Christians and Torture: Part 4, Empathy and Outrage (9/11 versus Abu Ghraib)

The second study conducted by Page, Bonnie, Dan and Kelsey involved the effects of priming upon torture attitudes. Specifically, the students were struck by the way media outlets invoked different images when talking about the torture debates. Those images activated very different moral impulses.

Our innate moral psychology is a mixed bag. One the one had we have a great capacity for empathy, sympathy and compassion. For example, Adam Smith built his theory of human morality in The Theory of Moral Sentiments around these emotions. On the other hand we have a great capacity for that is called moralistic aggression, the impulse for revenge to "even the score." Moralistic aggression sits behind the notion of lex talionis, the ancient rule of "an eye for an eye."

Both aspects of human moral psychology were (and still are) in play during the torture debates. On the one hand, media pundits and politicians would invoke 9/11. This would prime moralistic aggression, the impulse to repay the terrorists for killing Americans. Moralistic aggression prompts a pro-torture sentiment.

On the other hand, the events of Abu Ghraib were still fresh in our minds. These horrific images prompted empathy and sympathy. Pundits and politicians pushing for investigations of Bush/Cheney tended to prime viewers and listeners with images of Abu Ghraib rather than 9/11.

The students suspected that the media and the politicians were messing around with our moral sentiments, pitting empathy against moralistic aggression depending upon how the torture debate was framed. The students wondered if these various ways of framing the debate were, indeed, effective.

In the study the students had two groups of participants rate the Pew Research question on torture (i.e., Could torture often, sometimes, rarely or never be justified?). But before the two groups rated the question they were exposed to one of two different "frames." The template for each frame was as follows:

Due to current events, there has been increased attention put on the use of torture and enhanced interrogation techniques and its place in US life and policy. Obviously, torture is a controversial subject and evokes strong emotions on both sides of the argument. For instance, we all remember the events of ___ which affect how Americans view the debate. The haunting images from ___ are still fresh in our minds:
This frame was then followed by two pictures. In the 9/11 group the blanks in the frame above was filled in with "9/11." Then these two pictures followed:

These images were selected by the students to prompt moralistic aggression, a desire to get even with the terrorists.

The second group read "Abu Ghraib" in the blanks for the frame. This group then saw these two images:

These images were selected to prompt empathy.

The research question was simple: Would attitudes about torture be affected by how one morally framed the debate? Would an empathy-frame reduce torture endorsement? Would a moralistic aggression-frame promote torture endorsement?

The results confirmed these expectations. Participants with the empathy-frame (Abu Ghraib images) had significantly lower pro-torture ratings relative to the moralistic aggression-frame (9/11 images).

These results are interesting on three counts:

First, how one frames the torture debate affects attitudes and opinions. Beware of how the media is manipulating you! And it's also not surprising that Dick Cheney keeps talking about 9/11 when the issue of torture comes up.

Second, both responses--empathy versus moralistic aggression--seem moral and right to us. Which is scary given that these impulses go in opposite directions. No wonder the debate is full of both conflict and righteous indignation.

Finally, what would Jesus do? Frame the debate with empathy or moralistic aggression?

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2 thoughts on “Christians and Torture: Part 4, Empathy and Outrage (9/11 versus Abu Ghraib)”

  1. I disagree with only one thing--the idea that "lex talionis" is based on aggressive morality. I think a very good case can be made that "an eye for an eye" is not seen as moral but as necessary, and not aggressive (since it explicitly doesn't go beyond the original injury) but merely seems to its practitioners to be an act of balance. In a smaller, earlier, cosmology balance and harmony are seen as possible and as necessary. We don't live in such a world anymore--we live in a chaotic, butterfly wing to storm world in which we now know that our actions have massive and unintended consequences. But the ancients didn't think that way. I think its wrong to imagine that they thought about retribution as we think of it. Or at any rate that the lex talionis (not greek and not to be understood with reference to greek tragedy and its sense of the universe) can be understood as retributive and related to dispropoprtionate cruelty for its own sake. (I bring up the greeks because their sense of the world was different from that posited by lex talionis)

    I like your study but I think it also needs to be pointed out that the architects of the torture regime tried, at least semantically, to separate what they were doing from any sense of disproportion or fun. The detailed, fake scientific, bureaucratic emphasis on the exact number, type and duration of the torture sessions and the absurd argument that something couldn't be torture if it didn't lead to organ failure were all part of the rationalizations of the upper levels of the torture regime.

    What makes the pictures so shocking is that they make clear the sexual nature of the particular tortures and the enthusiastic blurring of the lines between work and play.

    cheney et al used the imagery of 9/11 to justify themselves to the public. But they used the imagery and language of law and science and sheer routine to deaden the pain of what they were doing to themseleves.


  2. having no scripture to back the following statement up, my personal sense is that Jesus would frame the issue with empathy for both the tortured and the torturer (who is nearly as much a victim as the poor soul subject to the physical torture directly). I don't think he would exonerate the torturer, but I can *feel* him suffering with/for the torturer as well as the victim.

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