Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The question to ask about torture and rape in art

A few days ago, I wrote a post that, unusually for me, I didn't post immediately. It was missing something.

This morning, I read Someone Has Done A Statistical Analysis Of Rape In Game Of Thrones. Where, unusually for me, I didn't leave a comment, but I thought this:

The first question to ask about rape or torture in a story is not whether it's included, how often it's included, or how explicitly it's included. The first question is how it's included: is it shown as justifiable or as one of the worst things a person can do?

Note that I don't say "good". People who justify horrible things usually acknowledge they're horrible, then claim they're necessary.

That thought wasn't enough to get me to post. Then I read Why do high-profile campus rape stories keep falling apart? And that got me thinking about the tension between reality and art.

Which gave me this introduction to what follows.

What I wrote a few days ago

I've been watching Daredevil and Longmire. I like both, but they have me thinking about torture. Daredevil sometimes gets answers by hurting people. The writers may think it's realistic to do a noir superhero story, but noir stories are not realistic; they're only differently unrealistic. In two episodes (out of the 28 I've seen), Longmire gets confessions by making people think they'll die if they don't confess—it's psychological torture, but it's still torture. Having him bend his moral code that far seems wrong for the character as he's otherwise written and just plain bad plotting for anyone who knows anything about the law. Every viewer should scream at those points, "That's inadmissible in court because it's unreliable, idiot!"

I shared this comment on Twitter, Facebook, and G+ a couple of days ago:
When discussing torture, stick to real examples. Hypothetical situations just mean you don't have facts so you're making up stuff.
But I'm still thinking about it, so:

In reality, there are at least two questions to answer about torture:

1. Is it effective and reliable?

If you only want a confession, use torture. If you want the truth, there are better ways. Some people can endure enormous pain, and most of us will say anything, true or false, to get torture to stop.

2. Is it acceptable to torture the innocent to get answers from the guilty?

So long as humans are fallible, innocent people will be thought guilty. If you don't believe in torturing the innocent, don't torture people you think are guilty. Yes, any criminal justice system makes mistakes. That's why a good justice system treats the guilty in a way that will still seem fair if the verdict of guilt is found to be wrong.

In art, there are at least three questions to answer when sympathetic characters use torture and get what they want:

1. Is it realistic?

No. See above.

2. Is it dramatic?

Yes. But unrealistic drama about torture used for good ends is accidental or intentional propaganda for torture.

3. Is it creative?

No. Having characters get information through research or trickery requires creativity.

I know defenders of torture in reality or art won't be swayed by what I've said, but if you're among them, you might be interested in Secret WWII camp interrogators say torture wasn't needed.

What I'll add today

I didn't post that because the conclusion felt incomplete. Now I know it's because I left out the fourth question, which should probably be first:

4. Is it moral?

Many artists hate that question, but here's another simple truth: stories that we remember have moral implications, no matter what the artists may have intended—or are willing to admit to the public or to themselves.