Torture VS Training: Reflections On WHIPLASH [NO SPOILER]

If you have yet to view Whiplash, the new film from Sony Picture Classics with Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. The film is about a young ambitious drummer (Teller) and his relationship to his music director (Simmons) at a prestigious New York music conservatory. It is a very thrilling film and pits the young student, not only against his music teacher but in many ways against himself. Without spoiling the film we’ll say that the music teachers methods are unorthodox as he pushes the drummer to play better. The question at hand is how much is too much?

We all know the character, whether it is the authoritarian teacher, drill sergeant, or boss. It is the person who seems to bent on excellence that they refuse to accept that they may be doing more harm than good. At the same time this individual produces unequivocally brilliant results so it can be hard to argue with their methods. The film depicts these challenges matter of fact manner taking us to the extreme of the scenario as only Hollywood can do. But the central question remains what is difference between training and torture.

The pragmatists out there may say that the world is hard and it is our teachers’ and parents’ job to prepare us for this hard world. We may say there is a distinction between the rights of teachers versus parents because of the relationship to them but just as there are legal limits to what a teacher can do to educate there are limits to what is acceptable for a parent as well. The argument of corporal punishment often comes into play. A swift punishment inflicts a physical pain on a person for not getting something right or learning a lesson. Life, is in many ways uncompromising this way. The consequence of driving drunk may be the loss of life of property, and this style of discipline is often justified as a way of correcting action while non-physical punishment is supported as a way of correcting thought.No matter how it is doled out, the distinction between a much needed spanking and abuse is often unclear.

Even if the punishment is not inherently physical it does not mean that it is not traumatic. If we define trauma as a lasting effect of a significantly harmful event or experience then in many ways trauma is one of the most effective ways of getting someone to adapt an idea. While clearly producing results we must look at the side effects of trauma as they pertain to other areas of life. If through the course of teaching someone a particular lesson they are marked in other non related ways then it should be a clear sign that there is collateral damage. True that greatness comes at a cost but the extent of that cost must be considered.

It is a question not only of what should be the limits of authority figures in their attempt to sculpt minds an train youth but also what those limits should be for a healthy individual for them self as well. Just as a teacher can be the culprit for over exerting a student, this can be done to ourselves as well. Ambition can be a great thing but it can also be blinding. In our quest there are those that will turn away at the first sign of trouble and others that will fight to the grave to achieve their goals.


In the case of adults, bosses and college teachers, that are not working with children they have the ability to push through whatever treatment they feel is necessary to prepare them. Much like the seemingly cruel an unusual punishment that is said to be imposed on those training to be Kung Fu masters or military S.E.R.E (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) school. it is precisely the extent of the training that prepares these extraordinary individuals for the tasks they undertake. Without the harsh training these people would undoubtedly fail in the face of obstacles they were unsure they could surmount.

Often what allows people to triumph over adversity is the knowledge that they have harder days behind them. When you have already faced something worse than what is before you, it becomes possible in your mind. Just as the old adage says, “if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger” and there is prudence to that notion as many survivors will attest. What allows a person to persevere can be purely mental.

Sometimes this harsh treatment is the very thing that is called upon in dire moments. It is a reminder that the seemingly impossible can be overcome and gives us the extra drive that we need. Distance runners speak of hitting “the wall” and it is certainly relative what we think the human body is capable of. The case has been made over and over again by people that accomplished exceptional feats that you can not listen to the naysayers. Famously, Steve Jobs is quoted as saying,” the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that normally do.”

This is a very clear point that for many of us our ambition and drive is the one thing that sets us apart from the rest. It is our ability to compartmentalize pain and focus on our goals that make us unstoppable against any form of abuse, obstacle or opposition. Sacrifice is part of achievement.


The justification for torture is almost always “necessity” be it the government inflicted on a prisoner of war force cooperation or an  from abusive coach that says it instills discipline. We must not allow our leaders to simply hide behind their results. This form of unchecked pragmatism is behind many-a psychological breakdown, and permanent physical and mental scaring. What doesn’t kill you can certainly disable you. Just because there is some positive effect of a traumatic experience to be seen, it is not a solid reason to create traumatic situations in the hopes of unlocking so innate ability.

We should always be asking if our methods are productive or are they simply excessive. Even the wildest of animals will succumb to being tamed if they are tortured. For people it may not always be physical, it may not even be mental, it could be the threat of harm to their loved ones. But the idea that cultivating talent should be cultivated in an environment filled with fear and pain as a motivator ignores the consequences that come along. Talent is important but so is humanity. If nothing else we’ve seen how a relentless will to win can drive people to not only cheat but inflict permanent harm on their opponents only to win.

In American films the antagonist is often a ruthlessly effective machine-like opponent like Drago in Rocky IV. This is often not far from the truth however dramatized. By teaching that we should block our emotions of pain and feeling for ourselves, so to do we block out those feelings of compassion for others. Those who not shown compassion do not learn how to show it. As effective as it may be at producing a particular result in behavior we must remember that is only one facet of a life. Being brilliant and talented can cost us relationships and a disregard for the feelings of others is very much the kind of idea that creates residual harm in our society when applied to sportsmanship, art, and especially business.

Pushing students, and ourselves to abandon feelings simultaneously teaches us to abandon our humanity. It reinforces a selfish ego-driven mentality.


We must always look at our ideas from as many sides as possible. Perhaps the greatest leaders employe these tactics on a case by case basis, only pushing students that they feel have a special skill. Or perhaps a uniform standard should be applied to clearly show differences between us and how we respond to stimuli. Ask yourself how you feel about the above, but also ask yourself what you have accomplished and what you hope to accomplish. Is there a correlation between, pain tolerance, ambition, and compassion? Is there an ideal cocktail?


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