I’ve had second and then third thoughts about writing this post. I’m very aware that I’m about to move into territory that a lot of people have extremely strong opinions on and I’m a little nervous.
However, I’ve decided to persevere with it because irrespective of my own personal views on these topics I think there is a value at looking at them in a slightly different way. My goal here is not to argue why I think my views are right and better than anybody elses, nor is it to suggest that people who disagree with me are uninformed or lacking in morality (two of the most common lines of argument used). I am a meat eater who supports the use of abortion, so I guess that means you could call me an anti-lifer if you really wanted to. Although these are my personal views, most importantly of all I believe in the right of every individual to make their own choices, whether this be with regards to what they put in their mouth or whether or not they decide to terminate a pregnancy. I think it is paramount that people respect other peoples decisions, particularly those regarding their own bodies. It is easy to forget that heavily politicised issues such as abortion and even what we choose to eat are, at the end of the day, profoundly and intensely personal decisions. Nobody has the right to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do with regards to your own body. What I want to do in this piece instead then, is to explore shifting attitudes towards death, and to see whether this sheds any new light on these much discussed topics.
Over the last week I have been watching the rather brilliant Inside Obama’s Whitehouse series which has forced me to seriously reconsider his two terms in office which I had increasingly come to contemplate with a sense of bitter regret. The first thing that struck me was just how extraordinary a man President Obama appears to be. The idea that he, George W. Bush and Donald Trump could all be considered suitable candidates for the same job just beggars belief, it is almost impossible for me not to listen to him speak without being moved and inspired. The other thing that really struck me when watching this programme was just how unbelievably partisan politics in the United States appears to be, and how divided over issues such as Immigration, Gun Control and Abortion the country remains.
It was also interesting to see how the passing of ‘Obama Care’, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) relied on the support of a group of catholic nuns, led by Sister Carol Keehan who supported the bill. The Catholic Church teaches that artificial contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion are immoral. Yet, despite the fact that the ACA contained provisions and regulations involving taxpayers money funding plans covering abortion and even forcing Americans to pay for abortion coverage within their plans, Keehan insisted that it represented “a tremendous beginning for getting coverage for all” and “a pro-life law that matches Catholic and American principles for fairness and compassion.”
For me, this was a powerful reminder of how, when people are able to look beyond their differences to their shared values, real and positive change can be achieved, an important point to remember given the way in which politics seems to be becoming increasingly fragmented across Europe, and polarized in the US; with both the Republican and Democratic parties embroiled in the middle of tight campaigns for the presidential nomination between establishment and self-styled ‘outsider’ candidates who not only appeal to voters fears of the other party but also to the disillusion they feel towards their own.
The role of Keehan and the nuns of the Catholic Health Association was also a reminder of the fact that the much maligned Church can sometimes be a force for good (although the less said about the bishops in this instance the better), a point which was further reinforced in a later episode of the series when it drew attention to the way in which the relatives of the victims of the Emanuel Church, drew on their own faith and their refusal ‘to late hate win’ by offering their forgiveness to the man accused of murdering their sons, mothers and grandfathers for racially motivated reasons. Religion gets plenty of stick from the liberal left and it is hard to argue with some of the criticism levelled at it but it is also worth remembering that while the supernatural claims of religion are for all intensive purposes a complete nonsense, religion still has some important things to teach the secular world, a point very well made by Alain de Botton in his book Religion for Atheists.
One of numerous issues I have with Christianity is the way in which it has tended to support the view that nature and animals can legitimately be freely exploited for human purposes, and that they exist simply as resources for our use. The growth of the vegetarian and vegan movements alongside the rise of the environmental movement could be seen as a direct response and challenge to this long-held attitude within Western Culture.. While the question of whether the consumption of meat and other animal products is acceptable has not (nor hopefully, ever will) reached the same level of divisiveness already achieved by issues such as Abortion, it is clearly an area around which there are extremely strong opinions and a considerable amount of time and energy has been wasted (and bad feeling created) by individuals on both sides who are so convinced of the correctness of their own position that they are quite happy to suggest that vegans are idiots or that meat eaters are bad people.
It would appear that disagreement over animal agriculture and the consumption of animal products is already causing division within the anti climate-change movement and the environmental movement more generally, as highlighted by the way in which the pro-vegan ‘documentary’ Conspiracy sought, through the use of some frankly erroneous evidence to falsely claim that animal agriculture is the single largest emitter of greenhouse emissions, before going after some of the largest environmental charities in the world for supposedly failing to draw enough attention to this ‘fact’.
Abortion and the consumption of Animal products are both divisive issues, and as I have demonstrated, both of these topics relate to religion, particularly in this context to the conservative elements of the Christian church which uphold the value of all human life whilst simultaneously diminishing that of other living animals. But something else also unites these topics, and that is what I want to spend the rest of this post talking about. That thing is death. After all, the discussions around abortion and the consumption of animal products centre around whether or not it is ok to terminate the life of another living creature.
What might a focus on death reveal about these issues? In order to answer that question lets have a look at how Western attitudes towards death have changed. Perhaps the best place to start is with the writing of Phillipe Aries and his book Western Attitudes Toward Death from the Middle Ages to the Present. In this book Aries argues that the way in which we relate to death has changed profoundly during this period. He suggests that right up until the seventeenth century, people were very aware of their own imminent death, prepared for it and accepted it. Early Medieval Death was a ritual organised by the dying person themselves and would often take the form of the ill, injured or elderly person lying in bed and surrounded by their friends and family.
Should the person dying forget to follow protocol, it was the job of the doctor or the priest to ensure that they follow the customary Christian routine. Death was a public and normal event, and children would often be present at the bedside. Although accepted and witnessed, there was no great show of emotion. There was also much less concern about what happened to bodies after death providing they were buried in consecrated ground. People didn’t believe that graves had to be permanent and burial grounds themselves often had other uses, with people using them as meeting places and even holding markets there.
Aries notes that subtle changes occurred in the eleventh and twelve century with the moment of death taking on greater significance as people began to believe that a persons deathbed behaviour could influence heavenly judgement. He refers to this shift as “One’s Own Death.” However, the major break in thinking does not occur until the 18th century during a period he calls “Thy Death.” At this point death becomes dramatised, exalted and feared, and much like sex, began to be seen as breaking from the ordinary. Although death still retained a social dimension, with people continuing to participate socially and ritualistically in death, he argues that now instead of witnessing death, they were mourning it.
Although mourning was not a new phenomenon it shifted during this period from being a ritualised social obligation to a spontaneous and often excessive display of emotion in which the death of loved ones is no longer accepted. Death now came to be seen as a complete rupture from life and efforts were made to memorialise the dead as a means of preserving the memory of the dead through the use of individual burial plots and grave markets.
Finally we enter the modern period or the period of what Aries calls “Forbidden Death” which begins at the end of the nineteenth century and continues until the present day. In this period, Aries argues that death has become both shameful and forbidden and that the dying themselves would increasingly be shielded from the reality of their condition. The mourner, having become so moved by the gravity of death thus wishes to protect the dying loved one from the emotional turmoil it involves, mean that the dying person no longer presides over their own death.
The extreme emotions of the “Thy Death” period are replaced with an extreme avoidance and suppression of emotion. In fact even mourning has now become pathologized. The bible of psychiatric disorders The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) now not only lists Complicated Grief Disorder to describing those who continue to grieve more than six months after the death of a loved one, but now also allows medical treatment for depression within the first few weeks after death, something which had not previously been allowed until two months from the start of mourning.
This shift in attitudes towards death can be linked to the emergence of the hospital as the predominant site of death. Here, the dying person is often physically separated from their friends and family. Death becomes a ‘technical cessation’ predetermined by a hospital team and often takes place at a point when the patient is already unconscious, meaning that the moment of death itself becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish.
Similarly, the emergence of positive psychology and the idea that life should be, above all, happy, has led to a denial of death as something that is sorrowful and ugly. Death has replaced sex as societies greatest taboo and children are shielded from it, often being told that the deceased are resting. Aries argues that the emergence of cremation is symbolic of the western worlds increasing denial of death, with its lack of formality, associated rituals and permanent location for remains representing the ultimate expression of “forbidden death.”
So we can see how death has gone from being a normal part of life, witnessed and acknowledged by friends and family and whereby the dying person was at the centre of the process to an event that largely happens in private, under the supervision of medical staff, with the moment of death itself often obscured, and whereby the act of mourning itself has become increasingly pathologized. In the West we have got used to the idea that the average lifespan is now something like 75-85 years and that this, like good health, is to be expected. Being old is something that will happen later. Dying is something that will happen even later than that and we can try and avoid thinking about it until then.
But it doesn’t always work like that. My best friend and his parents were killed in a car-crash on the motorway when I was eleven. I can still remember coming home from school and wondering why my brother was being so nice to me. I knew there was something wrong but it didn’t occur to me that something so terrible could actually happen. I was totally unprepared for the fact that death can happen to anybody at any time, certainly not to somebody my own age. The unreal nature of the new reality left me feeling totally adrift. Life didn’t make sense any more and I couldn’t square the sudden disappearance of these people that I loved with life just seeming to carry on as usual. How could it? Its natural for parents to want to protect their children from some of the more horrendous aspects of life but i’m not convinced that doing so leaves them very well prepared when disaster does strike. Perhaps if I had been able to really, genuinely, understand and accept, even as a child, that life until old age is far from a guarantee, that it does get snatched away from us sometimes, I might have been able to deal with this tragedy better than I did.
Why is it that death has become something that we are so scared of and seek to try and avoid? There are three key features of death that are scary. Firstly it belongs to each individual. It cannot be taken away from any particular individual or given to any other. Somebody can sacrifice their life for us but we still have to die ourselves. There is absolutely no escaping it. Death isolates us and separates us from our friends and families, people, animals and things. It removes us from the relationships and meanings that make up our world. It forces us to come face to face with our own individual existence. Finally, because it is certain, the threat of death hangs over us constantly and yet, because we do not know when it will arrive, it is easy for us to fear its arrival.
I’ve just finished the book Illness by the inspirational Havi Carel, a colleague of my dad’s at The University of the West of England who was diagnosed with the rare illness lymphangioleiomyomatosis and was told by medical experts that she probably had no more than ten years to live. A philosopher by trade, Carel uses philosophy and a phenomenological approach to show how illness is often viewed as a localised biological dysfunction, but how this ignores the actual experience of the ill person, their hopes and fears, the way they interact with others and their view on life in general. Carel reformulates illness as a life-changing process rather than a limited physiological problem, and also seeks to reinterpret death. Carel suggests that we should adopt Heidegger’s idea of authentic being-toward-death, which involves embracing the idea that death is not some distant futural ‘not yet’ but is already a part of us now and at all times, in that our own awareness of death has a bearing on how we live and what choices we make in the here and now.
With this approach it becomes possible to reevaluate life from this standpoint of its unavoidable finitude and limitation. This in turn can allow us to appreciate the precious value of the here and now. Zen Buddhist philosophy too tends to emphasise the importance of the present moment, a way of being that is very much contrary to the western relationship with time in which we compulsively pick over the past in order to learn lessons from it, and then project forward into a hypothetical future in which those lessons can be applied. Being confronted by, and having to accept your own mortality, to have to recognise that there is no certainty, and to learn to live in the present can be profoundly liberating. Carel talks of experiencing amplified enthusiasm and joy, whereby “All of my energy and happiness are funnelled into the now.”
How can we apply this back to the controversies around abortion and the killing of animals for human consumption? It is interesting that if we look at these issues from the perspective of death playing a central role in these debates (and I know that this is far from the only factor), it suddenly becomes surprising that those in favour of maintaining life in the form of ‘innocent’ unborn human foetuses appear (although this is admittedly a simplification) to be at the opposite end of the liberal / conservative spectrum to those championing lifestyles that do not involve the killing of ‘innocent’ animals for the production of meat. Anti-abortionists wish to protect human life at all costs, irrespective of the fact that many foetuses abort themselves naturally anyway, or of the suffering that this may incur for the unborn child or for the mother herself. Those campaigning for an end to animal agriculture, want to protect the lives of livestock and avoid the suffering inflicted upon them by a system of industrialised agriculture, irrespective of the fact that these animals would not be alive at all if they had not been bred for consumption, nor are animals living in the wild free from premature death and suffering. In both cases, the honourable desire to maintain life or reduce suffering runs up against the inevitable reality of death and suffering above and beyond the confines of the fields being debated.
In my last post I talked about the way in which suffering appears to be an unavoidable part of life for most people. I also suggested that by learning to accept our suffering to the extent that we seek to learn from these experiences we might suffer less than if we simply try to them or chose to punish ourselves for the very fact that we are suffering. I’m not trying to suggest that we should simply accept the suffering of animals reared under the barbaric conditions of many contemporary agricultural practises, nor that the experience of this suffering is in some way beneficial for those animals. Similarly I’m not suggesting that the emotional suffering experienced by a woman who is unable to abort an unwanted child or of that child themselves if they are brought into a world in which their parents may be unable or unwilling to care for them sufficiently is in anyway beneficial.
What I am trying to suggest however is that if death is really a part of everyday life, and suffering a natural part of existence, does the abortion of a 20 week year old foetus or the killing of an animal for the sustenance of human life still seem so morally abhorrent? After all, even plant agriculture results in the death of countless numbers of sentient animals. For me, the idiocies of the industrial farming model point to the need of a new model that is low energy, low waste, just, diverse, and small-scale. But I agree with Simon Fairlie who argues that this should not necessarily mean an end of animal agriculture, but rather that livestock needs to be integrated constructively into agricultural systems.
I wonder if those positions that oppose induced abortion or the killing of animals for human consumption are reflective in some way, even at a sub-conscious level, of our own efforts to deny the reality and inevitability of death? Although vegetarianism remerged in the west in the 17th century it became more widespread during the 19th and 20th centuries and as such coincides not only with increasing levels of urbanisation resulting from the industrial revolution (and the subsequent separation of many people from agriculture and food production) but also with the shift in attitudes towards death from it being a normal part of life to an unnatural and unpleasant phenomenon to be kept at a physical and emotional distance. Does the conscious decision to avoid eating meat liberate us from the unbearable psychological burden of the destruction being wreaked on the entire planet by our capitalist global economy and its perpetual hunger for growth? Does it distract us from the fact that human activity, whether it be agriculture, transportation, energy production, construction, or any other sector, result in the killing or inadvertant death of other animals and living things, from the fact that our own continued existence fundamentally depends upon the killing and consumption of other livings things?
“On the day of the hunt I came to know in the slick centre of my bones this one thing: all animals kill to survive, and we are animals. The lion kills the baboon; the baboon kills fat grasshoppers. The elephant kills living trees, dragging their precious roots from the dirt they love. The hungry antelope’s shadow passes over startled grass. And we, even if we had no meat, or grass to gnaw, still boil our water to kill the invisible creatures that would like to kill us first. And swallow quinine pills. The death of something living is the price of our own survival , and we pay it again and again We have no choice. It is the one solemn promise every life on earth is born and bound to keep.”
Barbara Kingsolver; The Poisonwood Bible.
Are those who campaign on religious grounds to defend the right to life of a tiny ball of cells embedded in a woman’s uterus able in doing so to distract themselves from the millions of human lives that have been lost or ruined as a result of religious conflict? Having brought animals into the human realm through the process of domestication, are we now placing the same expectations on their lives (of a long, healthy and happy life, followed by a ‘natural’ death) that we desire for ourselves? The same expectations which bring us so much suffering when, whether through illness, injury or accident, they become unrealisable for us, and which remain largely unobtainable for many animals living in the wild and whom fall victim to disease, injury, inter-species violence, starvation and predation?
As I stated at the beginning of this piece, I’m not trying to argue for or against any position, although I have made my owns views clear and have no doubt that they have coloured what I have written to some extent. However I am not trying to persuade anybody to come around to my way of seeing things. After all as this rather wonderful episode of This American Life goes to show, getting people to change their mind very rarely happens, and often attempts to persuade people of a position different to their own only serves to reinforce their pre-existing position.
Instead, by focusing on the way in which our attitudes to death have developed and pondering how this might relate to these two rather controversial areas, I am simply posing a series of questions. It is interesting to notice the way in which the long cherished notions of free speech and freedom are being challenged by certain parts of the left because the words and/or presence of certain (admittedly hateful) individuals is considered distasteful or could cause upset. Perhaps the apogee of this was the petition signed by 500,000 people demanding the Donald Trump be banned from entering the UK. That’s right, trying to stop a man from entering a country because he says he wants to stop people from other parts of the world entering his country. While we can hope that many of the people who signed this petition were doing so while being fully aware of this inherent irony, and were doing so as a way of highlighting the absurdity of Mr Trump, how sure can can we be that all 500,000 people were?
While I disagree with Bailey Lamon when she suggests that it’s time to stop with the safe spaces and trigger warnings, I agree with her when she argues that we cannot simply ban, block, censor or ignore the things and people that we loathe and despise, or that scare us and make us feel deeply uncomfortable. The world is not a safe place – and that is why the ability to create safe spaces remains so important – however, we also need to step beyond these spaces and engage with the dangerous and troubling realities of life, including death.
Can embracing the more scary and terrible aspects of existence not only help us to enjoy our lives more but also help us to overcome some of the more polarising issues within contemporary politics? Can an authentic acceptance of the fragility of life and the inevitable death of all living things, of the reality of suffering as an unavoidable element of existence, or of the fact that in order for us to live, other living organisms must die, allow us to develop a greater level of empathy for people whose views may appear to be diametrically opposed to our own – by helping us, for example, to recognise a shared love of life? Perhaps we have more in common with these people than we would like to think. Perhaps sometimes, like the nuns of the Catholic Health Association and Barrack Obama, we might be able to find ways to overcome what divides us and work together for the greater good.