Torture & Eugenics (& a Self-Care Kitten)

Content notice for mentions of sexual assault, racism, and torture.

This post is short and sad and there is no optimistic spin at the end, though I have provided a kitten with a pretty cool nose that you can scroll past all the text to see.

A chalkboard with "ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE" written on it

 

You have been warned.

Despite all the theists who attack atheists by claiming that Hitler was godless,the Nazis were quite cozily Catholic in many ways. The more sophisticated theistic apologists, however, will make the connection between accepting the scientific fact of evolutionary theory and the unsavory concept of Social Darwinism. Another of their favored angles of attack is the claim that without theism, people become morally and ethically bankrupt.

It is very, very hard to push back against those theists when the better-known faces of atheism directly contradict the counter-claims.

Remember Sam Harris? He supports torture to the point where he wrote something called In Defense of Torture. Remember when Richard Dawkins came out in defense of eugenics? Remember when the Dawks did so again, this time specifically in the case of Down Syndrome? And now we know that James Randi also supports eugenics (in addition to his known issues with failing to appropriately deal with rapists in the skeptic movement).

That Harris didn’t even bother to call torture “enhanced interrogation techniques” is, hilariously enough, a bit of facetious evidence against atheist self-Godwinning, since that particular euphemism was invented by the Nazis.

Being clueless about the injustices perpetuated by extant eugenicist policies and the Patriot Act is all too easy if you aren’t part of any of the groups most targeted for such oppression. It’s even easier if you double down on your views by viciously lashing out against anyone trying to help you to see that what are merely intellectual exercises and arguments for you might be legitimate fears for others.

We are now at the part of the post where I would normally say something along the lines of “and this is why it’s so great the movement is diversifying: fewer and fewer atheists will hold such regressive views. Yay for more voices!” While that statement is at least a little true, I am simply not feeling it enough in this moment to try to end on a genuinely optimistically-looking-forward note.

So here is an interestingly-nosed kitten that was recently adopted from one of my local shelters instead.

a teeny-tiny black and white kitten with a triangular patch on its nose

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Torture & Eugenics (& a Self-Care Kitten)
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17 thoughts on “Torture & Eugenics (& a Self-Care Kitten)

  1. 1

    In the beginning there were poople who gave a shit. And when their shit started smelling, another throung of people came along who said “this shit is smelly”. And then shit was given and it was a shitstorm..
    And out of the shitstorm came the shit-messiah. and the people said: you’re also shit.
    And then one day after endless new threads and generations of shit:
    We got it.

    That’s my hope.

  2. 3

    Some of this is, aside from being a product of a mostly whiteguy movement leadership, is also a bit of a lack of self-awareness.

    That is, there’s what you say, and what people hear, and the two aren’t always the same thing. And sometimes even progressive people don’t do themselves any favors in this way.

    But more importna to this bit is that the kind of problems you cite here aren’t readily apparent to people outside movement atheism. Remember that what seems like a major storm to many of us is often a “huh?” to anyone who isn’t an FtB reader at least occasionally, and that means like 99.9% of the population. Even religious people who would attack atheism on the grounds you talk about here aren’t aware of it, in no small part because they often wouldn’t see what SHermer did, for example, as even wrong, but also they just don’t care.

    (As an analogy, how aware are you of the inside baseball of the GOP? I bet not very).

    Either way, that doesn’t mean that Dawkins et al aren’t awful when they say stuff that’s awful. But it helps to put it in perspective.

    I mean, there’s lots of stuff that is important to me but in the context of bigger political battles it ends up being unimportant to the people who matter – i.e. voters who aren’t critical theory mavens and work at Starbucks and drive the bus.

    That to me is where you have to focus. Conccentrate on what the “sell” is for atheism. Tell people what you are *for*. If I can name a dozen things you hate but none you like, that’s a problem, you know? Especially when trying to build political support and WIN. Because politics is all about winning.

  3. 4

    Gah, Harris is a shit. I had managed to forget his “defense of torture” piece, and his extended “people misrepresent my views” whinge-response to criticism of it. Because criticism of Harris is only possible if you’re an intellectually dishonest person who deliberately distorts his arguments, don’t’cha know? It’s not like Harris is above a bit of well-poisoning whenever he writes about how tedious or pointless other people’s views are, when they disagree with his. It’s as if he’s decided he’s the smartest boy on the bus and that everyone who disagrees with him must therefore be wrong or dishonest.

    Harris refers to Ghandi dismissively, waving pacifism away as if it doesn’t actually offer an argument; he says:

    We would do well to reflect on Gandhi’s remedy for the Holocaust: he believed that the Jews should have committed mass suicide

    which is a shabby straw-man version of pacifism, indeed – there are plenty of moral philosophers on the beat regarding the morality of defensive warfare, (Cecile Fabre comes to mind) who can explain quite well from the basis of an individual’s right to self-determination, why they therefore have a right to self-defense. Harris, if he wishes to play moral philosopher, needs to do a better job of braining about the issues, rather than simply taking broad swipes at easily caricatured positions.

    His style is manipulative in a way that he probably thinks is rhetorically clever. He would probably try to wave aside this as a “distortion, as well” but he relies on salesmen’s tricks like assuming buy-in like:

    So we can now ask, if we are willing to act in a way that guarantees the misery and death of some considerable number of innocent children, why spare the rod with known terrorists?

    Who’s “we”? Not me and you, Sam. Don’t write as if you’ve manufactured our consent to monstrous actions just so you can slightly improve the lie of your badly played ball.

    I find it genuinely bizarre that while the torture of Osama bin Laden himself could be expected to provoke convulsions of conscience among our leaders, the perfectly foreseeable (and therefore accepted) slaughter of children does not.

    “genuinely bizzare” indeed; our leaders have shown themselves to be monsters – and we already knew that. Harris equivocates our actions (“we”, remember?) with those of our leaders – ignoring the fact that many of us think “our” leaders are war criminals themselves. So he shouldn’t try to excuse someone torturing Bin Laden on the grounds that our leaders have been demonstrated to be monsters. How did this man think he was qualified to write a book on moral philosophy, again?

    What is the difference between pursuing a course of action where we run the risk of inadvertently subjecting some innocent men to torture, and pursuing one in which we will inadvertently kill far greater numbers of innocent men, women, and children?

    Now that Harris has conveniently assumed that we align with monsters, he asks us why, reasonably, we would hesitate to act monstrously. Because, Sam, we’re not all monsters. Perhaps Harris aligns himself with authority automatically but some of us question it. But, do you see further what he did there? By throwing in the “someone innocent” bit he leaves me wondering whether he’s trying to assume acquiescence on my part to torturing someone guilty. Perhaps Harris would say I am distorting his words by trying to parse them into comprehensibility, but if he did he’d be blaming the victim. This is a muddy argument, poorly drawn, badly supported, and shored up with manipulative rhetorical tricks.

    I would never run a course of action in which I potentially subjected someone innocent to torture. Period.
    I would never subject someone guilty to torture, either. Period. (Because: what they have done has been done at that point, and torturing the guilty will not undo it, nor likely deter others from doing it, and I am better off attempting to understand the attackers’ agenda and defeat their strategy if I am morally positioned where I feel I ought to win, than any other course of action)

    Harris, again:

    there are, after all, no infants interned at Guantanamo Bay. Torture need not even impose a significant risk of death or permanent injury on its victims

    There are, however, a fair number of people interned there that even the government admits are innocent and posed no threat to anyone until the US tortured them into becoming its mortal enemies. I guarantee you this, were I locked up in Gitmo, it would be best to keep me there for life because, if I ever got out, the remainder of my life’s work would be retaliation against those who put me there – not necessarily violent retaliation, but I would never rest until I saw their legacy broken by historians and their crimes exposed. I’d probably spare a few swipes for Harris, who apparently is all about understanding why cowardly politicians would not make an omlette without breaking a few eggs.
    “Torture need not even impose a significant risk of death or permanent injury on its victims” because a shortened lifetime suffering with PTSD is not too high a price for anyone to pay for … oh, right, in Harris’ example: being innocent.

    I could go on, but this is not fun and it’s way too easy.

    What a shitty person Harris is. And he managed to cough out a hairball of a book on morality. Yuck.

  4. 5

    I read a report from the Danish center for torture victims once. It detailed a women victim who told this story:
    She and her family, and many friends and neighbors were detained by the authorities. She was kept isolated in a cell, but each morning she was bound to a chair in the corridor outside the interrogation rooms. She would sit all day listening to her children, her husband her friends and neighbors being beaten, raped etc, but for some reason they never liftyed a hand against her.
    So when she was released and she came to Denmark, she insisted she had not been tortured. No one had done anything to her. She couldn’t sleep at night without drugs. She was unable to learn the language, she could no longer read a book or follow the story in a movie. But in her mind she was never tortured.

    When people like Harris talk about torture as a means to an end, this is what I think of. The purpose of torture is *not* to get information. Feeling pain is not what makes people talk. What torture does is that it breaks a person. When broken down the torturers can then try to make people do things they would not do before they were broken. So when you have broken a person you try to get them to tell you stuff they wouldn’t tell before. But the breaking comes first always.

    In the tv series 24, Jack Bauer uses torture like a scalpel. I remember a scene when he tries to get information out of another agent. The agent refuses and Jack pulls out the car battery. Next time we see them, the agent is putting on his shirt, and we are led to believe that Bauer now has the info, and the agent walks away. That is the image Harris wants you to believe. But remember the woman sitting in a chair in the corridor listening to her loved ones in pain.

    The latter image is a better image of what happens in torture. Your break people sometimes they are innocent of any wrongdoing, sometimes they are criminals, but the end result is the same. Perhaps they are trained to withstand torture? That just means you have to torture them more until they break. If you do not break the person, you have not succeeded in your torture.

    Now hear Harris words:
    Torture need not even impose a significant risk of death or permanent injury on its victims
    Well the woman in the corridor had no risk of death or permanent physical injury – so he is right. But is that all we can strive for?

    Another famous example of using torture is the case where a guy stole a car with an infant on the back seat. He ditched the car and was later apprehended by the police. No one could find the care, and the infant was in danger of dying because it was a hot day. The thief would not talk to the police since this would incriminate him. Desperate the police had to beat the location of the car out of him. I have actually seen this case used in defense of torture (since beating a confession out of a person is indeed torture). What I cannot fathom is, how anyone can defend that story. Why not try alternative ways of getting the information? How many ways did they try? Since the guy had just stolen a car, why not offer full immunity for the offence? They could have done that and sweetened the pot by offering a 100 bucks finders fee for saving the child. But no the police just had to beat it out of the suspect, and we are supposed to believe this is a defense of torture?

  5. 6

    I wonder how Harris will address the CIA torture report, which demonstrates that torture wasn’t even effective in obtaining information. Or will he ignore reality and continue to engage in thought experiments about *hypothetical situations* rather than discuss issues in the real world.

    Harris seems to prefer to deal with thought experiments since, well, with those he can’t be proven wrong as long as hypothetically things might work out like the thought experiment.

    On the issue of torture, there is something to placing some actions totally outside of actions you will consider. If a regime is ‘safe’ because it’s willing to torture any number of people, many innocent, is a nation whose ‘safety’ is just as built on violence as any nation it opposes.

    With torture with no lasting damage, when Harris willingly signs up for such treatment, he won’t be 100% full of shit. He might as well be arguing that slavery isn’t necessarily so bad.

  6. AMM
    7

    On the issue of torture, there is something to placing some actions totally outside of actions you will consider. If a regime is ‘safe’ because it’s willing to torture any number of people, many innocent, is a nation whose ‘safety’ is just as built on violence as any nation it opposes.

    Cf. Ursula LeGuin’s story “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

    If you knowingly do vile things to other people, or rely on other people doing those vile things, in order to assure your own safety and prosperity, what kind of human are you? Is yours a society — or a life — that is worth preserving?

    (Note that this doesn’t just apply to CIA’s torture and “rendition” program. It also applies to policing in the USA.)

  7. 8

    The series “24” convinced the intellectually and empathy challenged(65% of the population) that torture was a means to an end. Brainwashed by tv. ‘merica, such a land of knowledge, education and maturity. (Double snark)

    1. 8.1

      I’ve often thought these TV shows were just propaganda. It’s always these heroes who could save the world just in the nick of time if only that pesky ‘due process’ was out of the way.

  8. 9

    On the issue of torture, there is something to placing some actions totally outside of actions you will consider. If a regime is ‘safe’ because it’s willing to torture any number of people, many innocent, is a nation whose ‘safety’ is just as built on violence as any nation it opposes.

    Another way of looking at that is: a country that is willing to torture “enemies” may eventually be willing to torture its citizens. So rational citizens ought to oppose being part of a country that does that, unless they like the idea of being tortured. By the way, that’s why politicians should oppose torture. Dick Cheney, were he in the hands of ISIL, would have absolutely no basis to complain when they started “enhanced interrogation” on him, because he’s already established that he thinks it’s an acceptable way for people to treat eachother.

    1. 9.1

      A good reason to question Harris’ cost benefit analysis on torture. He thinks this torture thing can be neatly contained and confined to very, very special cases. Once you have people who torture people, for ‘good enough’ reasons you will find that the ‘good enough reasons’ will likely expand. People in a position to torture who think it’s justified will resent that others got a pass and not them.

      Another problem is stating ‘innocent lives might be lost if we can’t torture’ – the argument will be made that any other restrictions on what the government can do must be lifted in the name of safety. This is a reason why well-defined rights for citizens and restrictions on the authorities matter. The cops might be able to catch more criminals if they didn’t need warrants or probably cause, but the damage of a police state should be enough to discourage that.

      I suspect Harris believes that he’s simply more ‘rational’ about this than others. He’s confusing the emotional distance he feels from this issue owing to his privilege with greater objectivity.

  9. 10

    I’ve often thought these TV shows were just propaganda. It’s always these heroes who could save the world just in the nick of time if only that pesky ‘due process’ was out of the way.

    It’s simpler than that — they’re just teaching nationalism: anything to protect the fatherland is OK. Because, even though the rulers are clearly portrayed as corrupt (and they are!) they are the rulers, and therefore must be protected, damn the torpedoes.

    What always pisses me off is how the “bad guys” are always cardboard cut-outs. They’re bad because Allah, or whatever. Because of the things they do (“bad things”) but there’s never an explanation attached to those bad things. You know, like the kind of “explanations” we are seeing coming from Washington and the CIA — you know, how those guys in Washington have loads of justifying reasons for what they did? So do the terrorists. But that’s never shown in the TV shows. Because moral relativism or something.

  10. 11

    Another problem is stating ‘innocent lives might be lost if we can’t torture’

    Innocent lives might be lost if the US doesn’t have a single-payer government-sponsored socialized medical system. Therefore, any violence is justified!

  11. 12

    Another famous example of using torture is the case where a guy stole a car with an infant on the back seat. He ditched the car and was later apprehended by the police. No one could find the care, and the infant was in danger of dying because it was a hot day. The thief would not talk to the police since this would incriminate him. Desperate the police had to beat the location of the car out of him.

    They “had to” only in the limited context of a TV show. They had options. For one thing they could have told the guy, “listen, if the kid dies you’re going down for a whole lotta time. If you tell us where the car is, we’ll arrest you for theft and we’ll get the judge to give you a reduced sentence because you realized your mistake, were contrite about it, and cooperated. Hell, you’re 50% of the way to ‘rehabilitated’ already.”

    In fact, the scenario I outline above is so plausible and simple to accomplish that I have difficulty believing that the situation actually happened, or that there were such stupid cops that they didn’t simply negotiate a de-escalation of the scenario.

    In Asimov’s “Foundation” series Hari Seldon says “violence is the last resort of the incompetent.” I’m not sure he was right about that but I’m damn sure that violence is nearly always a result of lack of imagination.

  12. 14

    “(in addition to his known issues with failing to appropriately deal with rapists in the skeptic movement).”
    You’re lying again. Shermer is not known to be a rapist. It’s not clear that he would qualify as a rapist if what his accuser said about his actions were true. Note that you link to an article that links to an article with the accusation. Not something you’d do if you actually believed it.

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