“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master- that’s all.”
– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (1872)
I was reminded of this well-known exchange when a friend showed me the cover of this week’s Economist celebrating the spread of assisted dying legislation. The latter claims the “right” of terminally ill patients to demand from doctors help in killing themselves. Doctors then have a legal obligation to honour such a right.
It changes the meaning of “medical care”, turning doctors into partners in intentional killing.
A foreigner observing current Western public culture is struck by the glaring contradictions on display. Individual autonomy or “choice” is elevated to an absolute status when issues such as abortion, assisted suicide or gender and sexuality are discussed. We are regarded as solitary monads whose lives and developmental capacities are self-generated and self-possessed, and the choices we make do not affect others. Hence the putative “right to take one’s own life” or the “right to design my baby” or “the right to decide my sexual identity”.
At the same time, some celebrity scientists and popular science journalists never tire of intoning that free-will is an illusion, the “autonomous self” a myth. We are all at the mercy of our neurones or genes. In the oft-quoted words of the late Francis Crick, “‘You’, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” (The Astonishing Hypothesis, 2000). While smuggling in a naturalist metaphysics, neurological or genetic reductionism is proclaimed as the scientific acid that dissolves all metaphysics. Of course, the purveyors of such narratives exempt themselves from such determinism. They do not really believe it themselves; for if they did, they cannot logically take credit for their discoveries. We would have to hand over their Nobel awards, royalties and salaries to their genes and brain structures.
However, both the rhetoric of “choice” and that of naturalist determinism stand side-by-side within the contemporary Western medical profession, and the contradiction is blithely ignored.
Moreover, the advertising industry spends billions of dollars devising clever videos, slogans and sound bites that manipulate the choices consumers make. And we have learned from feminism that in a patriarchal society women’s choices are rarely free and well-informed, but shaped by men’s expectations, definitions and decrees.
The toxic polarization that is called “culture wars” in North America is spreading globally via social media. Eschewing respectful dialogue and argument, both sides seek power over the other through legislation. After all, if something is legal, the general public assumes it must be right.
Legal rights can even be proclaimed as if they were universal human rights.
Behind the talk of respecting “diversity” and “inclusiveness” in a growing number of Western countries, a selective filter operates. Sexual identities and practices are regarded as fluid, amoral, defended either on the grounds of “freedom of choice” or “this is who I am”. Objections to men claiming to be women are dismissed as “transphobia”, but a white man presenting himself as a coloured would be ridiculed, even prosecuted. Polyamorous relations are okay, but polygamy is not.
In both the US and UK, economic class remains the most powerful determinant of a child’s educational attainment or taking to street crime, but class resists all deconstruction. The rich and the poor within nations are physically and socially segregated. The poor and the disabled are largely invisible and inaudible. Social “inclusiveness” doesn’t often apply to them. (Pressure to abort disabled fetuses is the other side of the “inclusive society”).
Further, even as talk of “inclusiveness” and “equality” reigns supreme within these nations, so does the barrier of nationality. Observe the way nationalistic mind-sets have been so apparent during the Covid pandemic and the COP26 summit.
So, suppose that I were to claim: “I have a right to a British or American identity because I speak English better than most of the inhabitants of these nations and my Sri Lankan identity was not chosen but imposed on me at birth.” Would such a rights-claim be recognized? Clearly not. But why not, if I’m as uncomfortable in my Sri Lankan identity even as another may be uncomfortable in her female body?
Postmodernism has indeed lent a voice to some humiliated and marginalized groups, and for that we should be grateful. But in its more extreme manifestations, it undermines every effort at global resistance to the status quo by replacing the transformation of the material conditions in which people live with language-correction, and mocking notions of objective knowledge and moral truths that transcend culture and context.
COP26 has reminded us that for most of the world’s human and non-human inhabitants, a “right to acquire resources necessary to live” is more fundamental than an alleged “right to die in the way I choose”. Those European Christians who encouraged the former right were the architects of human rights charters, the builders of national welfare states and health services, and pioneers in palliative care and the Hospice movement. Human dignity and inter-dependence were not prised apart, but seen as mutually constitutive. Chipping away steadily at its (predominantly) Judaeo-Christian moral heritage has thus left late modern Western culture oscillating between a Greco-Roman fatalism and a naked, Nietzschean will-to-power.
Either way, Humpty Dumpty’s conclusion is a foretaste of things to come.
Thumbnail photo credit: Andrea De Santins on Unsplash
Cover photo credit: Alice Donovan Rouse on Unsplash