Torture, Violence, and Narcissism

by Frank Pasquale

A recent study concludes that “a surprising majority—almost 60 percent—of American teenagers thought things like water-boarding or sleep deprivation are sometimes acceptable,” and “41 percent thought it was permissible for American troops to be tortured overseas.” While legal debates over torture may be exhausted, the cultural battle is still ongoing. Laurence Tribe offers an interesting comment on the finding:

“I think it suggests the national conscious is becoming more and more corroded and more accustomed to the violation of fundamental principles of human rights and international law,” says Lawrence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard, who blames programs like 24 that trivialize serious issues.

I’m glad Tribe is focusing on cultural issues. While some books and programs have emancipatory potential, the nihilistic and hedonistic side of the culture industry is worrisome. Studies also demonstrate a “statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music.” Tribe notes some of the effects: “For young people, to put themselves in place of a soldier is a level of empathy that most people simply don’t have anymore.” Perhaps the pro-torture youth think of an army assignment like the assumption of risk clauses in reality TV: you sign the contract and you take your chances.

Toward the conclusion of his book Sick Societies, anthropologist Robert B. Edgerton asserted that “I have no doubt that the traditional, religious Pawnee practice of torturing children before sacrificing them to the propitiate the Morning Star would be considered a moral outrage by anyone reading this book.” Perhaps that sentence needs to be revised for today’s college readers.

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