04 April, 2009

Is It Torture Yet?

Consider the ethical dilemma of meat-eating on page 310 of Michael Pollen's brilliant Omnivore's Dilemma :
"To (Benjamin Franklin's ) argument 'other animals eat meat', the animal rightist has a simple, devastating reply; Do you really want your moral code based on the natural order? Murder and rape are natural, too. Besides, we can choose: Humans don't need to kill other creatures in order to survive; carnivorous animals do."
To this I reply that a moral code based on the natural order is apt if for no other reason than our ability to conceive of rights is also natural. If we endorse the natural ability to choose as being in the order of things, but exclude choices based on selective observation of the natural order, then we have only deepened our dilemma.

Coming obliquely yet again to my point, I wish to observe that empathy is the determining ground of torture.

Think about it. Other animals kill outright, and if they don't kill outright they linger a bit over their prey's demise, perhaps to sustain the rush of the hunt, perhaps naively. As agonizing as that may make the death of the poor creature in a predator's clutches, ethically it does little more than make sport of the act, but not torture. I think it's safe to say that in as much as a motive may be imputed to any predator (other than humans) it has to do with getting the kill.

Humans do stalk, hunt and kill for sport, but we also do these things for utterly bureaucratic purposes as well, and then often with no intent to kill. Torture, the blandly procedural visiting of engineered suffering upon another person, serves an end but is seldom the end itself, various religious and political manias notwithstanding. Even in the case of an event such as the famous Inquisition during which the infliction of lethal suffering putatively served some ennobling end (say, salvation), it's fulfillment was contingent on the recipient's confession, renunciation, or what have you - the externalized criterion. I have to doubt that it's ever been recorded that any prelate who committed or suffered to be committed the laying of a lash on the hapless back of an innocent owned up to a simple will to be an agent of suffering; the mission of the priestly class (always a dangerous and uniquely religious confection) was, and still is, the legitimizing pretext.

When the visiting of pain is the end itself then what is happening is sadism, and the distinguishing mark of its humanity is empathy. Want of empathy mixed with externalized criteria (e.g., renouncing Satan / al Qaeda / le diable du jour) to which the engineered suffering is suborned is torture. While in the popular consciousness the space between sadist and torturer is ethically gray, and doubtless there is plenty of room for crossover, the unfriendly, oafish, often pathological, and as often statist, mode of hurting others favors the term "torture".

Sadism is an intimate act. To be sadistic is to stay close to the authentic feelings of one's partner in the act, and in an sado-masochistic context a sadist's partner would nominally be a masochist, but not always. Many are the partners with whom I've shared an intense experience who would never identify as masochistic. They have no fondness for the pain they experience as a product of my depredations, but they take it in and work out their ultimate triumph over it, often by absenting themselves from it, but, again, not always. Sometimes it ends up just being a long effort of endurance. It is often more difficult for me to be cruel to someone I know derives nothing of value from pain qua pain. Their psychic, emotional and physical machinations within our exchange are more complex, less scrutable to me, and thereby in a sense more demanding of my empathy, with which I often feel myself responding profligately, if not always evenly.

Throughout, the ends served are uniquely contained within the exchange between partners, whether pain is intended, or at all the object of the proceedings. As often as not, a partner will tell me that their objective was to witness how much I pack into my love, and how unconventional I can make its expression. To quote a recent email from a lover of many years past, speaking to her perceptions of my approach:
"One thing it's definitely not is ordinary - you're like an anti-Valentine. Your affection was always tailor-made to me, however fucked-up it looked to anyone else (and it did and still does), and it sucked sometimes, it hurt so much, but it was pure and I always thought it was my own. It's unforgettable because it's unimaginable."
That was long enough ago for me to blush at what she was referring to and my own ineptitude at that time. Then I was not clear that what I was doing was not torture in the most venal meaning of the word, and this lover would not turn out to be masochistic in the end, although she was working on figuring that out through our play, much as I was figuring my way through my conflicts about being mean with someone I love. What I like to believe she is pointing out above is less so the depravity of our erotic interest in each other and more the closeness and intimacy borne of the difficulty of what we were doing - me naively throwing (nylon!) rope, her asking for it, both of us aroused by our respective uncertainties. I hurt her not quite knowing what I was doing (incompetence plus nylon equals rope burns every time). She got off not on the pain, but on the intensity of my approach and that I would risk any of it on her.

What I understand with the passing of time and the patient teaching of my partners is that what I do with rope, my hands, my cock or any other part of me is far less important than what and how much I'm willing to offer to the space we would fill between us, which in the natural order of things may be the essential import of human eroticism. It's a choice as to how we do who we are, and the choices are pretty much unlimited in the erotic realm, but what they all have in common in order to preserve them as erotic is empathy, no matter the mode of their expression. My expression happens to induce an eruption in the range of human feeling usually given a wide path under most circumstances. Absent empathy what I chronicle in these pages would be torture. With empathy, the adhesive media of human expression that can transform a victim into a participant, there is the possibility of transcendence.

With thanks to Spain, for doing the right thing, and to A. for keeping her old emails.

1 comment:

Asobime said...

I wish there were more articles such as this. I wish there were more comments on this issue of empathy.

This is the core, this is the kernel of it all to me. Faced with a partner who exhibits no empathy, it is the road of torture. It is the path to confusion, dismay.

You put your life, your health, and perhaps your future mental health in the hands of one who is seriously into bdsm, you better know his or her empathy level.

In the beginning of our wanderings into kink, bdsm, we are only vaguely aware of this necessity, and we mess up. In the excitement, the loins overcome the brain.

But faced with someone who truly has no empathy, it becomes the pathology of pathologies. It is not only dangerous, but mind numbing. If you survive something like that, you also pay a price.

>>Sadism is an intimate act. To be sadistic is to stay close to the authentic feelings of one's partner in the act<<

This is the ideal, what we hope for, Mac, but I don't think always the case. There are those sadists who do not acknowledge the humanity in their partners because they have buried their own. Though they would be the first to sprout that they are 'ethical sadists'.