Normalization of torture? No, thanks!

13.02.07_Slavoj Zizek_Normalization of tortureBy Slavoj Žižek.

Originally published in The Guardian with a different title.
This version of the article was directly sent to us by the author.

Para a versão em português do artigo, clique aqui.

Here is how, in a letter to Los Angeles Times, Kathryn Bigelow justified Zero Dark Thirty‘s depicting of the torture methods used by government agents to catch and kill Osama bin Laden:

“Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.”

Really? Without acting like abstract moralist idealists, and being fully aware of the unpredictable urgencies of fighting terrorist attacks, should we not at least add that torturing a human being is in itself something so profoundly shattering that to depict it neutrally – i.e., to neutralize this shattering dimension – already is a kind of endorsement?

More precisely, the catch is: how is torture depicted? Since the topic is so sensitive, any kind of actual neutrality in film’s texture is here a fake – a certain stance towards the topic is always discernible. Imagine a documentary on holocaust depicting it in a cool disinterested way as a big industrial-logistic operation, dealing with the technical problems (transport, disposal of the bodies, preventing panic among the prisoners to be gassed…) – such a film would either embody a perverse and deeply immoral fascination with its topic, or it would count on the very obscene neutrality of its style to engender dismay and horror in spectators. Where is Bigelow here?

Definitely and with no shadow of a doubt on the side of normalization of torture. When Maya, the film’s heroine, first witnesses boarding, she is a little bit shocked, but she quickly learns the game – later in the film she coldly blackmails a high-level Arab prisoner with “if you don’t talk to us, we will deliver you to Israel.” Her fanatical pursuit of bin Laden helps to neutralize any ordinary moral qualms. Much more ominous is her partner, a young bearded CIA agent who masters perfectly the art of passing glibly from torture to friendliness after the victim is broken (lightning his cigarette and sharing jokes). There is something deeply disturbing in how, later in the film, he smoothly changes from bearded torturer in jeans to a well-dressed Washington bureaucrat. This is normalization at its purest and most efficient – a little bit of uneasiness, more about hurt sensitivity than about ethics, but the job has to be done. This awareness of the hurt sensitivity as the (main) human cost of torture makes it sure that the film is not a cheap Rightist propaganda: the psychological complexity is properly depicted, so that well-meaning liberals can enjoy the film without feeling guilty. This is why Zero Dark Thirty is much worse than 24 where at least Jack Bauer breaks down at the series’ finale.

The debate about water boarding being torture or not should be dropped as an obvious nonsense: why, if not by causing pain and fear of death, does boarding make hardened terrorist-suspects talk? As to the replacement of the word “torture” by “enhanced interrogation technique,” one should note that we are dealing here with an extension of the Politically Correct logic: in exactly the same way that “disabled” becomes “physically challenged,” “torture” becomes “enhanced interrogation technique” (and, why not, “rape” could become “enhanced seduction technique”). The crucial point is that torture – brutal violence practiced by state – was made publicly acceptable at the very moment when public language was rendered Politically Correct in order to protect victims from symbolic violence. These two phenomena are the two sides of the same coin.

The most obscene defense of the film is the claim that Bigelow rejects cheap moralism and soberly presents the reality of anti-terrorist struggle, raising difficult questions and thus compelling us to think (plus, some critics add, she “deconstructs” feminine clichés – Maya displays no sexual interests or sentimentality, she is tough and dedicated to her task like men). Our answer should be that, precisely apropos topic like torture, one should not “think.” A parallel with rape imposes itself here: what if a film were to show a brutal rape in the same neutral way, claiming that one should avoid cheap moralism and start to think about rape in all its complexity? Our guts tell us that there is something terribly wrong here: I would like to live in a society where rape is simply considered unacceptable, so that anyone who argues for it appears an eccentric idiot, not in a society where one has to argue against it – and the same goes for torture: a sign of ethical progress is the fact that torture is “dogmatically” rejected as repulsive, without any need for argumentation.

So what about the “realist” argument: torture was always going on, if anything even more in the (near) past, so is it not better to at least talk publicly about it? This, exactly, is the problem: if torture was always going on, why are those in power now telling us openly about it? There is only one answer: to normalize it, i.e., to lower our ethical standards.

Torture saves lives? Maybe, but for sure it loses souls – and its most obscene justification is to claim that a true hero is ready to forsake his/her soul to save lives of his/her countrymen. The normalization of torture in Zero Dark Thirty is a sign of the moral vacuum we are gradually approaching. If there is any doubt about this, just try to imagine a major Hollywood film depicting torture in a similar way 20 or 30 years ago – unthinkable.


All of Slavoj Žižek’s books published in Brazil by Boitempo are avaiable in ebook form. If you’re interested, find out more in the links below:

Revolution at the Gates: Lenin – The 1917 Writings * ePub (Livraria Cultura |Gato Sabido)

The Parallax View * ePub (Livraria Cultura | Gato Sabido)

Welcome to the Desert of the Real! * ePub (Livraria Cultura | Gato Sabido)

In defense of Lost Causes * ePub e PDF (Livraria Cultura | Gato Sabido)

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce * PDF (Livraria Cultura | Gato Sabido)

Living in the End Times * ePub (Livraria Cultura | Gato Sabido)

The Year of Dreaming Dangerously * ePub (Livraria Cultura | Gato Sabido)

Also, there’s an article by Žižek on Boitempo’s Occupy: Protest Movements that Took the Streets (along with David Harvey, Mike Davis, Tariq Ali, Immanuel Wallerstein and others) * PDF (Livraria Cultura | Gato Sabido)


menos que nada_capaPROVISORIA_altaSlavoj Žižek’s new book, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Historical Materialism is to be released this month in Brazil. This is an unfinished preview of the book’s cover.


Boitempo Editorial is one of the most prestigious independent leftist publishers in Brazil: a publishing house of radical thinkers from the classics of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Leon Trotski and Vladimir I.U. Lenin to György Lukács, István Mészáros, Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Perry Anderson, David Harvey, Mike Davis, Fredric Jameson and Tariq Ali. Among the Brazilian authors, Boitempo publishes some of the greatest leftist intellectuals of our time, such as Emir Sader, Leandro Konder, Franscisco de Oliveira, Maria Rita Kehl, Michael Löwy, Ricardo Antunes, Paulo Arantes and Vladimir Safatle. For Foreign Rights, visit our website or contact

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