Dentistry, Torture and Intent

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that dental work can really fucking HURT. But is it ever accurate to call it torture?

I was cursed with crappy teeth. All of them are extra small, most of them didn't start out where they were supposed to be, three of them never came in because they didn't exist in the first place, and one of them was grafted to my jawbone and thus impervious to the reshaping efforts of braces, on top of which it was malformed and looked like a teeny tiny little fang. When I was 22, a molar on the bottom left side broke one evening while I was eating a bowl of noodles at a dinner party in Taiwan, and three years later, the molar above it simply disintegrated one day, for absolutely no apparent reason.

In an effort to make my teeth look the way adult human teeth are supposed to look, I underwent all sorts of dental procedures. I had three orthodontists and two sets of braces, and I have three crowns and two bridges.

People whose jobs involve hurting me in some way--dentists, rolfers, electrologists--have occasionally told me that I have an exceptionally high pain threshold. "I don't think that's true," I said once. "It's not that these things don't hurt me; I just try to breathe through the pain and not freak out or cry, because I've learned the hard way that those things don't do any good." But I've been assured that when it comes to pain, I'm a model of stoic endurance.

Of all the things I've ever voluntarily undergone, repeatedly, the one that hurts the worst is dental work or orthodontia. The crown I had to get after my molar broke in Taiwan--that was hell. The dentist who did it was such an insensitive dick. Or my first set of braces--it was the 70s, back when braces involved bands that encircled each tooth, and there was this tool the orthodontist used to tighten the band (and, I suspect, to jolt the tooth loose from your gums so it would move more easily) that my sisters and I called "the thumper"--oh, how we hated that thing. Having it used hurt so bad you'd want to vomit from the pain, particularly if we were unlucky enough to have an appointment on the day the mean orthodontist in the two-guy practice was there. On those days, we often left the orthodontist's office in tears, which made him mad--but didn't make him any more gentle.

Remember that song "Dentist" from Little Shop of Horrors? The one that goes

I am your dentist.
And I enjoy the career that I picked.
I'm your dentist.
And I get off on the pain I inflict!

And remember Brazil? I am pretty sure I remember Michael Palin is a torturer, and the method of torture he uses is dentistry.

This is reflected in real life. There are regimes and organizations that use dentistry as torture.

So is it torture, or is it not?

The answer is, of course, THAT DEPENDS. You could argue that dentist work can't be torture because

A) People undergo it voluntarily
B) It has a beneficial purpose
C) It's done by trained professionals
D) Attempts are made to reduce suffering

But there are situations where none of those things are true.

People who argue that some sort of procedure--waterboarding, slapping, confinement, whatever--is not torture because it doesn't kill you as soon as you undergo it are missing two points: A) a procedure that kills you slowly with plenty of pain along the way is not just torture, but murder or execution; and B) almost ANYTHING can be torture.

What makes something torture is not merely how much it hurts or harms or threatens someone, but the reasons why those things are being done, and how thoroughly power over the entire situation is seized by the one doing the procedure and withheld from the one it's being done to.

Things that are pleasurable under some circumstances can be torture under others. Most of us enjoy food, but food can be used as torture, either by forcing someone to eat something they find repugnant or by forcing them to eat until they're ill. Sex can be torture easily enough. Tickling can be torture if goes on long enough.

We can endure with equanimity all sorts of mildly unpleasant things because we know they won't last long. But if mildly unpleasant discomfort is purposely intensified and prolonged, it can be torture. Being stuck under one of those big hair dryers in a salon can be torture if the heat is high enough and it goes on long enough. I just read a book called Life and Death in Shanghai where the form of torture used on prisoners was really simple: prisoners who didn't confess quickly enough to whatever crime the Maoists thought they were guilty of, had to wear great big brass handcuffs, for days and days and days, closed tightly enough that circulation was impaired. Because the hands were cuffed behind the back, prisoners could only eat by gulping food out of a plate like a dog, and it was often impossible to take one's pants down for elimination, so prisoners soiled themselves.

What makes something torture is not necessarily the particular procedure one is subjected to, but, first of all, whether the suffering it inflicts is intentional rather than incidental. And while there are evil, sadistic, brutal sociopaths who might torture someone just for the fun of it, in political and military situations, torture is usually a tool for interrogation. So if a condition for ending intentionally-inflicted suffering is that the person being subjected to it must answer some question, then whatever is being done is torture.

Pain in and of itself does not necessarily constitute torture--otherwise the abdominal surgery I had as a teenager would be torture. Also important are issues of power and personal sovereignty. If you deprive someone of sovereignty over their own body and inflict physical suffering on them as part of an interrogation, with the understanding that the way to make the suffering stop is to provide the interrogators with the information they want, then you're torturing them. No matter whether you handcuff their hands behind their back for days, or stuff a wet towel in their mouths and simulate drowning, or tickle them until they pee themselves, or force them to assume a position until it becomes painful and debilitating, or stick a dentist's drill in their mouth, you're torturing them.

Let's not pretend otherwise.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on April 26, 2009 5:32 PM.

The Doctor Says It Should Clear Up If We Just Keep Using the Ointment was the previous entry in this blog.

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