1984, Star Trek, and the Psychology of Torture

This sounds like a cheery subject, doesn’t it?

As I mentioned in my mini-review of 1984, about two-thirds of the book did very little for me. In the third part of the book, however, when Winston was arrested and tortured to become indoctrinated to the ways of the Party, I was much more intrigued. And what especially intrigued me was there were some similarities to an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation I remembered in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard was being tortured and interrogated by a Cardassian. In case you’re wondering what a Cardassian is…

Just so we’re clear…

The Number Four

I think you’ll soon see the similarities as well. Here’s a conversation from the Star Trek episode Chain of Command, Part II:

“How many lights do you see there?”
“I see four lights.”
“No, there are five.”
“I see four lights.”

And from 1984:

O’Brien held up his left hand, its back toward Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended.
“How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?”
“Four.”
“And if the Party says that there is not four but five – then how many?”
“Four.”

Madred,_four_lights

But of course, it doesn’t stop there for either Picard or Winston. And just so you can understand the full context of these conversations, both men are starved, naked or near naked, have been beaten or degraded, and both experience pain when they give the “incorrect” answer…

“I know nothing about Minos Korva.”
“But I’ve told you that I believe you. I didn’t ask you about Minos Korva. I asked how many lights you see.”
“There are four lights.”
“I don’t understand how you can be so mistaken.”

“Four.”
The word ended in a gasp of pain. The needle of the dial had shot up to fifty-five. The sweat had sprung out all over Winston’s body. The air tore into his lungs and issued again in deep groans which even by clenching his teeth he could not stop. O’Brien watched him, the four fingers still extended. He drew back the lever. This time the pain was only slightly eased.
“How many fingers, Winston?”
“Four.”
The needle went up to sixty.
“How many fingers, Winston?”
“Four! Four! What else can I say? Four!”

The Psychology of an Interrogation

In the 21 hours of psychology classes I took in college, I learned a few things about how we as people are influenced, for better or for worse. When it comes to this sort of situation, where someone is trying to bring something out of a person who may be very strong and unwilling to provide such information, certain tactics are used. The idea is to transform you from who you are to someone else.

The Stanford prison experiment was a study conducted by Phillip Zimbardo that took place in 1971, where the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard proved shocking to all involved. In this experiment, normal college students who volunteered to take part in the study for some money were assigned to either be a prisoner or a prison guard, and to play out their roles in a “jail” that was at Stanford University. Just how quickly the students truly seemed to transform into their roles prisoners and prison guards, and how Zimbardo even got sucked into it himself, was shocking to me personally as a college student when I studied the incident.

Just by playing the role of a prison guard, college students grew power-hungry and beat the prisoners. Just by playing the role of a prisoner, college students grew depressed and rebellious. Things got so bad so quickly that the experiment had to be cut short… after only five days. Tactics that were used included: shock (prisoners were blindfolded and taken to their cells), humiliation (prisoners were stripped naked), and a transfer of identity (they wore prisoner uniforms, shackles on their feet, they were assigned a prisoner number, and their heads were shaved). Some of these elements can be seen in 1984 and Chain of Command. In the latter, Picard is stripped naked and is left suspended by his wrists. He is told:

“From this point on, you will enjoy no privilege of rank, no privileges of person. From now on, I will refer to you only as Human. You have no other identity!”

I saw this pattern when reading Unbroken as well, the true story of a WWII pilot who was taken to several Japanese POW camps. Prisoners were degraded from human to less-than-human, to the status of an animal or even worse. The Japanese culture is high on honor, and to lose one’s honor and dignity is the greatest insult, and that is what they did to their enemies during the war. Laura Hillenbrand wrote:

The Pacific POWs who went home in 1945 were torn-down men. They had an intimate understanding of man’s vast capacity to experience suffering, as well as his equally vast capacity, and hungry willingness, to inflict it. They carried unspeakable memories of torture and humiliation, and an acute sense of vulnerability that attended to knowledge of how readily they could be disarmed and dehumanized. Many felt lonely and isolated, having endured abuses that ordinary people couldn’t understand. Their dignity had been obliterated, replaced with a pervasive sense of shame and worthlessness.

A True Change in Nature

Captain Picard is offered the chance to go… but is told if he does so, his chief medical officer Beverly Crusher will be interrogated. Picard cares for Beverly very much and refuses to let this happen, so he stays. Winston does not immediately say anything to betray his lover Julia, but when he is about to be inflicted with the worst torture he can imagine, he exclaims:

“Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you do to her! Tear her face off, strip her to the bones! Not me! Julia! Not me!”

This is what we are led to believe is the end of Winston’s indoctrination, at least until the very end of the book, which I won’t give away. But his ending is not happy. In fact, at one point after he is released, he finds himself writing:

2 + 2 = 5

…one of the things that his interrogator was trying to tell him was true if the party said so. Picard, on the other hand, as he is being released from his interrogation (as his ship the Enterprise has come to save the day) he shouts out in defiance to his interrogator:

“There… are… FOUR LIGHTS!”

Though Picard’s ending is happier, and I do believe in the end he was a much more noble man, the two are not as different as it might seem. Winston had this experience:

“Just now I held up the fingers of my hand to you. You saw five fingers. Do you remember that?”
“Yes.”
O’Brien held up the fingers of his left hand, with the thumb concealed.
“There are five fingers there. Do you see five fingers?”
“Yes.”
And he did see them, for a fleeting instant, before the scenery of his mind changed. He saw five fingers, and there was no deformity.

And at the end of Chain of Command, Picard has this conversation with the Enterprise’s counselor:

“What I didn’t put in the report was that at the end he gave me a choice – between a life of comfort or more torture. All I had to do was to say that I could see five lights when, in fact, there were only four.”
“You didn’t say it?”
“No! No. But I was going to. I would have told him anything. Anything at all! But more than that, I believed that I could see five lights.”

It Doesn’t Just Happen in Fiction

It’s easy to chalk all this up to these stories being fictional, that this would not happen in real life. But the Stanford prison experiment suggests otherwise. The identity of those college students were truly lost in five days’ time. It’s been seen elsewhere as well. Patty Hearst, daughter of publishing giant William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped by a guerrilla group and ended up aiding them in theft, not seemingly out of fear of what they would do to her otherwise, but from a conversion to their side. Afterwards she seemed to have a change of heart again and was fully pardoned by President Clinton.

Here’s a brief interview with one of the students involved with the Stanford prison experiment:

Needless to say, I think both 1984 and this particular episode of Star Trek did a great job of portraying how convicted men can become desperate, and how a good interrogator wears them down. It’s not fun to think about but I do find it fascinating. And it again, it makes me think of Unbroken, particularly the title. Louis Zamperini was broken, not just once but many times. But after a time, after it was all over, he was able to overcome the torture and heartache he went through, able to forgive a particular Japanese commander he had hated and had wanted to kill. From Unbroken:

On an October afternoon, Louie stepped out of an army car and stood on the lawn at 2028 Gramercy Avenue, looking at his parents’ house for the first time in more than three years. “This little home,” he said, “was worth all of it.”

To ease the load of this post a bit, here’s a cute picture of hugging kitties:

I have no idea what question to ask, but I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on the subject! I’m also curious as to how you feel about more posts where I incorporate Star Trek and/or psychology into a discussion about a book.