Sunday, April 13, 2008

Cultural Spillover Effects: Torture in American Civilian Life

As I'm reading through the news, a story of a company using waterboarding as a "team-building" exercise jumped out at me:
No one really disputes that Chad Hudgens was waterboarded outside a Provo office park last May 29, right before lunch, by his boss.

There is also general agreement that Hudgens volunteered for the "team-building exercise," that he lay on his back with his head downhill, and that co-workers knelt on either side of him, pinning the young sales rep down while their supervisor poured water from a gallon jug over his nose and mouth.

And it's widely acknowledged that the supervisor, Joshua Christopherson, then told the assembled sales team, whose numbers had been lagging: "You saw how hard Chad fought for air right there. I want you to go back inside and fight that hard to make sales."

[snip]

Indeed, Hudgens's lawsuit, filed Jan. 17 in Provo, suggests the testosterone-poisoned setting of the David Mamet play "Glengarry Glen Ross." Hudgens alleged that if the 10-person sales team went a day without a sale, members had to work the next day standing up; Christopherson took away their chairs. The team leader also threatened to draw a mustache in permanent marker on the face of sales people for "negativity," Hudgens said. Christopherson kept on his desk a piece of wood, "the 2-by-4 of motivation," he said.

Brunt and Ellis dispute all this. "When you meet Josh," Brunt said, "he's a nice, sensitive guy."

Hudgens agreed that Christopherson was "an upbeat guy; everybody there likes him." But he added: "It is a big pressure cooker in there, I'll tell you." He said low performers were threatened with "the Cure Team" -- two weeks to improve or you're fired.

Late last May, the all-male sales team was having "a rough week." Christopherson called the men into the break room and announced, "We're going to do an exercise." He asked for a volunteer.

Hudgens raised his hand.

"Keep in mind," he said, "the last time we did a team-building exercise outside, we did an egg toss."

Prosper maintains that Christopherson explained what would happen next, and Hudgens knew what he was in for, even handing his cellphone and keys to co-workers before lying down. Hudgens insists he had no clue.

"So they held me down," Hudgens said, "and the next thing I know, Josh has a gallon jug of water and he's pouring it on my face. I can't scream because the water's going down my throat.

"And halfway through he stopped for a second. I tried to mumble the words, 'Stop, knock it off.' I tried to get that out and he continued to pour."

"I'm not getting any air," Hudgens said. "Toward the end, I'm starting to black out. I'm getting very dizzy, light-headed. The sensation that's going through my head is, 'I'm going to drown.' "

That is the oft-described whole point of waterboarding, though Hudgens said he was not then familiar with the word. He said that what he told a friend in the human relations office two hours later, after "coughing, choking, mucus" was: "My team just tried to kill me."

Only later, after describing the experience to a former employer, was he told: "You've just been waterboarded." "I said, 'What's waterboarding?' And the only difference was, instead of lying on a board, I was lying on a grassy hill."

[snip]

Interestingly, Hudgens's Salt Lake City attorney differs on that. "I'm not an absolutist on that," Sean Egan said. But "to take these kinds of techniques and apply them to anything but a national security environment is entirely inappropriate."

And the plaintiff?

"I don't know if the government should do it or not," Hudgens said. "But I can tell you firsthand, because it happened to me, it definitely works.

"They didn't tell me it was going to happen, but if they did, holy cow, I would've told them whatever they wanted me to tell them."
The success of Hudgens' suit hinges upon whether or not he and his attorney can prove that his employer intended to harm him. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but what was definitely intended was some form of coercion - not only of the plaintiff but his entire work unit - which is the point of torture in military and paramilitary settings. Christopherson, the torturer in this case, is described as a "nice guy", which would describe the bulk of the torturers you would find (just read about Milgram's obedience research or Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, in-depth research on real-life torturers done by Mika Haritos-Fatouros, or the case study of Eichmann by Hannah Arendt).

What's interesting to note is that as the stories of human rights violations have become merely part of the background noise of our lives, there's been something of a spill-over effect in our everyday lives. About the time that the Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantánamo Bay abuses were beginning, torture was increasingly portrayed and glorified in the mass media, based on the falacious "ticking time bomb" scenario. Tasers are used routinely as a means of coercing intoxicated and mentally ill individuals in much the same way that electric shock has been used to coerce torture victims in military prisons. I'm not the least bit surprised to see stories such as the above - dismayed perhaps, but not surprised. When discussing torture and genocide a couple years ago, I mentioned distal causes of torture, which we can think of as the "background noise" that exists in our society that makes us more prone to accept and engage in the odious practice. In a way, our mass media has normalized torture practices, discounted the role of policy (those grunts caught doing torture end up being "bad apples"), and played up the myth of American Exceptionalism. Under such circumstances, it was only a matter of time before a supervisor in a sales office concocted "waterboarding" as a team-building exercise.

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