In literature and film, we are drawn into a story and care about it because we believe, at some level, in the truth of the narrative. This requires what’s called a “suspension of disbelief.”
Of course, we also know about what is actually going on in the world through media that present us with narratives. We are drawn into these stories and care about them because we believe in the reality of them.
Part of the difficulty with the present period is that the political realities with which we are presented make it difficult, psychologically, to suspend our disbelief in the truth of the narratives we read.
So when we see that our government is not only engaging in torture secretly, which is horrible but consistent with historical precedent, but debating and passing legislation that permits us to engage in torture out in the open, there is a certain surrealistic effect, and we tell ourselves, in some part of our souls, that it is “only a movie.” The real world consists of our friends, family, coworkers, shopping, and entertainment; the world of news broadcasts, though it may be “real” in some way, is psychologically in the same category as fiction – all the more so the more unbelievable it becomes.
This phenomenon, which is perhaps related to what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil,” leads the world slowly into an increasing state of horror, as the human response of the world’s citizens is dulled and neutralized.
The answer is to pay attention to the political reality of the world as reality.
So, here are just a few links relating to US torture, which I encourage readers to approach with reality in mind:
American Library Association: A Resolution Against the Use of Torture as a Violation of the American Library Association’s Basic Values
Center for American Progress Action Fund: Torturing Democracy
NPR: “Morning Edition” broadcast on torture from this summer
Ariel Dorfman editorial in the Washington Post: Are We Really So Fearful?
United Nations: Convention Against Torture
2 comments on “Torture”
I think that ALA needs to step up in a big way right now in response to what happened this week in Congress and this past year. As an organization of information professionals, we need to have our professional leaders out there on the Op Ed pages, etc., speaking out about these realities.
I just came across some comments by Carolyn ForchÃ©, almost 20 years ago, that are related to this situation:
ForchÃ© on Images of Violence in America
Itâ€™s said that Americans are inured to images of violence, but I donâ€™t think this has been caused by an inundation of images of true violence. Weâ€™ve been numbed by counterfeit images of violence, and by our own insensitivity, our own inability to react. Weâ€™ve made of violence an abstraction. If we truly perceived the pain of a particular image â€“ and letâ€™s refer to a photographic image now, rather than a poetic one â€“ such pain as is apparent in a photograph of a maimed victim of a Salvadoran death squad would be too excruciating, if truly perceived, to contemplate or regard.
In situations of extremity, rather than our becoming numb to pain, the pain worsens, and lessens our ability to endure. Each death seems more difficult than the last, and each inflicts its wound on the survivor, who remains tender from that wound when the next is inflicted, when the next loss is suffered.
To write out of such extremity is to incise, with language, that same wound, to open it again, and, with utterance, to inscribe the consciousness. This inscription re-structures the consciousness of the poet.
What has happened in America has less to do with violence itself than with the way such images of violence are read, and with the desire to abstract the violence. As a means of anesthetization. As Americans, we cling, however precariously, to the myth of our staunch individualism. We are inclined to view ourselves as apart from others. Perhaps we do this because we are haunted by the past, by the occulted memory of the founding genocide. If it were true that we imagined ourselves as connected to others, as part of a larger human body, it would no longer be true that we would suffer the lack of feeling in ourselves which we now describe as the condition of being inured to images of violence.
From “Carolyn ForchÃ©: An Interview by David Montenegro,” American Poetry Review 17:6 (November-December 1988), 37.
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