The Humane Condition

Yesterday’s post by Hunter at the Daily Kos began with these words:

I give up. I’m done.

The rest of this, as usual, eloquent post titled “Friday Night Surrender” dealt with the inexcusable rationalization of torture as moral and necessary and the tortured “logic” of those who support its use.

Within the last couple of weeks, I’ve pondered the justification of torture because the topic seems so, well, outdated–as in Spanish Inquisition outdated.

One of my favorite Spanish Inquisition tidbits was a woman who under severe torture still had the wherewithall to add in the name of the local bishop when she listed off her Satanic compatriots. Can’t remember my source here.

But the point is, torture didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now. Isn’t there sufficient proof of this in history books, in psychology texts, in casual chats with our CIA buddies? But why let little things like ineffectiveness weigh in? Blood lust is us, isn’t it?

And there, I suspect, is the rub. Most of us don’t really like human nature and want people to be NICE. But, alas, few of us are.

In a chat with a person much nobler than myself, I found myself arguing against him when he said that he objected to torture because it violated what he termed “the dignity of the human spirit.” To me, this comment about the “human spirit” ignores the reality of human nature. We are not kind, caring, sensitive creatures to those outside our loop, usually a small loop bounded by blood or uniforms or logos like crosses and crescents.

I do agree that torture violates whatever dignity the average person has, but not, as some say, because it’s dehumanizing. It’s as human as anything about us. From what I’ve seen and read, morality and sensitivity are not innate behaviors for most of us. For example, I keep thinking about Philip Zimbardo’s famous psychology experiment where Stanford college students–carefully screened and selected because they were normal, normal, normal—were assigned roles as prisoners and guards on a coin flip. These normal boys went Lord of the Flies so quickly that Zimbardo shut down the experiment.

This experiment is still standard stuff in psych courses. Of course, it’s one no ethical psychologist would undertake today–too rife with moral and ethical issues. It’s also an experiment that’s too telling about human nature. And not just because of the results. Think of Zimbardo himself, not the college students.

I keep forgetting. Too few of us think about much of anything. For example, how many of us think about the irony inherent in the word humane?

Thinking. How quaint. Isn’t it so much easier to just pick up a club and act human?

I keep arguing that we don’t HAVE to act like people. A few of us tend toward civility–often because of privilege, sometimes because of genes. A few more of us can LEARN to be civilized. But I’m pretty much as Hunter’s stage. I have little hope of understanding, less of changing what’s going on.

I have little faith in “human spirit.” I see more nobility in horses and wolves than in people. We are a nasty species, and every day I see more proof of that. I just used to have more faith in education than I do now. So few of us have the intellectual drive necessary to resist our human nature.

And so I too say, I give up. In fact, I keep thinking about this famous Jane Wagner/Lily Tomlin line: No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.


P.S. For fun, click here for some wonderful lines on cynicism.


2 Responses to “The Humane Condition”

  1. tonyisnt Says:

    I read a similarly themed post just the other day that came to a remarkably different conclusion.

    I think it’s a mixed bag and will never be as simple as saying, for example, “It’s human nature to do good,” or, it’s opposite, “It’s human nature to do bad.” It’s human nature to be human, whatever that means. Obviously that will vary culture-to-culture and even person-to-person. Some of us are more inclined to do right by our fellow man while others are more inclined to be cruel. Both are a part of human nature.

    But, for what it’s worth, I don’t think most people today even acknowledge their true human (animal) nature; they’re too busy trying to acculturate and adopt this insane lifestyle that the humanoid-money-hungry species dominating the planet has popularized.

  2. Babz Says:

    I think being “human” is the act of attempting to control one’s environment, whereas to be animal is to adapt to it without really noticing it. And “control” can be very cruel.

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