Friday, February 24, 2006

Torture And the Moral Imaginal Life

I am starting to think that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who condone the use of torture, and those who do not and cannot.

Let me explain what I mean, because it's not as simple as you think. It's not a matter of Mushy Liberal vs Protective Conservative, or some other handy political polarity.

It's a matter of people with powerful imaginal lives vs those who do not have a powerful imaginal life.

Of course it's possible for a purely rationalist individual to oppose torture with all his might and mein on purely philosophical grounds. While I'm grateful for that person, I'm talking about another quality of approaching being human.

I oppose torture because I have spent many hours over the years imagining what it would be like to be tortured, or to torture someone. I have imagined the smells, the feelings, the degradation, the horror of it, the evil intimacy between victim and perpetrator.

Why? I don't know. I have felt called to a responsibility for understanding torture and for studying it since I was a child.

I have entire bookshelves full of works on the medieval witch hunts, and I have read secondarily on the tactics used in the 20th century by South and Central American terror and death squads. When I was in Amsterdam in the late 90's I attended an Amnesty International exhibit of medieval torture implements. I fainted.

I realize that most everyone would think that my interest in torture is a morbid and self-indulgent preoccupation, so I don't talk about it with anyone. But while in the grips of fever the other night, it came to me again to consider what is happening to people in this world, far from where I was suffering my tiny little fever that left me writhing with the chills and the aches and later, soaked with sweat.
I thought, as I lie here suffering my lame little cold, what is happening all over the world to other bodies? What is being committed upon them against their wills? How are they being violated in Darfur, and how often, before they are killed or wind up in a squalid refugee camp? The six year-old sex worker in Thailand, how is she being torn apart this hour, and how does she endure it? What does it feel like to be strapped down spread-eagled and have a rat held captive on one's belly, and left to chew its way out through my own entrails, as has been done in Argentina and Chile? The Bosnian woman who was raped with a bayonet, has she ever recovered? Is it possible?

I know you're horrified now. You may wonder why would she think about these things?
I would rather ask, "How can we NOT think about such things?" They're not abstract concepts or imaginary horrors concocted by Stephen King. They are, in some regions of the world, policy and economics.

Some of us are so proud of our Enlightenment heritage of Reason that we have permanently camped out in our brains, forgetting what humanity there is in thinking with the body, and I don't mean just doing yoga or dancing the spiral dance or clapping during hymn-singing in worship. Those are all groovy innovations to our occasionally "corpse-cold" forms of being spiritual humans, but they're not the answer to cultivating a sense of what I'll call the "moral imaginal life" among us.

The moral imaginal life is a way of employing Reason that involves body knowledge, and that leads us beyond the confines of national, cultural, racial or religious identity to the ultimate identity of being human with a body. I am convinced that if George Bush and Dick Cheney and Rummy and all their torture-supporting goons had ever been taught to center their "moral" reasoning in their bodies, they would not today be seeking justification for the use of torture at Gitmo Bay or anywhere.

Isn't it interesting how some of these leaders, who have the imaginal capacity to envision a personal Deity and to (ostensibly) enter into the irrational ancient story of Jesus of Nazareth with such fervor, nevertheless lack the imaginal capacity to feel the mutual degradation and horror invoked by torture?

That's how you know they're pious frauds.

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Religious Campaign Against Torture could use your support:


Blogger greenseagirl said...

From another P.B. (Shelley):

"A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others. The pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts ever new... Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb."

Try replacing "poetry" with "knowledge of what torture people have experienced through history" and there you are.

I don't think something that is morbid is necessarily self-indulgent. I hope not. For me, most free associative exercises produce morbid results.

Blogger Kim said...

Some people have intimated that growing up with television has damaged people's ability to imagine things on their own. Ya think?
Certainly compassion is at least partly learned -- often through practise (Fay Weldon says the purpose of novels is to practise compassion.) Our Pres probably didn't get much instruction in campassion from his mother....


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