Tuesday, September 1, 2009

“The healthy man does not torture others - generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers”

~ Carl Jung

One of the Daily Dish's guest bloggers, Jonah Lehrer, writes about the man, likely innocent, who was recently executed in Texas. Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death for a supposed arson that killed his two children. Exhaustive reviews suggest that mistakes were made by investigators from day one and that the evidence should not have been enough to convict this man.

In A Just World, Lehrer describes an experiment done in the sixties that resulted in the development of the Just World Hypothesis. Different groups of volunteers watch a woman tortured:

One group of volunteers is now given a choice: they can transfer the shocked subject to a different learning paradigm, where she is given positive reinforcements instead of painful punishments. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of people choose to end the torture. They quickly act to rectify the injustice. When asked what they thought of the "learner," they described her as an innocent victim who didn't deserve to be shocked. That's why they saved her.

The other group of subjects, however, isn't allowed to rescue the volunteer undergoing the test. Instead, they are told a variety of different stories about the victim. Some were told that she would receive nothing in return for being tortured; others were told that she would be paid for her participation. And a final group was given the martyr scenario, in which the victim submits to a second round of torture so that the other volunteers might benefit from her pain. She is literally sacrificing herself for the group.

Lehrer goes on to describe how each of the groups made judgments about the victim based on the type of compensation she was receiving. Here was the conclusion:

the less money the volunteer received in compensation for her suffering the more the subjects disliked her. The people explained the woeful injustice by assuming that it was her own fault: she was shocked because she wasn't paying attention, or was incapable of learning, or that the pain would help her perform better. The martyrs fared even worse. Even though this victim was supposedly performing an act of altruism - she was suffering for the sake of others - the witnesses thought she was the most culpable of all. Her pain was proof of her guilt.
In other words, the observerers altered their judgment in order to reconcile their sense of moral justice. The results suggest that participants believe that if a woman is being tortured, surely she must deserve it. If a man is wrongly executed, ultimately it doesn't matter because he was probably a scummy person.

This discussion reminds me of a post by Marc Ambider not too long ago. He asks, does it matter if torture works? When we have a chrystalized sense of justice - what is right, what is wrong - and that justice is rooted not in moral consistency of individuals but rather the morality of institutions, whether the military or government, then we make the necessary cognitive adjustments to make all actions fit within that moral framework. Torture is wrong except when sponsored by our government.

It's certainly created some dissonance in my own mind. I've always believed, no matter what else is going on in my life or in the world, that people are good at heart and that ultimately we all want the same things: a chance for happiness for ourselves, those we love, and fellow man. But seeing how disingenuine politicians are and watching the mainstream media perpetuate falsehoods have been incredibly disturbing and disheartening.

1 comment:

Texas Moratorium Network said...

If you are shocked that Texas executed a person who was innocent of the crime for which he was executed, then join us in Austin at the Texas Capitol on October 24, 2009 for the 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty.


At the 7th Annual March in 2006, the family of Todd Willingham attended and delivered a letter to Governor Perry that said in part:

“We are the family of Cameron Todd Willingham. Our names are Eugenia Willingham, Trina Willingham Quinton and Joshua Easley. Todd was an innocent person executed by Texas on February 17, 2004. We have come to Austin today from Ardmore, Oklahoma to stand outside the Texas Governor’s Mansion and attempt to deliver this letter to you in person, because we want to make sure that you know about Todd’s innocence and to urge you to stop executions in Texas and determine why innocent people are being executed in Texas.”

“Please ensure that no other family suffers the tragedy of seeing one of their loved ones wrongfully executed. Please enact a moratorium on executions and create a special blue ribbon commission to study the administration of the death penalty in Texas. A moratorium will ensure that no other innocent people are executed while the system is being studied and reforms implemented.”