In the fourth post of this series we talked about empathy and torture, showing that if you increase empathy you reduce pro-torture sentiment. My second team of students--Whitney, Alison and Courtney--approached this same topic from a different angle.
Specifically, they noted that these torture questions tend to be very abstract. There is usually just a generic reference to a captured "terrorist." Very little humanizing information is given. More, the word "terrorist" acts like a cipher, allowing us to project stereotypes into the blank. We usually think the terrorist is a male and Muslim. Beyond that, we add few personalizing details, details that might show similarities between ourselves and the terrorist.
Given all this, this team did a simple manipulation. What if we added personalizing information to one of these torture questions like the one the Pew Research Center used? Their choice focused on manipulating information about having a family and children.
One group of participants read the following description before rating torture endorsement. No family information was included:
No Family Context Prime:A second group of participants read a similar description, but this time family information about the terrorist was included (I've highlighted the change):
A suspected terrorist has been captured by the US military and brought in for questioning. This suspect is believed to have crucial information that could save the lives of many people. However, getting this information may require using torture and other enhanced interrogation tactics. Do you think it is acceptable to use torture in this situation?
Family Context Prime:The students found that adding humanizing detail--in this case information about age, family, and children--significantly reduced torture endorsement.
A suspected terrorist has been captured by the US military and brought in for questioning. This suspect is a 30 year old male who is married and has two children (boy age 3, girl age 8). He is believed to have crucial information that could save the lives of many people. However, getting this information may require using torture and other enhanced interrogation tactics. Do you think it is acceptable to use torture in this situation?
This outcome isn't surprising, but I find it highly significant. Violence requires dehumanization. Consequently, I worry, as we discussed in the first post, that many Christians, more so than non-Christians, favor torture. It's worrisome in that Christians are allowing their hearts to be affected by the forces of dehumanization. As a result our empathy is being compromised.
To Create an Enemy by Sam Keen
To create an enemy
Start with an empty canvas.
Sketch in broad outline the forms of
men, women, and children.
Obscure the sweet individuality of each face.
Erase all hints of the myriad loves, hopes,
fears that play through the kaleidoscope of
every finite heart.
Twist the smile until it forms the downward
arc of cruelty.
Exaggerate each feature until man is
metamorphasized into beast, vermin, insect.
Fill in the background with malignant
figures from ancient nightmares—devils,
demons, minions of evil.
When your icon of the enemy is complete
you will be able to kill without guilt,
slaughter without shame.