Union University
Union University Dept of Language


"Sticks & Stones May Break . . ."

Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship

May 13, 2009 - Rhetoric either illuminates or obscures truth. When rhetoric is willfully employed so as to hide truth, it’s called lying. When unwittingly employed so as to obscure truth, it’s probably best to think of it as folly – also known as “the Media.”

A prime example of such rhetorical obfuscation is the current national discussion of torture. Not only does the Media’s coverage of the torture debate generally presuppose that the concept’s meaning is univocal and universally understood, it also goes so far as to draw (false!) conclusions from polling data on the basis of these assumptions.

Consider a recent poll from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The poll found that “more than six-in-ten white evangelical Protestants (62%) say that the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can be often or sometimes justified.”

Like the concept of murder (i.e., unjustifiable killing), the concept of torture is not merely descriptive. It bears evaluative weight. Specifically, it connotes a kind of action that is inherently morally evil. Thus, a poll of this kind appears to indicate that more than 60% of white evangelical Protestants believe that an inherent moral evil is sometimes warranted. If this were how we ought to think about such results, the conclusion seems almost inescapable. White evangelical Protestants (esp., of the less-educated, southern variety) are moral monsters!

To be sure, this is precisely the conclusion that some in the Media wish to draw. But the technopolists at Pew offer what appears to be a more sober-minded analysis. They write, “While the differences in opinion among religious groups are evident enough, the source of those differences is less clear.”

What’s amazing about Pew’s overall attempt to explain the shocking nature of these poll results is that it ignores the rhetorical vagueness of the poll itself. Those polled were asked: “Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?”

In order to answer such a question, an ordinary citizen must (in a moment of relfection) do all of the following. (1) Explicitly determine or implicitly presuppose a definition of the concept of torture itself. (2) Reflect on the kinds of actions (of which he or she is aware) that might be used in questioning suspected terrorists in order to gain important information. (3) Decide whether those kinds of actions count as torture based on the definition determined or presupposed. (4) Decide whether (in light of the answer to #3) such action would ever be justifiable.

Because the poll’s question was asked in the rhetorically vague way in which it was, it left open the (very real) possibility that those who find “torture” justifiable have absolutely no fundamental moral, political, or even religious disagreement with those who find torture morally reprehensible. The disagreement isn’t moral, political or religious; it’s metaphysical. In a nutshell, those who find torture justifiable do so because they don’t believe it is . . . well . . . torture!

Public discussion of torture is not aided by the abuse and misuse of language. As the Ancient Serpent knows, once the rhetorical confusion has set in, it’s difficult to displace. In order to be known, Truth requires the illumination of clear speech. Apart from clarity, the noisome airways merely abet the Darkness.