Monday, July 9, 2007

Torture and the That's Nothin'! Fallacy

Remember when you were a kid and swapped stories with your mates about horrible things that had happened to you? The competition typically went something like this. Kid A would tell about getting stung by a bee. Then Kid B would counter with a "That's nothin'! I got stung by two bees once!" Then Kid C would top them both: "Ahhh, that's nothin'! One time, a whole hive of bees came after me!" And so on.

I want to introduce a fallacy in reasoning called the "That's nothin'!" Fallacy (TNF) The TNF is committed when the presumption is made that event A is no longer horrific simply because it's topped in brutality by horrific event B. Getting stung by two bees doesn't mean that getting stung by one isn't bad. But TNF falsely concludes otherwise.
This is such an obvious fallacy that it scarcely needs pointing out--except for the fact that too many people invoke it when it comes to torture. A perfect example of this is in a recent post over at the blog GraniteGrok. The author pooh-poohs claims that stress positions, sexual humiliation, psych ops, and intense heat or cold are forms of torture. Why? Because other techniques are harsher:

"Beatings make my list of torture techniques. So does the chopping off of fingers, limbs and other body parts, gouging of eyes, rape, electric shocks, poisons, medical experimentation, and the like."

When compared to finger-chopping, what's a little sexual humiliation? That's nothin'!
The author then goes on to show that what al-Qaeda does is even worse than this, citing a story about an Iraqi family being forced to eat their own roasted son. "THIS," he concludes, "is true evil. This is true torture." Compared to this, what's a little electric shock or eye-gouging? Nothin'!
One has to ask: what happens to forced cannibalism when something comes along on the horror scale to top it? Eatin' your own kid? That's nothin'!...
The point is that torture ought not to be defined in terms of particular techniques--stress positions aren't torture, but eye-gouging is--because this way of classifying what counts and what doesn't is always susceptible to the TNF slippery slope. Torture is better defined in terms of function--what it does to the victim and what the torturer intends it to do--than in terms of specific ways of torturing. If stress positioning functions as torture, it's torture. Period. This doesn't deny, of course, that the technique of eye-gouging is horrific, much less the forced eating of a child. But it does ensure that some actions aren't disqualified as torturous violations of human rights simply because they're less horrific than others.