Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Psychology and Torture

NYTimes Think Again | The moment psychological knowledge of causes and effects is put into strategic action is the moment when psychology ceases to be a science and becomes an extension of someone’s agenda. Employing psychological skills in the course of any verbal interaction -– be it a domestic conversation, classroom teaching, a performance in a law court, or an interrogation -– will always have the effect of subordinating the facts and the truth of the matter to the desire for an outcome.

This is precisely the accusation traditionally made against the ancient discipline of which psychology is the heir -– rhetoric, or the art of persuasion. The earliest rhetorical manuals were handbooks for lawyers; they taught the tricks of the trade: how to make an argument, how to disguise the weakness of an argument; what to do when the facts are not on your side; how to turn a negative into a positive; how to modulate your voice; how to position your body; how to flatter, pander, intimidate and obfuscate; in short, how to play the jurors and the judge so that they will dance to your tune.

The emphasis is not on what is true, but on what works, what gets results even if the results are obtained by torture. If the testimony you are citing has been elicited by torture, just say that “it was in order to discover the truth that our ancestors wished to make use of torture” (”Rhetorica ad Herennium“). That is, first torture and then defend the practice with any argument that can give it “an appearance of plausibility.” Physical manipulation and verbal manipulation bleed into one another; they are only slightly different ways of clouding minds.

In his “Rhetoric,” Aristotle acknowledges that it would be better if we could make our case without either browbeating or flattering the audience; nothing should matter except “the bare facts.” Yet he laments, “other things affect the result considerably, owing to the defects of our hearers.” And since our hearers are defective it is incumbent upon us to suit our methods to those defects. The ancient art of rhetoric comes into being because men and women are susceptible to base appeals; that susceptibility has been mapped and scientifically described by the modern art of psychology.