The Cold Joke has subtle application for the Way Australia’s Indigenous peoples are treated by our own Government. White the torture we are subjected to on a daily basis is not of the same nature described by Jonathan Glover in the following extract of his book A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, the underlying concepts remain the same.
Among the strongest expressions of lack of respect is the cold joke.
During the occupation of Kuwait, some Iraqis who had killed a boy told his family they wanted money for the bullet.[i] They could have simply forced Kuwaitis at random to give them money. The added cruel humour of this demand is what makes it a cold joke.
The language used by people carrying out atrocities is riddled with cold jokes. The Iraqi military security under Saddam Hussein used Kadhemya prison in Baghdad for touring political prisoners. The tank of battery acid into which they were thrown to their deaths was known as ‘the swimming pool’[ii] Argentinean soldiers under the junta called the machine they used to give people to give people massive electric shocks ‘Susan’ and a prisoner’s interrogation by these means was called ‘a chat with Susan’[iii]. Under apartheid, South African interrogators had nicknames for kinds of torture: ‘telephoning’, ‘playing the radio’, ‘the submarine’, ‘the aeroplane ride’, and so on.[iv] Some of the same terms crop up in Argentinean accounts, showing that there is a revolting international language in which to be amusing about torture.
The cold joke mocks the victims. It is an added cruelty as well as a display of power: we can put you through hell merely for our mild amusement. It adds emphasis to us and them: we the interrogators are a group that share a joke at the expense of you the victims. It is also a display of hardness: we are so little troubled by feelings of sympathy that we can laugh at your torment.
It is not only the torturers themselves who use the cold joke, but sometimes also those a stage or two further back in the system. A cell has been set-up in the Special Branch headquarters in Dubai:
With a terrifyingly loud sound system and a white noise generator designed to pulse sound at a frequency which will ultimately destroy the human body, 11 hz. The combined effect would be to reduce anyone inside the cell to a screaming, helpless supplicant within moments.
The British company responsible for installing this torture chamber were reported as calling it the ‘House of Fun’.[v]
This use of the cold joke is not an extra cruelty, nor is it a display of power. It seems to be more a device by which businessmen and technicians do not have to face up to precisely what they are doing. It is a defensive flippancy, enabling the torment they are preparing for other people to be referred to without being taken seriously.
The Tradition of Cruelty and the Hope of its Defeat
Cruelty has deep roots in human psychology, its details and techniques are a tradition which is passed on. It is not an accident that the language of torture is similar in different countries. Nor was it coincidence that Jacobo Timerman was subjected to Nazi-style anti-Semitism in Argentina. Primo Levi once wrote that ‘the silent Nazi Diaspora has taught the art of persecution and torture to the military and political men of a dozen countries, on the shores of the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and pacific’. And the torturers working for Saddam Hussein were trained by the Stasi of the old East Germany, who in turn had learned from the Gestapo. The tradition, like a virus, is easily carried across national and ideological frontiers.
This may seem to support great pessimism about torture and similar cruelty. To stress the ease of transmission and how deeply it penetrates inside of us, may suggest its inevitability. Certainly its defeat will not be easy.
But, tentatively, I think its defeat is possible. There is some hope to be drawn from the fading of the terrible punishments, such as being boiled in oil, or being torn apart by horses while tied to their legs, rightly cited by Nietzsche as an expression of the human love of cruelty.
Immanuel Kant wrote:
So there can be disgraceful punishments that dishonour humanity itself (such as quartering a man, having him torn by dogs, cutting off his nose and ears). Not only are such punishments more painful than loss of possessions and life to one who loves honour (who claims to respect others, as everyone must); they also make a spectator blush with shame at belonging to a species that can be treated that way.[vi]
Even more, to blush with shame at belonging to a species that can do such things. It is true that in some countries people are still punished by being flogged, by having limbs amputated, by being stoned to death, or by being sent to the electric chair. But, in many parts of the world, revulsion against these punishments has been strong enough for them to be abolished. None of this shows that either torture or cruel punishment is certain to fade away as the human race grows up. But at least it gives a reason for thinking that the ending of the festival of cruelty may be possible.
It is for these reasons that current spate of police taserings right across Australia needs to be condemned in the strongest possible terms. It should be remembered that some of those who carry out acts of cruelty may once have had a conception of themselves as being a very different kind of person. But there are ways in which moral identity can be eroded. People slide by degrees into doing things that they would not do if given a clear choice at the beginning. Each of the early steps may seem too small to count, with later anxiety about the moral boundary suggesting the uncomfortable thought that it might already have been crossed.
NB: The writer acknowledges Jonathan Glover’s Moral History
of the Twentieth Century as the major source for this article. The purpose of
the post is to focus people’s minds on what constitutes torture and therefore
how Australia’s treatment of its Indigenous people can in its own way be seen to be a form of torture.
[i] Guardian(2 March 1991)
[ii] Ibid (30 March 1991)
[iii] Timerman, Prisoners Without a Name, P.7
[iv] Breyten Breytenbach, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (London, 1985) p. 349.
[v] Observer (13 January, 1991)
[vi] Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary Gregor (Cambridge, 1991), p. 255