Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Does technological progress imply advance in civilization?

I visited the Medieval Times (www.medievaltimes.com) in NJ for a show, and spent a few minutes in the little museum in their basement.

The artifacts on display were different contraptions used for torture during the Spanish Inquisition era. It boggled the mind to realize the thought that went in designing and building these specialized instruments of torture. There was something for everyone.

A device could apply painful and gradually increasing pressure on the jaws of a man to eventually cause fracture after couple of days. Another could kill the fetus and slowly torture a pregnant woman to death. None of these horrific instruments was second to any in its capability to inflict pain. According to the information on display, at the end of torture the victims were shoved in cages barely large enough for a grown person to sit in, and these cages were hung from poles on the streets as warning to the society. Usually death was painfully slow, but the humiliation didn't end there. They deserved and received no funeral. Their bodies rotted in the cages until the bones fell.

The audience reactions were varied. There were genuine gasps of horror amid smug comments from others about the progress of civilization so far. This particular comment triggered a strong feeling of revulsion in me against all those who believe that the world is so much better today.

Don't get me wrong. I cannot even begin to fathom the agony the victims of torture endured until their deaths which they must have begged for and welcomed. I am revolted by the ignorance that feeds the belief that the world is better today.

The popular perception today is that torture is an exception and something that doesn't happen as a rule. And only a few bad apples are involved. At the world level its the rogue nations that are engaged in torture. At a national level its a hobby of a few rogue individuals. If torture ever has to be acknowledged the efforts of all powers that be are directed more towards damage control. Society today has the need to feel good, civilized and compliant to the UN conventions against torture. But torture happens everywhere and its the poor and defenseless who are the victims. Just like the past! But unlike the past, its never public. The world is not better today. Its only more hypocritical, and that is hardly an advance of civilization. In fact it’s a loss of humanity in us.

It wasn't Genghis Khan alone whose marauding armies left no one survivors in their path. The 'Thunder Run' offensive to the Firdaus Square in Baghdad left no non-coalition man, woman or child standing in its wake. The 20th century witnessed two world wars and too many smaller ones to count that killed the most non-combatants ever in the history preceding it. As in the past, we still have one group of people fighting other. But we are a lot better at killing today, than 500 years ago. This, certainly due to the technological progress, is by no means a civilized achievement.

Lest someone get the impression, I am no anarchist. I am not anti-progress. In my view technology is a tool like a surgeon’s scalpel. As a tool it can be used to save and improve life or can be used to murder. It is my belief that we will see greater advances in science and technology that will improve the quality of life of future generations. But it is almost certain that we will also see more advanced weaponry that could destroy all life easier and quicker than ever before. Will humanity and the instinct for survival recognize such risks? Will there be a corrective plan in the progress? Or will we continue to race head-long towards the end?

And btw, the medieval times show was very entertaining.

3 comment(s):

  • great commentary, Jafar. I couldn't possibly agree more, too.

    When i was young, I actually owned a book on the Spanish Inquisition, detailing the torture instruments and punishments meted out for various "offenses" or utilized in questioning.

    Macabre to own that at a young age, perhaps, but it was part of learning the negative force capability of we as humans have.

    By Blogger Leila M., at 3/03/2005 09:49:00 AM  

  • Leila,

    >>>>Macabre to own that at a young age, perhaps, but it was part of learning the negative force capability of we as humans have.

    Human's torture because we are more like the doves. Quoting from William Polk's Op-Ed (http://www.juancole.com/2004_05_01_juancole_archive.html#108508587930761065)

    "So to get around that inhibition, some scientists, like the Nobel Prize winner Konrad Lorenz, posed “our” problem to animals. What he found was that those animals that have “weapons systems,” like the lion with its claws and fangs, have evolved to practice restraints. Had they not done so, their species might not have survived. So the winner in a fight among lions will make ferocious noises but will usually stop short of killing the lion he has just knocked down. In contrast, those creatures, like that symbol of peace, the dove, that do not have lethal weapons have not evolved to practice restraint. They did not need to. Lorenz observed a dove actually torturing another to death."

    By Blogger Jafar, at 3/03/2005 10:54:00 AM  

  • Salaams, a couple days back i saw a documentary about Native American sacred lands, and the push to take over these lands for "progress" and "development."

    The Native peoples were resisting, and there was this one shot of a signpost that was put up by the developers, that said:

    "Tradition is the enemy of Progress."

    Tradition meaning Native American traditions where the land was sacred, and "progress" meaning, taking over the land for coal mining...

    i just thought to myself --- this is so relevant in our present day context. And how important it is to do serious thinking about the meaning of these words "progress" and "tradition" ...


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/04/2005 12:19:00 AM  

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