From inside the Instruments of Torture exhibit at the Museum of Man in Balboa Park
  • From inside the Instruments of Torture exhibit at the Museum of Man in Balboa Park
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I couldn’t think of two people with more divergent worldviews than my father — a ribald Brooklyn boy turned retired naval officer who runs military war games abroad — and the proper young woman with an extensive collegiate background in business and liberal arts.

The woman, a representative of the Museum of Man, was walking us through the new Instruments of Torture exhibit. For the most part, we’d reached a consensus over how hard it was to face the reality of human cruelty in the form of ancient torture devices. But when we reached the “shaming” section of the exhibition — where the methods of torture took a more psychological turn from the gruesome physical implements we’d seen up to that point — the disparity of our beliefs buoyed to the surface like a 17th-century woman failing the witch test.

“I think you should take known gang members and put ‘em in stocks like these,” Dad said. “Jail — especially for gangbangers — that’s a badge of courage. They’re not embarrassed to go to jail. It’s embarrassing for a normal person, but not somebody from the disgusting side of society, the criminals. If jail doesn’t bother them, it’s not an effective deterrent — we want something that’s going to bother them. Put gang members in a stockade and they’ll lose all kinds of respect. It’s cheap and easy. I don’t see that as torture at all. Drive ‘em through their neighborhood, up and down the streets, real slow, in pink prison outfits, sitting with their legs and arms locked.”

Our guide blanched at this, and her head seemed to retreat back on her neck involuntarily, but she held her patient, polite expression.

“So, you think shaming is not a bad thing, that it doesn’t count as ‘torture,’” I said to my dad, as a way to bridge the gap between him and our stricken-looking guide. Then, to her, I clarified, “You know, there are a lot of people who think there are varying degrees of torture. Some might categorize certain things as just punishment. They’d put wearing a sign around your neck that labels you a thief if you stole something in a different category than, say, pulling out your fingernails one by one. One is not as bad as the other. Right?”

Our guide was not convinced. Earlier, she’d told us a story about the seemingly benign, systematic psychological manipulation of American POWs held in Chinese prisoner camps during the Korean War. She’d explained how those soldiers, after arriving home, were way more messed up than the ones who’d experienced the North Koreans’ harsh physical methods of keeping prisoners in line.

“But what about that case we just had here — remember the woman who got caught driving on the sidewalk every day to avoid stopping for the school bus? The judge sentenced her to stand on the corner and hold a sign; it said something like, ‘Only an idiot would drive on the sidewalk to avoid stopping for the bus.’ They weren’t trying to coerce her to confess or anything, so wasn’t that just a fitting punishment for a crime?”

“I think it’s wrong,” the woman said. This time it was my head that went back. I was thoroughly confused. “It’s a slippery slope,” she clarified. “The judge could have given her a fine or jail time...but I think the shaming was wrong.”

I was torn between the two positions. On the one side, I could see why my father deemed shaming to be “cheap and effective” as a criminal deterrent. But I could also understand how it could be viewed as the first step down a dark and dreadful path. It’s easier to overlook how hot things are getting when the temperature is slowly being raised one degree at a time.

At the time of the sentencing a few months ago, I applauded the judge who made that woman wear a sign. Now, as I looked around at the iron headdresses for “fools” and “gossips” of a time long past, it occurred to me that the word “idiot” on that sign had been an unnecessary cruelty. I wondered whether it would have been more valid if the judge had instructed that the giant white-board contain a simple and straightforward apology. Something like, “I’m sorry to have endangered children with my impatience. I will not do it again. Please forgive me.” Something that would address the misdeed directly and possibly convey remorse and elicit understanding and thoughtfulness, rather than just making a fool of the transgressor for the public’s amusement.

Later, while Dad and I were having lunch, I asked him if he could think of anything positive he’d gleaned from the exhibit, and he brought up an important theme I’d forgotten — how to be an “upstander.” At the beginning, and near the end of the show, the differences between those who stand “by” and those who stand “up” are underlined. The upstander is a person who takes it upon herself to speak up if a situation does not seem right.

“The positive thing is to actually think about torture and to think about how to be an upstander. Remember Kitty Genovese? Back in the ’60s in Queens, she was screaming as she was being beaten and killed and people heard her, but nobody called the police.” Dad made his trademark oof-sigh sound, a noise I only hear when he is too emotional to speak.

On the tour, our guide had outlined the three major characteristics of upstanders. She noted that all upstanders had at least one of these characteristics: no problem with defying authority, taking risks, and a parent with a strong moral code. “Well, then, I fit right in,” I said. “I have absolutely no respect for authority. Just ask my dad here.”

“Yeah, thanks for that,” Dad said.

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