Q: What is "torture"?

Dan Goncharoff thegonch at GMAIL.COM
Tue Apr 27 18:32:50 UTC 2010

The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman
or Degrading Treatment or Punishment agrees with you:

"Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,
is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining
from him or a third person, information or a confession, punishing him
for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having
committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any
reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering
is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or
acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official
capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from,
inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions."

However, since the law also says, "In particular, the obligations
contained in articles 10, 11, 12 and 13 shall apply with the
substitution for references to torture of references to other forms of
cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," one can see
torture used as a shorthand for both.

For example, the Human Rights Web refers to the UN Convention against
Torture as a short version of the full name of the agreement.



On 4/27/2010 1:48 PM, Joel S. Berson wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society<ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Joel S. Berson"<Berson at ATT.NET>
> Subject:      Q: What is "torture"?
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> An unnamed essayist in the Penguin Enhanced eBook edition of "The
> Scarlet Letter" (2008) has written:
> "The preferred means of torture in the Massachusetts Bay Colony seems
> to have been the pillory and the stocks ...".
> "Whipping also was more often reserved for the lower classes or for
> outsiders (the Quakers, for example), as was physical torture (like
> maiming or branding)."
> "Hawthorne ... in his story 'Endicott and the Red Cross' describes in
> even more depth such tortures as the cropping of ears, the wearing of
> letters, branding, whipping, and the use of cleft sticks on the
> tongue to hush quarrelsome women."
> "The other goodwives, disappointed that the magistrates have gone
> soft on Hester, suggest more torture for her---a branding with a hot
> iron on her forehead or even death."
> None of these seem to me to qualify as "torture"; rather they were
> punishments.  And I think the writer has confused the two.
> Surely the pillory, the stocks, the wearing of letters, and cleft
> sticks are not torture.
> Even maiming, branding, cropping of ears, whipping, and execution do
> not seem to fit the OED's (and my) sense 2, "Severe or excruciating
> pain or suffering (of body or mind); anguish, agony, torment; the
> infliction of such."  They must have involved severe pain, but they
> were acts of a limited duration, and not repeated so as to cause
> "anguish, agony, torment".
> Today we might call these "cruel and unusual punishments," and even
> perhaps call those that might result in continued mental anguish
> "torture."  But to refer to those acts of the 17th century as
> "torture" seems a presentist point of view.  For the Puritans they
> were punishments, not torture.  And the Puritans distinguished them
> from torture---torture was not permitted to coerce a confession.  (It
> was permitted to coerce a plea, as in the pressing of Giles Corey in 1692.)
> Or am I off-base?
> Joel
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