Monday, January 21, 2013
My Breakfast with Helena
We were talking about evolutionary psychology and the problem of tribalism—that the cooperative impulses attributable to our biological heritage are inseparable from the impulse to punish defectors and threatening aliens. Bowles and Gintis came up.
Then the conversation drifted to “Zero Dark Thirty”, which neither of us had seen but were both willing to analyze and assess. I said that the filmmakers likely misjudged their audience. They thought that gruesome footage of torture sessions would counterbalance the impression that the trail to Bin Laden passed through waterboarding: viewers, like good liberals everywhere, would be anguished. What they failed to anticipate is that moral judgment, for the vast majority of us, is mediated by tribalism. Torture is not bad in a universal sense; it is bad when inflicted on one of us. Do it to one of them, one of those who have harmed and dishonored our tribe, and you can be a hero. Reports have it that audiences have cheered this film as the final credits role. They are not conflicted.
But Helena saw it differently. The director was a woman, she pointed out. Women (in her echo of a different voice) are not inclined to take a warrior’s view of violence and honor in the pursuit of victory. They would judge torture on its own terms, as cruelty. Women have difficulty imagining how men see the same acts. The reception of this movie is probably deeply gendered, almost two different cognitive experiences.