Why Torture Fails to Dehumanize
Is there something left of the human that can’t be dehumanized and what is this power to humanize or to dehumanize?
Judith Butler is a post-structuralist philosopher and queer theorist. She is most famous for her notion of gender performativity, but her work ranges from literary theory, modern philosophical fiction, feminist and sexuality studies, to 19th- and 20th-century European literature and philosophy, Kafka and loss, mourning and war.
She has received countless awards for her teaching and scholarship, including a Guggenheim fellowship, a Rockefeller fellowship, Yale's Brudner Prize, and an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award.
Her books include "Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity," "Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex," "Undoing Gender," and "Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?"
I think that we’re used to hearing that people are dehumanized by acts of torture and of course that is right and I would never dispute that, but I think we don’t always know what we mean when we say that someone or some group of people have been dehumanized or someone or some other group of people have been humanized.
Are these processes that exist on a kind of spectrum? Are some people partially humanized and others fully? Are some people gradually or partially dehumanized and others fully dehumanized and what does it mean that we still say that those people are dehumanized, that those humans are dehumanized? Is there something left of the human that can’t be dehumanized and what is this power to humanize or to dehumanize?
I think these are complex questions and we have to consider that the human is a category that has changed historically and that not everyone who we might want to consider human has always conformed to the norms that govern who a human is, so we certainly have seen that in the case of slavery. We have certainly seen that in the case of indentured servitude. We’ve certainly seen that in explicit cases where people are deprived of the right to vote on the basis of their ethnicity or religion or deprived of citizenship on the basis of some particular attribute that they carry, but it seems to me that we have to realize that although torture dehumanizes clearly it’s also a way of trying to lay claim to who will be the human in the sense and who will not. So we could say that the category of the human is being brokered in the sense of torture.
The torturer wants a certain kind of power, even an absolute power, and if the tortured does not suffer the torturer is not going to be happy, is not going to be satisfied. In other words, there has to be suffering, but if there is suffering that means that whoever is being tortured is displaying some kind of human emotion, some kind of human response, so in that way dehumanization fails to completely achieve its end if its end is to deprive the other of all human attributes since the dehumanization that torture affects also requires a certain kind of human response.
So my point is simply that torture is a contradictory activity, that dehumanization does fail and even if torture kills the person we still have a person who has been killed and who can be openly mourned and if that person can be openly mourned there is a certain kind of quality of humanization that is attributed to that person. They are still constituted as a human life that is lost, so humanization takes place ex-post facto, we might say.