Can I Oppose Waterboarding If I’ve Never Been Waterboarded?

June 30, 2020

I have never been waterboarded; yet, despite my undeniable lack of direct experience, I oppose it as a form of torture. The same can be said for Barack Obama, who issued an executive order banning waterboarding along with other coercive interrogation practices. The same can be said for the overwhelming majority of those who oppose waterboarding. They have never experienced it. So how can we all say it’s so bad? Isn’t that, at best, presumptuous? Shouldn’t we be silent on the issue? Certainly, we shouldn’t be so arrogant as to offer opinions about what the government’s policy should be.

Couples having a variety of relationship problems have been known to seek the help of a counselor to help address their problems. It’s not a requirement to be a marriage/relationship counselor that one have had similar experiences to those one is counseling: one need not be someone whose partner was abusive, adulterous, financially imprudent etc. So how can such counselors possibly give sound advice if they haven’t personally experienced similar problems?

Hilary Mantel has written a critically acclaimed trilogy in which the protagonist is Thomas Cromwell, an Englishman who held various offices under Henry VIII. In the novels, she rashly tries to convey the sentiments and thoughts of Cromwell despite never having been a man or lived in any part of the sixteenth century.

Perhaps even more daring, in The Narrow Road to the Deep North—the winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize—Richard Flanagan doesn’t limit himself to describing the experiences of Australian POWs in WW II (he’s an Australian author whose father was a POW), but expends considerable print crossing racial/ethnic lines to describe the thoughts and experiences, pre- and post-war, of various Japanese and Korean characters. How could he possibly do that with any credibility? How could a white Australian describe the thoughts of a Japanese officer?

Well, Flanagan could do this, just as Mantel could write about Cromwell, the counselor can provide advice, and I, and many others, can oppose waterboarding because it is possible to understand, describe, and even provide advice about, a wide range of human experiences without ever having lived through a particular experience oneself. This capacity is what makes much of our communication possible. If one’s own limited life experiences placed a hard ceiling on what one could understand and discuss, then we’d have an extremely difficult time navigating any sort of relationship with others.

This point should be obvious, but it runs counter to a dogma now widespread, which holds that one can’t really understand or speak meaningfully about things one hasn’t personally experienced. This dogma appears prominently in two contexts. One context is in the publishing industry where there have been repeated cries of outrage when an author writes a book with characters of a different race or ethnicity than their own or addresses a topic that somehow is considered outside their purview, e.g., slavery or racism. Various books have been pulled either by the publishers or the authors themselves or have been subject to withering criticism because of this supposed sin. Various examples are here, here, and here.

The application of this dogma to works of fiction is regrettable and unjustified. Works of fiction are in their essence works of creative imagination. Of course, an author’s portrayal of certain characters may be unconvincing, even utterly implausible, due to lack of insight, poor research, or a number of other causes, but there is no reason to dismiss a priori authors’ use of characters that don’t match their specific sex/gender/race/ethnicity/nationality/religion/class/age/ability status. We shouldn’t want to reduce novels to thinly veiled autobiographies.

Similar reasoning applies to the contention that some issues should be reserved for authors from certain groups. However, the contention that the issue of slavery—even in science fiction or fantasy—can be addressed only by authors of certain limited groups is especially weak. There are few living authors who have been slaves themselves, and historically slavery has been experienced by every human ethnic group at one time or another. Slavery is part of our universal human heritage.

The second context where the dogma of no direct experience/no understanding is applied is in situations where there is discussion about various harms (e.g., police misconduct or discrimination) disproportionately endured by minority or marginalized groups and the measures needed to address these harms. Here the mantra for the past decade (at least) has been “Shut Up and Listen!” with this instruction usually being directed to whites, males, or white males. They haven’t directly experienced the harm in question (or so it’s presumed), so they have nothing to contribute to the discussion. And they should count themselves fortunate if they’re permitted to listen. Even if you’re the president of NOW and have spent most of your adult life fighting for the feminist cause, you, as a white person, can still be excluded from a meeting of your black colleagues—because your personal experience is different than their personal experience.

Admittedly, sometimes whites/males are encouraged, even commanded, to speak out (“White Silence Is Violence”), but independent thought about what to say is, to put it mildly, highly disfavored. One is expected to echo the views of those who have had, or claim to have had, direct experience with discrimination. In the “national conversation about racism, white voices are not the ones that matter … [they] need to listen to the leads.”

As with some other articles of faith, there is a half-truth that appears to support this dogma. Direct personal experience can engender an intensity in one’s feelings not necessarily shared by others. After all, there’s that folk wisdom which holds “you need to walk a mile in my shoes” to get how I feel. But we need to distinguish between emotional involvement with an issue and understanding of an issue. It’s quite likely that those who have been waterboarded feel more strongly about the horrors of this practice than those who oppose it because they understand that it is a form of torture. Similarly, many of those who have been the victims of police brutality or discrimination may have a motivational depth that exceeds those who want to eliminate police brutality and discrimination because they understand the harms caused by these practices. But passion doesn’t make one infallible, nor does it necessarily grant one expertise on policy questions. In some cases, emotional involvement may even skew one’s judgment. Recall that other nugget of folk wisdom: “you’re not seeing clearly because you’re too close to the issue.”

If all that “Shut Up and Listen” meant was that before one speaks to an issue, one should defer to those who have had direct experience and first hear what they have to say, then that’s just common sense. The relationship counselor doesn’t advise couples before hearing what they have to say. Likewise, it would be foolish to opine about how police forces should be restructured until one has heard some of the details of police misconduct from those directly affected. But that doesn’t imply that those without direct experience can’t speak to the issue, in particular with respect to the measures that may be appropriate to remedy the problem. Distance can sometimes (sometimes, not always) provide much needed objectivity.

One of the rallying cries of the moment is “Defund the police!” This is usually interpreted to mean reduce, not eliminate, funding of the police and reallocate those funds elsewhere. (Usually, not always; see this explicit argument to “literally” abolish the police.) But how specifically is this reduction/reallocation to take place and to what end? I suspect the police would be happy not to have to deal with complaints about the homeless or those suffering from mental problems, but to date no community has been willing to provide, for any appreciable length of time, the substantial investment of funds and qualified workers which would be required to remove these matters from the police. With respect to community-based policing, if that becomes a glorified neighborhood watch, well, I’m not sure George Zimmerman constitutes an improvement over the status quo. Moreover, if we want police officers to be less prone to stress-induced overreaction as well as more representative of the community as a whole, arguably we should hire more officers, not fewer, and pay them better.

I’m not pushing any particular solutions here. Rather, my point is we will benefit from everyone’s input on this question. And everyone should have input because the funding, composition, and regulation of our police forces comprise a set of issues which affects everyone—regardless of whether they have personal experience of police misconduct and regardless of their race. No particular group should take the “lead.” Evidence and reason should guide the discussion.

One reason I am such an adamant opponent of religion is because, to a large extent, religion substitutes dogma for critical thinking and actively discourages anyone from questioning its dogmas, with significant injury to human interests as a result. Fortunately, religion appears to be on the wane. But secular ideologies can have dogmas too, and they can be equally pernicious. I submit the claim that only members of certain groups can speak authoritatively to certain issues—issues which may affect us all—is one such dogma. We shouldn’t exchange one priesthood for another.