Triage and Tyranny

1855. You are sitting outside a large medical tent in the freezing winter on the shores of the Black Sea. Future generations will know this is the Crimean War. To you, a young woman from a sheltered background with scant medical training, it is Hell.
Here they come.
The tent behind you is partitioned in three. To the right, the wounded soldiers likely to survive without medical intervention; in the centre, those likely to die without medical intervention; to the left, those likely to die; outside, those already dead. There are three exits from the tent. The word ‘likely’ does not mean very much, but it’s the best that can be done in the circumstances.
As the first one approaches, stretcher supported by brothers in arms, you know that your split-second decision for right or left or centre (or outside) is likely to save some lives and to end others. If you do nothing, many more will die. If you try to save them all, many more will die.
You steel yourself, thrust down your feelings, and begin the first, rapid, assessment.
This scene is an imaginary illustration of very real events that have been taking place just behind the front line in many wars for many years. A complicating factor, and there are many, is that there are only so many doctors and there’s only so much time. So only those most likely to survive will receive treatment. Any time wasted on those to the right or left means more of those in the centre will die – as some will anyway. This necessary categorisation, in these circumstances, is not only life-saving; it is almost certainly a sentence of death. Someone has to do it.
As morality deals with good and evil; ethics deals with right and wrong. Their relationship is complex. The kind of ethical decision-making employed by the young woman in the illustration is today called ‘utilitarian’ – meaning that such decisions are based on their utility, i.e. the good that may come out of them. Several modern philosophers are associated with utilitariansim but the foremost champion of a single ethical imperative outweighing all others is the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant.
Kantian ethics, deriving ultimately from Plato’s Socrates (via a misreading of Aristotle) had great influence in Nazi Germany and, as I show in my thesis, continues to have great influence in the United States of America.
What a horrible thing to say! How can I compare a courageous young woman doing her best to save lives against all odds in hellish circumstances, with Hitler and then with the Land of the Free?
Firstly, as the classicist Prof. Martha Nussbaum shows, Kantian ethics are an attempt to avoid the tragic conflict of opposing ethical imperatives. In other words, the young women sitting outside the tent in the Crimean War avails herself of the clarity of these ethics so that no matter the particularities of each wounded soldier (the one whose blue eyes remind her of her brother, the one who pleads for life because of his pregnant wife, the one who has high rank in the Army) she is able to make a decision based solely on the greater good: saving as many lives as possible.
I cannot fault the exercise of Kantian ethics in those circumstances. Grave problems arise, however, when frontline decision-making becomes the basis of ethical conduct in times of peace.
Kantian ethics rely on the total removal of all other ethical considerations opposing the main imperative. A key part of this process (as modern philosopher Dr Mary Midgley shows) is the reduction of particular people and particular circumstances into universal categories. (Also reduction happens, as I show in this book, by use of language.) So, for example, sandy-haired Private Benjamin Jones, 33, a nonconformist lay preacher and amateur boxer, married and faithful to pretty brunette Nelly Jones neé MacDonald, although in love with his lieutenant, who has three kids (the youngest coincidentally resembling the postman), doting parents, a dog and likes fishing, becomes ‘suppurating wound in the thigh’ and is sent to the left (to die).
The reason why frontline ethics are a problem in peacetime is that the only thing that recommends them is their simplicity. I’m not for a moment saying that triage is simple but Kantian ethics are designed to respond only to the greatest ethical imperative and ignore all the others. As Prof. Nussbaum shows, this is the reverse of Aristotle’s teaching that it is the particulars of each person and circumstance that most surely guide us towards a wise ethical response. Not simple, wise.
This kind of sensitivity to particular ethical situations is recommended by moral philosophers such as Rev. Charles Curran, the American theologian who was in frequent conflict with Pope John Paul II. What concerns me is that it is a sensitivity increasingly under threat as more and more organisations worldwide are affected by American corporate values.
Charitable organisations are especially vulnerable as they often flounder in terms of effectiveness, communication and organisation so a hard-headed person unafraid to make tough decisions may seem like a godsend. The catch is that such decision-making may indeed be tough, for anyone with much humanity, but for those hardly burdened by conscience it is quite simple: set goals, clear obstacles, forward march!
Further complications arise because charitable organisations are full of people who feel it is uncharitable not to think the best of others. So if a candidate for a powerful position shows psychopathic tendencies, these may be interpreted as ‘focussed’ or ‘business-minded’. Freud’s rather innocent example of such tendencies (a girl who likes a boy she met at a funeral hoping for another funeral to maybe meet him again) shows that they are not just shared by the criminally insane. In fact, a recent survey of top companies found that a fifth of CEOs shared these tendencies.
It’s a commonplace in the more smug varieties of chicklit and womens’ magazines to poke fun at males (never men) making up the majority of those on the autistic spectrum; on the other end of the same spectrum psychologists are concerned that women (never females) who make up the majority of those on the psychotic spectrum are not receiving support as the condition is so badly publicised.
Adding all this together with the everyday sexism that still abounds and the trend in the third sector is for organisations to be run by someone high on the psychopathic scale, with immediate subordinates (or support from Head Office) of men who find it easier to stick rigidly to rules than interact with changing human situations (as emotional particularities are so overwhelmingly complex to interpret) and with women in the majority of grassroots workers and many of them self-sacrificing and painfully sensitive to the opinions of others.
On top of all this may be the hothouse effect that occurs when communities are cloistered canonically, isolated geographically or otherwise shrouded in secrecy due to the vulnerability/ naivety of their client group or the difficulty in getting staff. An insistence on ‘professionalism’ may mean that dissenting/ abused employees and volunteers are prevented from expressing anything other than the party line – as the psychopathic boss controls formal communication and informal communication is condemned as ‘gossip’ unworthy of good people, scandalous to the public/ clients and contrary to the exemplary values of the school/ church/ home/ charity/ community. The hallmark of the psychopath is the inability to recognise or feel any remorse for the harm they have done to people, so they move effortlessly from sadistic treatment of an individual to community schmaltz with a beaming face of innocence.
There is much wisdom in the co-dependency awareness movement but what it may fail to grasp is that everyone involved may sincerely believe that they are doing the right thing:
– Laying down the law
– Sticking to procedures
– Self-sacrificing and keeping silent
As we watch in awe the debacle of American democracy, it may help to realise that the unprecedented administration is a symptom, not a cause, of frontline ethics applied in peacetime.
The reduction of complex situations to simple categories of right and wrong, the dehumanising of people, the control of the people by force and censorship of the free speech, these are the hallmarks of military crisis and in such times the Ancient Romans accorded special dictatorial powers to a designated senator (usually a consul). The Ancient Greeks called this person a Tyrant.

funny-hospital-sign

Thanks to Linnaea Mallette who has released her photo ‘Funny Hospital Sign’ into the public domain.

Fascism & Families

At least this time of the year, TV nuclear families are a little more extended. There could be up to 12 people round the table noshing into some unfortunate fowl. That’s three times the usual number because, as we know, the usual number of family members is four. Three of these have blonde hair, one has black hair, all four are White and nominally Christian and preferably Protestant (even if evidently Jewish). We know this because this is how things have always been. Always and in every place. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel; Abraham (and everybody else); Jesus, Mary and Joseph; all royal families and our own family. The one we all grew up in. It’s reassuring.

There are, it has to be admitted, certain types who have other ‘arrangements’. These people are usually foreigners, not nice, heretics, and noisy. Trains don’t run on time where they come from. In our TV town, neighbours greet each other and everyone leaves the door open. Even though they immediately plonk keys into a wee bowl on the wee table right next to the unlocked door. Well, we can’t expect TV to mirror reality exactly.

So where does this black haired White man with his Nordic spouse and offspring hail from? The answer’s in the question. The clues are an adjective and a verb. The verb relates to a greeting that was originally pronounced ave and in more modern times salve and heil. The adjective describes the location of this fascist fantasy.

Mediterranean fascists (normalised as black haired White men) fantasised about ‘raising the colour’ – that dreadful expression familiar to anyone with experience of colonial racism. Have you ever wondered why so many White women, as distinct from White men, feel the urge to dye their hair blonde? The black haired White husband with the blonde White wife and two Nordic children has become so normalised on TV portrayals of generic families that it’s now unremarkable.

Umberto Eco, in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, an archaeology of fascist family memory, shows just how explicit was the erasure of multicultural Mediterranean identity in children’s and adult literature sanctioned by church and state in Italy and Spain during the reigns of Mussolini and Franco.

This erasure continues today. Extended families are like unexpected gifts of puppy dogs. Just for Christmas. They have no place in today’s TV nuclear family. Fascist dictators may have initially encouraged large families, with the connivance of the Catholic Church, but family size can always be altered at the convenience of the state. ‘Two will do’ is a eugenic command that TV has obeyed.

So when you see a Mediterranean patriarch with his peachy Uberwife and a pair of apple cheeked children, think about all the households you know, with all their other arrangements. Think about how this TV fascist family makes them feel.

It’s not all tutti frutti, is it?

family-outing-vintage-painting

Thanks to Karen Arnold for releasing ‘public domain vintage painting of a family outing’ into the public domain.

culture wars

Election fever hasn’t really hit Scotland yet. After the Referendum, when democracy was on the table, I just don’t know anyone who’s excited about it. Not that there isn’t a political process going on, among the grassroots, but no-one seems to be in love with the parties. A brief survey from a voter who, like so many, doesn’t attend rallies and doesn’t even listen to political spin, but does have a vote:

No-one loves a Tory. Nuff said. The peg-on-the-nose school of New Labour tactical voting have forgotten that we’ve heard it all before. Do I really need to even mention the LibDems? The SNP were riding high but their support of the Named Person policy is alienating their heartland from conservative families to radicals concerned for civil liberty. The Greens would do better if they came across as Scottish, in touch (at all) with the working class (Tommy, Tommy, Tommy, you were morning star of hope, why did you fall so far?) and actually embraced the diversity they’re always banging on about. Disdain of cherished values is never attractive to voters (PH isn’t even trying to win hearts and minds for the Assisted Suicide Bill among the faith community) and they were latecomers to the campaign Independence. No, we really don’t like being compared to an English county, thank-you, even a big one. Everyone else is either a nutter or a fascist.

So what’s my vote? Probably SNP (we don’t know that the Greens can actually govern and their flakey arrogance doesn’t help) but with a peg-on-my-nose. Meanwhile, here’s my contribution to some resolution on the ‘culture wars’, which govern American elections and are a major (and largely unheeded) factor over here:

war-hero-memorial

  • Abortion is the most divisive issue in the ‘culture wars’ and one way or another it affects us all yet no-one is listening in this debate that is not worthy of the name
  • Good women on both sides are being pushed into the front line in this conflict by obsessive men aware only of their extreme ideology
  • In the name of feminism and in the name of religion, women’s human expressions of ambiguity are being censored by both sides
  • Under the old patriarchal tactic of ‘divine and conquer’, man-made ideological divisions are preventing the solidarity of women on common ground:
    1. resistance to (gender-based) forced abortion
    2. resistance to (class/ ethnicity-based) forced sterilisation
  • Men are utilising both pro-life and pro-choice stances to leave pregnant women in difficult circumstances to do all the ethical heavy lifting and to cope with the physical and emotional aftermath of birth or abortion alone
  • Rather than focusing solely on changing the law, Life Choice encourages women to find common ground in the material and emotional support of women who want to give birth but are under economic and social pressure to change this choice
  • Rather than braying their disdain of any women who does not agree with their absolutist ideology, Life Choice challenges men on both sides to shut up, to stop confusing the issue with non-related topics, and to support women by dismantling misogyny
  • This little book is inspired by the Sabine women who dramatically presented an alternative to conflict, by affirming the relationships we already have with one another, no matter what side we are on
  • Life Choice imagines mixed groups of pro-choice and pro-life women collaborating for better choices and campaigning for workplace crèche facilities, for equal pay and opportunity, supporting breastfeeding in public, for a ‘revolving cradle’ policy in maternity hospitals so that mothers in fear of their lives do not have to give birth on park benches but may do so in anonymity   

When we, as a society, as a species, ask women to give birth to our young, we are asking for an act of heroism. Some women, in some circumstances, refuse that act. Some wish they had and some wish they had not. Instead of vilifying or coercing women in regard to their choices, would it not, squeaky clean ideology aside, make more sense to provide women with better choices?

LIFE CHOICE

‘War Hero Memorial’ by Tammy Sue released to Public Domain