and that I latched onto it when I saw it in Wood’s review, in part because I’ve been wondering if the recent decline in novel-reading in America hasn’t got something to do with the country’s new tolerance for torture and lack of concern about human rights. It is wildly speculative to suggest, so I’m only offering it as a notion, not even as a theory. But still: is the nature of people’s sympathy for others altered by the medium they turn to for imaginative reconstructions of the world? Do people respond to torture in books differently than to torture on screen?

Recent anecdotal evidence would suggest that they do. In December, A. S.Hamrah wrote in the Los Angeles Times about the unabashed pleasure that moviegoers have lately taken in filmed depictions of torture. And in February, Jane Mayer wrote for The New Yorker about the television show 24, and the way that its fictional  representation of torture has seeped into the real-life worldview of American soldiers in Iraq.

For another example, I would point to a series of subway posters last fall that advertised a television show whose hero was a serial killer. Each poster featured a close-up of a man’s face resting somewhat feyly on a hand. For the last half dozen years, New York’s MTA has allowed advertisers to purchase all the posters in a given subway car, in order to maximize their message, and so there were always several different versions of the poster in a single car. In each, the hand and the face were in slightly different poses. Only at a second glance did a viewer notice that the skin of the hand was paler than that of the man’s face, was blotched in places with what seemed to be blood, and was positioned, in some of the posters, at such an angle that it couldn’t have belonged to the man whose face was shown, though no other person was visible. In other words, the hand belonged to the severed arm of a corpse, with which the actor was clowning. I know I’ll sound like a lightweight for saying it, but these posters made me a little sick to my stomach. I’m not really inured to the sight of human body parts as comedy props, and I don’t really want to be. And yet once I had boarded the subway car, there was nowhere I could look and not see it. It’s telling that the television producers believed, accurately, that the posters would meet with little to no protest.

It seems then, that, we can see correlation, at least, if not yet causation. But why should perceiving torture on screen change how we think of it? Perhaps the human mind responds to the sight of torture differently than to the textual description of it. Perhaps the brain’s limbic system responds to the sight of violence without first checking with the forebrain to find out whether the image is fictional. In other words, a person who see a severed arm, or who sees Kiefer Sutherland shooting a Muslim prisoner, might become frightened, at some level, though perhaps not fully conscious of his fear. His limbic system sees a strong person harming a weak one; his moral faculties, meanwhile, are neutralized by his forebrain’s awareness that the sight is fictional; and the limbic system, finding that the forebrain doesn’t seem to care one way or the other, decides to side with the strong person. It’s the safer choice, after all. All things being equal, it’s always prudent to play on the team that seems to be winning. (If I’m right about this unconscious alarm, then it has a side effect that’s highly beneficial to box-office sales: The limbic system, incapable of knowing whether the violence is fake or not, pays intense attention, whether or not the film is any good.) I don’t have any cognitive psychologists on hand to confirm my speculation. I appeal therefore to common experience: Is it really possible to watch the famous torture scene in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs all the way through and remain identified with the torture victim? Not only is the man mutilated and terrorized, but his torturers have all the good lines.

On the other hand, I can’t think of a vividly imagined torture scene in written fiction where the reader sides with the torturer. Maybe this is because the novel’s heyday happened to coincide with a faith in human rights, but maybe it has something to do with the cognitive processes involved. In reading, one’s forebrain is fully engaged; when it disengages, reading stops. And to every part of you except perhaps your forebrain, reading seems safe. There’s nothing about holding a book and turning its pages to alarm one’s limbic system. In fact, nothing can be "seen" without first being imagined. In Martha Gellhorn’s The Stricken Field, there’s a long description of a man being beaten to death by Gestapo agents. The reader follows its progress by means of the sounds that reach the man’s girlfriend, who has sneaked into the basement of the building, out of a desperate wish to be near him. Gellhorn explicitly denies her reader any sight of the torture—even an imagined one. We are asked to imagine hearing it, but mostly we register how it makes the young woman feel. The emotions that gather in the reader are pity for the lovers and rage at the Nazis. And the reader feels these emotions even though he knows that the characters he sympathizes with are doomed to lose. The reader is too secure to fear the Nazis or to feel tempted to admire their strength. Nor is there any of the cynical humor that sugars such violence in movies—the little knowing touches that signal to the viewer that the director knows you’re still a little uncomfortable with this new-old pleasure. (Gallows humor for the hangman’s end of the rope, as it were.)

"In our time the harshest man, writing to the most insensible person of his acquaintance, would not venture to indulge in the cruel jocularity that I have quoted," Tocqueville wrote in the second volume of Democracy in America, after relating a seventeenth-century noblewoman’s mockery of a fiddler broken on the wheel, and then drawn and quartered, for resisting a tax.

And even if his own manners allowed him to do so, the manners of society at large would forbid it. Whence does this arise? Have we more sensibility than our fathers? I do not know that we have, but I am sure that our sensibility is extended to many more objects.

Manners and mores change, as Tocqueville liked to point out. Perhaps we now have less sensibility than our fathers. Maybe socioeconomic forces have something to do with it, by providing (or removing) the grounds for political equality. But sophistication doesn’t, as the philosopher Richard Rorty explains in a chapter of his 1989 book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. In a discussion of Owell’s novel 1984, which Rorty puts in the category of "books which help us become less cruel," Rorty argues that by making O’Brien, the novel’s torturer, "a curious, perceptive intellectual—much like us," Orwell keeps his readers from the mistake of thinking that our sort of person wouldn’t be capable of O’Brien’s mindset. In fact, sophisticated people can learn to take an aesthetic interest in torture and to withhold their sympathy from victims. Rorty concludes:

[I]ntellectual gifts—intelligence, judgment, curiosity, imagination, a taste for beauty—are as malleable as the sexual instinct. They are as capable of as many diverse employments as the human hand. The kinks in the brain which provide these gifts have no more connection with some central region of the self— a "natural" self which prefers kindness to torture, or torture to kindness—than do muscular limbs or sensitive genitals. What our future rulers will be like will not be determined by any large necessary truths about human nature and its relation to truth and justice, but by a lot of small contingent facts.

What if the decline of the novel is one of those contingencies?