Me, my Body and I: Part 3

It’s time to wrap up this diatribe. Like I said at the end of my second post in this series, I’ve strayed a long way from the usual content of this blog. After this post I have to reconsider my work here. I’m getting into the long stretch of road in my chemotherapy treatments. I’m getting tired and you must be getting tired of reading this stuff. The end of this part of my road is at least six months away. Things are looking good according to my lab results, but who knows. Every day brings something new which may be fodder for this blog, maybe not. Whatever. I do have to tell you about a recent weird experience I’ve been having, but that will be for my next post.

In this post, the third in the series about what will happen to ‘me’ after “I” die, I want to suggest that our conception of our selves, especially our idea that we are beings composed of mind, body and soul, is socially-constructed. In a sense though, it matters not where these ideas come from if they have a real impact on my life.

By way of an example, if I have a stroke, for instance, I may attribute it to a curse put upon me by a disgruntled recently past relative for a purported wrong that I did him. However, it’s far more likely that my stroke was brought on by a busted artery in my brain. Nonetheless, the stroke and its consequences are what they are never mind their provenance. Durkheim stated that no religion is false. By that he meant that, in my example above, the stroke is real no matter where and how we think it originated. A more contemporary sociologist who wrote extensively on religion, Peter Berger, argues that much of what we call religious behaviour and even religious thinking and hypothesizing cannot be understood by deduction or reduction. He proposes that we use induction to figure out the ‘reality’ of religious experience, that we start with how we feel and experience in real terms, in our living beings, and acknowledge those feelings as real before we attempt any kind of explanation of them. This kind of fits with Unamuno’s views, although Berger is much more prosaic than Unamuno the poet-philosopher.

The provenance of the ‘soul’ is interesting and there is much speculation about it as originating in our dreams, for instance, or during hallucinogenic experiences, but once a belief in the ‘soul’ is socially established it, it has real world consequences.

Today, I intended to address the work of Emile Durkheim and Ernest Becker with maybe a little Max Weber, Karl Marx and Norbert Elias thrown in for good measure but I’ve decided not to do that in any formal sense. I have come to accept the futility of trying to summarize very complex arguments from a number of writers and how they interconnect at least in a relatively short blog post. I’m not here to convince you that I’m right anyways.

That said, all the above characters were sociologists except for Ernest Becker and he would definitely qualify as an honorary sociologist. They all conclude that religion and all ideas concerning souls, demons, angels, gods, and various other supernatural beings originate in society (i.e., in the family, school, church, law courts, governments, etcetera) defined very broadly. However, whatever their origin, religious, metaphysical ideas have real world consequences according to these guys. That’s clear.

Before getting any further into this post, I want to tell you a little story. You might be shocked to learn that I wasn’t always the model son. Sometimes I could be downright annoying and troublesome for my mom, and she didn’t deserve any bullshit from me. But she got some anyway. I remember one time (of several) when I was particularly obnoxious and teased my poor mom relentlessly.

I said to my mom: “Ma, if you had been abandoned on a desert island as a baby and were raised by monkeys, would you still be the same person you are now.”

“Yes,” she says, “of course.”

I retorted: “But what language would you talk? Would you talk monkey talk? What things would you believe? Would you believe in God?”

She replied something along these lines: “I would believe in God and I’d be the same person I am today. I don’t know any other languages besides French and English and why would I believe anything different than I do now?”

That was my mom. She wasn’t stupid by any measure, but she was ignorant in many ways mostly because she was busy raising a pack of kids and she was way too tired to be very curious and she couldn’t read metaphysics. By her answers to my questions she demonstrated a naïveté that ran deep but that allowed her to live her life in relative contentment. If my mom was ignorant in some ways, she was very knowledgeable in others. She raised tons of children, made bread like a pro and was a dedicated member of her church (although she didn’t know much about Catholic theology beyond what was in the Sunday missal). Later in her life she took up woodworking and was good at it, that is until my dad decided to sell the house and the shop from under her. After that, she fell into dementia and never recovered. I think she lost her appetite for life at that point. I loved my mom, I really did, and I regret teasing her. That’s one of my big regrets in life.

So, what was it about my mother’s responses that is significant for me here? I guess I was shocked by her very strange idea of her personhood and her unstated notion that ‘she’ was an unchanging, unchangeable being regardless of her surroundings and upbringing. It’s plain to me and I expect to most people that everything we know we’ve learned from others, either directly from other people in our homes, schools, churches, and from books or from any number of other sources. Of course, that includes any kind of ‘spiritual’ ideas we may have as well as our sense of immortality. Elias argues that we are not the individualists we think we are. He says humans are really interdependencies and interweavings. No human ever stands alone given the richness of the sources of our ‘selves’. The language(s) we speak, our gender, our cognitive skills, intelligences, values, religious/spiritual beliefs, etcetera are all learned, that is, socially derived.

It’s clear to me that my mother denied the influence of any possible ‘foreign’ source of her personhood. Obviously, there is no way my mother could know of her Catholic God if she was raised by monkeys on a desert island. The concept of God, like of language, and table manners is learned. How would my mom learn about the Catholic God? Many societies have concepts of God or gods or some such supernatural beings. There are hundreds (and there have been thousands) of religions on the planet, each with its own unique conception of immortality and supernatural beings (if they conceive of any). Babies born into those societies learn the rules and values of their specific communities. Why would my mother not realize that her position was untenable? I would suggest that her commitment to her beliefs outweighed any sense she might have had about the logical inconsistency of her position. She was like a Trump supporter in that sense. She may have been yanking my chain, but I doubt it.

Which god do you worship (if any)? Well, if you do still worship a god, probably the one your parents do (or did). These days, however, there is a movement towards more individualistic, personal forms of spirituality, a trend which fits in nicely with capitalist morality, individualism and consumerism while allowing people to retain a belief in the immortality of the ‘soul.’ It’s also true that significant numbers of people are now defaulting to atheism or agnosticism in greater numbers than ever before, a movement also compatible with capitalist morality. There is still a great deal of intergenerational retention going on today even if there are obvious exceptions. So the frontier mentality of rugged individualism and fending for yourself is still a thing in the Twenty-first Century. Of course, as individuals, we can be creative, and come up with new ideas and ways of doing things but we always do so using materials, processes and relationships that already exist. How else could it happen?

The truth is, we, none of us, can conceive of anything absolutely new under the sun. Everything we invent, think about, or imagine has roots in our interactions and interdependencies with other people via our social relations, past and present. The present is always built on the past. Inventions are generally new conceptions of how to use and combine already existing technologies or ideas. That means that new religious denominations or churches are invariably modifications on past ones. How many variations on Christianity are there? Lots…I haven’t counted them. Which one is the ‘true’ variant?

As I note above, one perspective all the writers and thinkers I mention above have in common is that they all agree that religion and our ideas of personhood originate in society as does the belief in immortality. Durkheim, for example, argues that the concept of God is actually a personification of society, a personification that can then be used to judge the behaviour of adherents still living. Elias in his book What is Sociology? builds a conception of individual/societal interaction by using a metaphor of a card game. In his metaphor, a card game is happening with four or five players. The game has rules, of course, to which all players must adhere. Then, one person decides to leave the game and another person joins in. That change of players does not affect the game, nor the rules. The new player must adhere to the rules like the drop-out did. The game is a metaphor for society. We are born into society, learn all the rules, then leave (die). Society goes on. The game goes on. Society, seen from this perspective, is supra-human. It exists above and independently of any individual yet has control over all individuals and circumscribes the parameters of possible ideas and decisions individuals can make. No wonder we come to think of it as divine.

Because society is supra-human and veritably invisible to most people, it’s not a stretch to understand why people ascribe to it a supernatural existence disconnected from their individual lives. Because it IS disconnected to their individual lives in a real sense. As Elias would say, the game goes on no matter what individuals do as players. To which Durkheim would add: the individual ‘soul’ is in the game but is actually a piece of the collective, social SOUL. Therein lies our idea of its immortality. Society exists before us and after us. It’s virtually immortal. Our souls are immortal because they are a piece of the greater social SOUL.

Durkheim defines religion as: “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (from Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912) For Durkheim, sacred things are by definition social things and the sacredness of things can change with changing social conditions.

Ernest Becker goes much further than Durkheim when he argues that culture as a whole is sacred. For Becker there is no distinction between profane and sacred. It’s culture as a whole that promises people immortality. In fact, he argues that “Each society is a hero system that promises victory over evil and death.” (from Escape From Evil, 1975, page 124)* Of course, no society can promise such a thing. Becker writes:

But no mortal, nor even a group of as many as 700 million clean, revolutionary mortals, [in reference to China] can keep such a promise, no matter how loudly or how artfully he protests or they protest, it is not within man’s means to triumph over evil and death. For secular societies the thing is ridiculous: what can “victory” mean secularly? And for religious societies victory is part of a blind and trusting belief in another dimension of reality. Each historical society, then, is a hopeful mystification or a determined lie. (EFE, page 124)

Marx would have agreed with Becker here but he concluded that religion was the opium of the people, a salve to soothe the savage treatment that most people received under capitalism (as one might find depicted by Charles Dickens.) He found that religious beliefs were instrumental in mollifying the masses and having them accept class inequality under capitalism. Weber also recognized the class basis of religion although his definition of class was not the same as Marx’s. Weber, in his Sociology of Religion, addresses the early rise of religious behaviour in human interaction with drastic natural events like floods, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, etcetera, the ‘soul’ in its various iterations and manifestations, and ritual. He argues that the forms of gods varies depending on natural and social conditions.

In conclusion, I just want to re-emphasize the notion that according to the sociologists I mention here as well as countless other sociologists and social scientists I don’t mention, ‘society’ is the source of our beliefs about the immortality of our person by way of our ‘souls.’ There is no ‘supernatural’ teacher that teaches us our values around immortality, and any ideas we have around these notions come from notions already just laying about out there waiting to be picked up and incorporated into our world view. In other words, our ideas around the immortality of the ‘soul’ do not result from perceived connection to an immortal God or gods, but from the immortality of society.

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*There is no substitute for reading Becker because his argument forms a cohesive whole. Pulling a quote out of his book, although provocative, is probably not helpful although I do it. I can’t help myself. If it spurs people to go read Escape From Evil so be it. Many of my early posts on this blog constitute a review of EFE. That would be a place for you to start in trying to understand his work. Just type Becker in the search box in my blog and you’ll find the relevant posts all numbered and everything or you can start here: https://rogerjgalbert.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php?post_type=post&jetpack-copy=874. You can then work your way through the archives on my blog site.

Durkheim (Elementary Forms of Religious Life) and Weber (The Sociology of Religion) both have sections of their books on the soul. Do a bit of research if you’re curious. Dr. Google is full of stuff on these guys and I’ve got all the books for local people to borrow if you’re interested. Elias is great. His book The Civilizing Process is well worth the read.

Today I write about pain.

Before I do that, however, I want you all to feel free to contact me. If you have problems with privacy i.e., you don’t want your comments to appear in public, please let me know when you post comments, or pm me on Messenger or you can email me at rogalb@shaw.ca.

Things can change very quickly these days and positive things do happen! Oh, I still have myeloma and I started chemo yesterday. That seems fine. The pain in my neck has attenuated too. Who knows why. I can feel it lurking around my cervical spine, but for now it’s keeping a respectful distance. I can actually type and stay relatively focussed. I pay for that by not taking as much hydromorphone. AND my kidney is back to normal…for an old guy like me anyway and that’s very good news. I was thinking I may need a wheelchair to get around and we were making arrangements for that, but for the moment, I’m good. I’m feeling okay at the moment, ten times better than I felt two days ago, but that’s how it goes with chronic pain. Things can easily go back to shitty in a flash. Of course I know that I’m an old guy with cancer and I can see the exit door over there just beyond the bright white light, but I can’t see the handle yet, so I think I have some time. Besides, I can put that to the back of my mind. It doesn’t help at all to focus on things I can’t inevitably change and stick to the things that can get me, and others, better quality of life now and for the near future.

So, pain. My last blog post was about Carolyn’s experiences at the Emergency Department here in Courtenay. My penultimate posts were about my visit to the oncologist in Victoria and my subsequent disastrous ER visit the following day. I sit here somewhat unable to piece together accurately in sequence what happened to me since last Wednesday. Truth is I’ve seen two specialists since then, have had a ct scan with another one scheduled for tomorrow which showed that I have severe disk degeneration in my neck that is, along with arthritis, creating the pain vortex in my neck. My neck pain has been a roller coaster of severity. I have a neck brace that helps with that too as you can see from the photo below. Hi!

My office

Now, this is where it gets interesting because my oncologist tells me that my neck pain has nothing to do with my myeloma. It has everything to do with my disk degeneration and arthritis. So, I ask: does the myeloma contribute at all to pain in my body? Of course it does, comes the answer. It attacks your bones. The ct scan did not find the right kinds of lesions on my cervical spine, so they were not the source of my neck pain. Well, okay. I guess I can go along with the argument that my nasty bulging disks are responsible. I mean I had surgery on my lower back decades ago to alleviate a ruptured disk problem so I’m familiar with that. Still, recently I’ve had over the top thoracic skeletal pain which really was caused by my myeloma so whatever. I’m getting a ct scan tomorrow to check that out among other things.

So, what I’ve been able to piece together through moments of excruciating pain and hallucinating sedation, is that the pain I’m experiencing the most severely seems to be concentrated in the bony/connective parts of my body that had already suffered trauma. I’m thinking specifically of the area on my left thorax where my kidney as removed, the lower back cervical area where I had a disk removed, the left heel where I had planers fasciitis, that sort of thing. My neck too and my shoulders where I had rotator cuff tears, both sides due to falls and long term overuse issues.

I started asking this question to whoever would listen: is there an association between myeloma and increased intensity of pain in areas of previous bone trauma? Answer: I don’t think so, but probably not. Question: Do you know of any research between myeloma and where it affects the body most? Answer: Not that I know of. I had a chat with my daughters about this. They’re no slouches when it comes to research: One of them works in the field of non-profit housing and the other in biomedical research. They are my truly trusted experts. But, I have access to a lot of material too because I’m still associated with North Island College as emeritus and have library privileges.

Okay, that still leaves me dealing with my own experience of pain and those of others (read the comment by Tanya Wood based on my last post), some of whom have chosen to remain anonymous. I’m especially concerned with Emergency Departments and with receptionists (gatekeepers) in GP offices who, I know are just doing their jobs, but who, when I call to simply ask that can the doctor just tell me if I can increase my dosage of hydromorphone says: “Well, the doctor will have to see you for that” To which I answer: I can barely move. I have excruciating pain and can barely get out of my chair. Can he just tell me quickly about increasing my already existing prescription with pills I already have?” “Well, no, the doctor will have to see you.” So, I couldn’t take anymore of that and told her we’d get back to them. Later, Carolyn called and talked to someone else who said someone would be in touch. My doctor called me later in the day when he had done his patient visits for the day, something he as often done in the past and I knew he would do again. So, all day I was left figuring out how many more hydromorphone pills to take before overdosing. I’m not at all suicidal, so that’s a concern. I’ve known of many people who have died from accidental overdoses. I wasn’t about to be one of them, but my pain was so intense it was a good thing I wasn’t standing at a subway station waiting for a train anytime last week. I may just have acted compulsively and jumped onto the tracks. Of course that’s a little hyperbole, but that’s okay among friends, isn’t it?

I wrote to Tanya Wood (who’s husband, Darren, died a couple of years from complications resulting from a tragic accident) in response to her heart wrenching comment that ER departments are microcosms of our culture. They operate using the same moral assumptions as everyone else in society. We have deep-seating cultural aversions to death and disease. Most of those are built on our huge biological insecurities. I paraphrase here Ernest Becker who wrote something like: Disease takes away our ability to enjoy the pleasures of life and death does that permanently. He calls death and disease the twin pillars of evil for us. [You need to read some of my early posts to get a sense of how brilliant I feel Becker was.]

So, in a sense, I’m not surprised at the cavalier attitude most staff members have towards people coming into Emergency departments everywhere. Don’t get me wrong. There are some very dedicated and caring medical staff working in ERs doing a mostly thankless job which, I’m sure, can be extremely rewarding at times too but the system is stacked against them and they will, I’m certain, be looking for different work soon if they don’t toe the line. And, of course, as I’ve already noted in a previous post that pain is invisible so ER staff can’t just take your word for it. Not only that, but if you come in really agitated that you’re in extreme pain and need some meds now they may tag you as a troublemaker and make you wait all that much longer for help. There’s a big screen tv in the ER waiting room at the Royal Jubilee Hospital explaining in great detail why you must wait and why. There are signs saying no foul language or threats or whatever will be tolerated. There are security people everywhere dressed just like police. I wonder what they would do if somebody with Turette’s Syndrome came in following a car crash or, as is quite common, some people can’t utter a full sentence without ‘fuck’ in it at least once. These people may just suffer from undeveloped communicative skills but they are probably not dangerous. The message is clear: if you want treatment here you had better stay calm, cool, and collected. Of course, precautions must be taken, but I’m not sure that blanket prohibitions are the way to do it.

Pain, in our culture, is associated with weakness and most people are loathe to talk about it even to the point of not seeing a doctor because they’re embarrassed about the location of their pain or don’t want to admit weakness. Weakness of any kind is just not acceptable. Do you see any weak superheroes in the movies? Well, some of them show some slight or passing weaknesses but they always triumph over them in the glorious light of their super strength. That’s in the movies. In Diehard movies the hero falls off of an eighteen storey building onto the top of a moving van below, rolls of of that onto the sidewalk where he encounters villains walking towards him shooting up a storm with their AR-15s (or whatever), gets hit, falls through the open door of a bar, sidles up to the bartender and asks for a scotch on the rocks. The young, gorgeous, female bartender gives him his drink and comments on the two gaping bullet wounds on his shoulder. He respond in true superhero in training fashion: “These, nah, just flesh wounds.”

Real heroes are immune to pain it seems so if you really want to be a superhero, boys and girls, don’t complain about pain!

Pain doesn’t kill. It’s a sign that something organic is out of whack and needs attention. Failure to attend to pain often results in dire consequences for the patient but any complaint of pain is not treated initially by medical staff as an organic issue, but rather as a moral one. We are all assumed to be moral degenerates unless proven otherwise by the cognoscenti. Of course that’s not true in every case, but the underlying assumptions are always there. Overlying all of this too is the assumption that there is an acceptable amount of demonstration allowed with different levels of injury. So, for a broken leg, some amount of whimpering is allowed, and for the pain I went in with some moaning and groaning is okay, but only when there’s movement happening otherwise sitting quietly is what’s expected. In any case they have a scale of acceptable pain demonstration. Don’t mess up their expectations and assumptions. But as I said, our reaction to pain culturally is really screwed up so you’d have to think that in an ER that would be doubly evident. It’s not right but that’s the way it is. Is there anything we can do about it? Maybe, but it’s complicated and requires a lot of knowledge and challenges to authority. Authority does not like being challenged. That itself is a challenge since authority has all the lawyers it wants to line up against you, often using your money. But lets poke the beast a little and see if it demonstrate any signs of weakness or pain.

I’m not dead yet, and I’m coming for you, VIHA, and related government departments and agencies. You’re trying to get rid of pathology services entirely in the North Island and that’s a travesty. Some of you in the business may need to retake your Hippocratic oath. More on this later. I need to do more research to know exactly what the situation is, but when I’m ready you’ll know about it.

So, for now, I’ve seen my oncologist, my kidney specialist, my pathologist and now I need to have my beer specialist on my team. I won’t be going out to see him anytime soon, but I heard he might just deliver. Damn, there’s so much more to say!

One of my previous posts about disability and people in wheelchairs. It might be of interest after reading this post.

So much to write about: death, sex, stupidity, ignorance and all of the above together! Oh, and political economy too.

I have been fairly quiet on this blog lately. I got a cold brought to me by my grandson. I grudgingly have to say it was worth it because I saw my family in Vancouver, but I’m not a great fan of colds. I rarely get one, but when I do, it’s usually a doozy. They seem to trigger my immune disease too. Bacteria, viruses and whatnot are having a party in my arteries and veins. Sheesh. 

Anyway, I’m reading a few books at the moment, a couple on sexuality and one on universal myths around the birth of heroes in classical literature, including the bible. I’m a little slow reading right now. I tend to fall asleep after about 10 minutes, and reading in bed is a waste of time because I seem to forget most of what I’ve read by morning. Well, I do remember a lot, but not much detail. That’s fine. I can live with that. 

In any case, like I said, I have a list of topics I want to write about, but I’d sure like to hear from you about what topics you’d like me to address. If you’ve read any of my posts in the past you know that I’m all over the map. I’ve taught courses in introductory sociology, deviance, racism, love and sex, research methods, cultural and physical anthropology, Canadian history, Canadian Justice systems, study techniques, both basic and advanced. I’m an avid reader. I’ve done a lot of research in political economy, Marx, Veblen, Elias, Mills, psychoanalysis (Freud, Rank, Brown) , psychology, evolution, sexuality, nationalism, history, language, pain and mental ‘illness’, and classical studies including books on mythology, ideology, and heroism. Check out my archives. Anything you’d like me to explore further? 

I’ll tell you one thing. The post here that’s got the most hits by far is: Is Canada a Capitalist Country? Maybe I should comment on that issue a bit more. It’s one that is very difficult for people to figure out because it’s so difficult to break through the veil of ideology surrounding the relationship between nations (countries) and the capitalist modes of accumulation and production. Got any ideas?

My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 2: Teaching

If you read my last post you got some general idea of my life trajectory in broad terms. In this post I want to pay special attention to how and why I became a college instructor with a couple of side trips on scholarship and the philosophy of teaching. Many of my colleagues teaching at the college level get their first taste of teaching in high school. Not me. I never intended to teach in high school. Something about high school teaching appealed to me, but I wasn’t interested in going to university in the Education faculty for a year of professional development which would have allowed me to teach in BC high schools. So, what was my alternative? It was going straight from university into college teaching. University faculty don’t need professional development, or so they have insisted for decades. Theoretically, aspiring university teachers learn the teaching craft by watching and emulating their professors. I always though that was a bit strange because of the variability of skill exhibited by faculty. Still, working as a teaching assistant was a form of preparation for eventually taking over the big job. Frankly though, I got a job teaching on a sessional basis at Douglas College as I entered graduate school so I had no real previous experience teaching or managing a classroom. I learned by doing what my colleagues were doing but I also learned from books, lots of them. I questioned everything about teaching, including the setting, the materials, the psychological, sociological, political, and economic assumptions, the goals and the means.

As a student of the social sciences I was already prepped for a critical stance with regard to what I was doing. The time was the mid to late 1970s. I graduated with a B.A. in 1975 and went on to study for my Master’s degree in 1976 after I was recruited by the Sociology and Anthropology Department at SFU to be a teaching assistant. We needed the money, so it was a no-brainer. I was definitely cocky enough to believe that I could pull it off and I think I was pretty good at it. Academia suited me to a T. At the same time, most of the colleges in BC were either in their infancy or about to be built. Most of them were begging for teaching staff. One of my former teachers at Douglas College asked me if I would consider teaching there. I only had a B.A. but was in a grad program and that was enough for them. I started then on a 5 year stint as a sessional faculty member at SFU, Douglas College and eventually Kwantlen College before moving to the Comox Valley in 1983 to teach at North Island College (NIC), although at NIC we were called tutors and not instructors. The college started as a distance education organization which worked closely with Athabasca University to provide university-level courses to people in the northern half of Vancouver Island. Eventually it morphed into a regular college and by 1992 had pretty much made to transformation completely. I worked at NIC until 2012, the year I retired. Now, reading back on the words I have just written I can assure you that I’ve only provided you with some of the backbone events and circumstances that make up my story as a teacher. The reality is much more nuanced and complex. Teaching is all about human relations and love. Yes, love*.

Going to university as an undergraduate was a fairly new thing for someone of my class background. SFU, and the newly named University of Victoria, were a new kind of university set up to train a much needed workforce in a new world of work that demanded a higher education than ever before. The BC college system came into existence around the same time and for the same reasons.

Social roots and standard teen silliness

Coming from a basically working class family with hints of an agrarian past, I had no expectations of going to university. Initially I worked in lumber mills and at odd jobs here and there, jobs that were easy to come by at the time. I was not a particularly stellar kid and for a time hung around my brother-in-law’s used car lots. I tried selling used cars but I just didn’t have it in me. I was wracked with indecision, bounced around from job to job, smoked and drank way too much. I was like a lot of my peers. Because we’re raised to think of ourselves as quintessentially individual, I though the world revolved around my belly button and had no idea about what anyone else was doing, nor did I care. Eventually, as I got older and worked my way slowly, painfully, and hesitatingly out of my teens and into my twenties, my interests changed as did my attitude and behaviour. I got involved with a French-Canadian organization and found in that group a mentor, Roméo Paquette, who helped me understand my potential and encouraged me to get more involved. I had a lot to learn if I was going to go to university and much of my interest started with my French-Canadian connections. At that time I also struggled with by Catholic upbringing. It wasn’t easy. For some time I had ceased to believe in the teachings of the Church and I had an increasingly clearer and clearer appreciation of evolutionary theory. Church teachings just didn’t make sense to me any longer especially in the light of science. Still, I loved my parents and I knew that my newfound perspective on the world was something they could not understand or accept. It’s strange in a way. My parents were very proud of me and my academic career yet they were never able to relate to my life in the least. Their faith in the Church was what sustained them and they could not understand anyone abandoning that faith. They prayed for me. For me, a break from Catholicism was inevitable. I haven’t looked back since.

Back to 1971

I spent 18 months at Douglas College as a student, then transferred to SFU in 1973, the year we got married. By 1976 I had gotten a BA. Carolyn and I decided it would be fun to travel a bit and we did. We packed up our car and a travel trailer, stayed with my sister in 100 Mile House for a bit, found out Carolyn was pregnant, then moved on to Edmonton easily finding jobs. Our intention had been to make it to Ottawa so I might find work, but our plans changed with the pregnancy and we moved back home to BC. I happened to go to SFU upon my return and was offered a job as a teaching assistant. That clinched it for me. As I started work as a teaching assistant the faculty just assumed that I would enter grad school there so I did. I studied at SFU until 1980, got my MA and decided to apply to the grad program at the University of BC. I studied at UBC for a couple of years on a PhD, but couldn’t keep it up because I needed to work and help raise a family. Still, that was my introduction to teaching. I sort of fell into it. I readily took to teaching. I loved it. In 1983 I got a job at NIC as I already noted. That job lasted 29 years.

Scholarship

Of course, teaching was only a part of what I was up to at the time. I did graduate work and settled on a dissertation about Harold Adams Innis’ work. Innis was a well-known but entirely misunderstood scholar teaching at the University of Toronto until his untimely death in 1952. My dissertation was an attempt to set the record straight on Innis. I don’t think it had much of an impart on scholarship but it got me my M.A. Working in my dissertation I had to deal with my previous studies of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, etc., but a new scholar entered my life at that time. I discovered him through Innis. His name is Thorstein Veblen. He was born who knows when but he definitely died in 1929. His work blew me away and laid the groundwork for much of my later research. His influence on me was closely followed by Ernest Becker and a panoply of scholars associated with his work including Marx, Freud, Rank and many others. The archives of this blog are filled with references to their work.  Later, I read Norbert Elias and was immediately struck by the lucidity and strength of his analysis about the relationship of the individual to society. For Elias we are interdependencies and interweavings and it’s barely logical to speak of individuals unless the immediate qualification is that we are essentially social.  All of that time, I also read voraciously authors like the French social historian Fernand Braudel, the economists David Ricardo, Adam Smith, iconoclastic psychiatrists like R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz. I’ve never stopped reading. I must say, though, that there has been a consistent thread running through my reading and that’s been the rise and fall of empires and the globalization of capital. My library at home is replete with books on the nation-state, revolution, European history, ideology, and capitalist expansion.

Of course, if you took a tour of my library you’d figure out quickly enough that the above hardly scratches the surface. The scholars I mention above are but the high points on my literary landscape. The meadows and valleys are filled with books on Canadian history, religion, philosophy, language (semiotics and pragmatics), sexuality, ethnography, evolution, biology, psychoanalysis, and art. Now, my attention has also turned to YouTube and other digital formats. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, a neuroscientist, has a series of lectures on YouTube that are brilliant to say the least. To a non-expert, they explain clearly the social class basis of stress not only in olive baboons on the African savannah, but also in Whitehall, the seat of British government bureaucracy.

The above is not a trip through my intellectual story, but it does provide a scaffolding for more interesting backstory commentary. Neither is this a place for a wander through my intellectual trajectory. I suppose I have to get down and write that sometime for me, if anything. The archives here contain a lot of insight into my worldview, but it’s not condensed and focussed. That condensation and focus really defines a retrospective for me. I can do that. What I hope you will get from this is some appreciation of the time and effort it takes to put together the worldview I have. It’s unique and idiosyncratic. You could never duplicate it. Parts of it are accessible to all, but not the whole thing. There are just too many elements to it, too many connecting strands that I alone have experienced. That makes it infernally difficult to share. I will try.

 

*Love is a word that begs definition. Maybe in a future blog post.

 

Becker and Feminism – Ernest Becker Foundation

Source: Becker and Feminism – Ernest Becker Foundation

The link above is to a piece published by the Ernest Becker Foundation and answers a lot of questions I’ve had about the absence of a women’s perspective in Becker’s work. It’s a fitting end to the series on misogyny that I’ve published here over the last few posts.

This is really worth the read.

 

 

Misogyny: What the Hell? Okay, Let’s Do This.

So, I’ve been putting off writing this post. The reason is that I’ve been reading, reading, and reading some more. There are hundreds if not thousands of books on misogyny and countless more scholarly articles, never mind the (probably) millions of newspaper, magazine, websites, blogs, and other sources I can’t think of right now, that try to understand misogyny or point out it’s catastrophic consequences especially for women, but also for all of us. And there are original sources to be evaluated including religious texts, philosophical works, and ethnographies. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the literature in reading and teaching a course on love and sex, but there are themes that re-occur again and again so it’s not necessary to read every piece of writing on the topic. What I have read is depressing enough.

I want to say that I have no intention of offending anyone by writing these words today, but some people will inevitably take exception. That I cannot control. Like Copernicus, Galileo, and the more contemporary Charles Darwin (although I’m not in the same category of eminence as they are), I must write what I see as the truth based on decades of study and reflection. That said, let’s do this.

As I wrote in my last post, misogyny started when the animal became the human. Of course, we’ve always been animals, subject to all the vagaries and uncertainties that that entails including the challenges associated with survival, including getting enough to eat and drink, protecting ourselves from threats (floods, droughts, volcanoes, rock slides, predators etc.,) as well as replenishing the species by making babies. However, when we evolved sufficiently to become self-aware, which took millions of years, we were able, with our now bigger brains, to try to deny that we were ever animals in the first place. Or rather, we didn’t specifically deny our animality, we just tamed it by making it subject to control by our ‘self’.

Language has long fascinated me and there is plenty of evidence in our languages of the attempted denial or taming of our animality. If I say to you: “My body is really sore from that workout yesterday,” to what does the ‘my’  in that sentence refer? What is it that can claim ownership of the body? This linguistic turn had profound impacts on humanity long before English evolved. Virtually everywhere I look in the anthropological ethnographic literature, we’ve determined that ‘we’ are in fact not just our bodies, but ‘we’ are much more than that. We’ve managed to convince ourselves via our dreams (awake and asleep), our growing imaginations and probably through trances brought on by drugs, dancing or fasting) that we must be a very special animal indeed. This process led Ernest Becker to argue that it’s our ingenuity and not our animality that “has given [our] fellow creatures such a bitter earthly fate.” (EFE, p.5) As we developed selfhood and  our brains grew bigger and more capable, we convinced ourselves through ritual that we were able to control heaven and earth. We invented rituals and projects like the zodiac to convince ourselves that the heavens were in constant intimate relations with us and we read chicken entrails and runes to determine how we might control natural forces that threatened us. We created culture to oppose nature, as Becker argues, and our cultures are more or less elaborate and sophisticated projects to deny our animality and, consequently, our death.

We always knew that animals died and we were not oblivious to the fact that we all eventually meet the same fate. What to do? Oh, what to do? Well, the ‘forces of nature’ were always overwhelming and difficult to handle but we determined that if we pursued the right rituals, we could affect the course of our lives and of nature. We began to bargain with the forces of nature. “You back off and give us good crops and we’ll sacrifice a bunch of sheep to you. Sound fair?” But the forces of nature (gods) were never satisfied and needed constant reassurance that we would feed them. Kingship developed as a way of having a god present at all times to take our gifts and keep us safe. We, however, the weak, vulnerable species that we are also needed constant reminders that we mattered and that the gods were paying attention and were on our side. So, we split our societies into ‘moieties’ or (literally) halves so that we might have someone to compete against to show the gods how worthy we were. That process is still extant in modern society. We tirelessly set up competitions to prove our worth, our value and we do it most frequently for the glory of our God (gods) or, now, our secular god, our country, that institution that ensures us survival beyond our animal lives. Religion has always promised us eternal life. Why else would it exist? Thousands of religions over the course of history have given people thousands of ways of gaining eternal life. Problem is, in a competitive world, if my way to eternal life promised by my religion is the right way, your’s cannot be. Sorry about that.

Now comes the part where the most momentous invention ever to come from the human species was wrought. That’s the notion that if our bodies are mortal, then the only thing we can do is deny them their due. Because we were now connected to the forces of nature we could pretend that we had an inside track on immortality. Gods were immaterial and immortal, we could be too. If we performed the rituals just the right way, we could ensure our eternal survival. Our rituals became increasingly aimed at chastising the flesh, piling corpses upon corpses to assuage the gods. We needed to put emphasis on our selves, our souls, that immaterial aspect of ourselves that would not die if we performed the proper rituals at the proper time. Our bodies became our enemies. The body became associated with death, the spirit with life. Norman O. Brown states that in fact, the earth is the devil’s domain. Disease and death became the twin pillars of evil for us. Life on this earth was transitory, just a preparation for the immortality we could achieve upon our corporal death if we lived right, did the right things. Our denial of death led to our denial of our bodies and our lives. So, in order to live eternally, we were prepared not to live fully in our animality.

So, why do we associate faeces with dirt? Why must we avoid getting dirty? “We read that the men of the Chagga tribe wear an anal plug all their lives, pretending to seal up the anus and not to need to defecate…The body cannot be allowed to have the ascendency over him.” (Becker, The Denial of Death, p. 32) The Chagga men’s denial is our denial. In another post, I address this fact more fully, but for now, what of women?

Well, women were never the primary class of people who presided over ritual. They were much too busy having babies and being domestic. The first class divide then is between men and women, a mostly natural divide to start with, but with time, the most important class divide was between most men and the priestly class. Women need not apply. Not then, not now. (Yes, you can contest this point if you want.)

In fact, for men, their bodies are traitors to them because of their animal nature, their death instinct. When men and the priestly class came to dominate human societies, women were increasingly seen as the epitome of animality. Men ‘othered’ women for their sexuality, their attractiveness to men, for dragging men into a depraved and animal world. Sex became dirty unless it was sanctioned by the priestly class using the proper rituals. Sexual attraction had to be denied at all costs so that it couldn’t infect men’s spirits, their souls. Problem is, of course, we are a species that reproduces sexually so there was a need for a massive investment in ritual to ‘cleanse’ women especially during menstruation and in the regulation of the female being, of the female world which by it’s very nature condemned men to death. Sins of the flesh are a great way to eventually find yourself in hell. (Of course, things are changing and I’ll deal with that too in another post.) Dante’s hell isn’t as present as it used to be in Abrahamic consciousness but we have other ‘hells’ to replace it.

Enough for today. I will follow this set of blog posts with a list of the materials I used in researching this topic, at least the most important ones.

Without getting into too many specifics, my next post is about how women have been treated throughout history and labelled unclean and a threat to men’s ascension to eternal life. For that we need to visit the Old Testament, especially Leviticus, but other sources as well, including Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and others partly through Jack Holland’s work, but also through many others including Ernest Becker, Norman O. Brown, Otto Rank, Umberto Eco, Uta Ranke-Heinemann and Carol F. Karlsen. Simone de Beauvoir also figures prominently here.

 

 

Misogyny: What the Hell?

On this International Women’s Day, it’s a good time to introduce my next series of blog posts. I don’t intend these short posts to exhaustively cover the topic, but to serve as an introduction and to stimulate discussion and dialogue. In a future post I’ll explain the title above. Much of the significance of this post and those that follow on this topic is summarized in the title.

I’ve scanned a significant sample of the anthropological, historical, sociological, philosophical and theological literature and I’ve done so over decades and there is this stark truth that consistency reveals itself therein: There is no time in history that I can uncover when women were not treated as inferior to men. There is no time, nor place. Oh, there have been matrilineal, matrilocal, and matrifocal societies, but no matriarchal ones, nor have there been ones where women and men have shared power equally other than in Marx and Engels’ concept of primitive communism wherein women had supremacy over domestic life and men over social life, hunting and defence. If it did exist, it didn’t last long.

In response to the pervasiveness of this uneven relationship between men and women, some people might argue (and have they ever) that women are naturally inferior to men and should just accept their place in creation. In fact, this notion has dominated many treatises on the nature of humanity over history. It’s probably more common, even today, than some of us would like to admit.

I reject this notion out of hand, of course, because it’s patently false and the evidence is before our eyes every day. Constitutionally, women are not inferior to men any more than poor people are inferior to rich ones. Differences between the sexes exist of course but they are not grounds for discrimination or prejudice. As Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex, women have been ‘othered’ not because of any inherent weakness, but because of what they represent to men.

Women have inordinately suffered at the hands of men in history, of that there is no doubt, but many men would argue that women have inflicted their share of suffering onto men too. I’ve known some men who have expressed a profound hatred of women. They seldom can give reasons other than that they were treated unfairly, taken advantage of, abused and rejected. Still, it’s rare to read that a woman has killed her husband or partner during outbursts of domestic violence, while it’s common to read of men killing their wives or partners in the same situations. Men kill women much more frequently than women kill men.

However, for this blog post, I’m not primarily interested in exploring the individual, idiosyncratic expression of misogyny. Rather, I want to explore misogyny as an ideology of very deep-seated human institutional experience, experience that rules our lives as humans of whatever sex and determines to a large extent how we relate to one another in groups throughout history.

Misogyny is defined, for the purposes of this post, as a systemic, overarching and deleterious characteristic of human relations. It divides us. It denies us. It obviously has consequences for all individuals. None of us can escape it’s reach. Women can even be as misogynistic as men (for reasons I will explore later). Men who resist misogyny have a tough go of it because it reaches into every pore or our cultures. It will not be ignored. Still, for humanity to enter a new phase of history, one not characterized by brutality and ignorance, misogyny will have to give way. In the next few thousand words, I explore why that’s the case.

From the time the animal became the human, women have been paying dearly for our flight from death and our longing for immortality. This idea is from Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death, but it is repeated by other authors in various publications. It’s not often stated in these terms and some explanation of what Brown means here is necessary. Strangely, women are seldom included explicitly in analyses of the human condition and the statement by Brown above is unusual. For Brown, to be human means to be an animal that knows death in a way that no other animal does. Of course animals have a fear of death, that’s very easy to ascertain from simple observation, but animals, unlike humans, don’t make a fetish of it. If they face death as in a predator bearing down on them with intent to kill, they experience fear and flee. If they survive, it takes them very little time to go back to their routine life and the threat to their life is forgotten. Not us humans. No, we carry that fear around, relive it, dream about it, let our imaginations expand on its every detail and we, above all, need to explain it. So far, we haven’t done a great job explaining it. Instead, we’ve spent a great deal of our collective energy denying it, ‘it’ here meaning the death that inevitably catches up to each and every one of us and we’ve been very creative in our denials.

So, at the moment (maybe it took thousands of years) when our ancestors finally ‘became human’ and became self conscious, they realized that their wonderful tummies and the amazing sensations that they felt could not possibly come to an abrupt end. They faced danger on many fronts from predators, natural disasters, feuds and illnesses. They found their loved ones crushed by boulders during a landslide or drowned during a flood. Their bodies were obviously their weakness. They needed a way of transcending their main weakness, their bodies, to convince themselves that they, in fact, did not die although their bodies obviously did. Oh, their bodies might be toast, but not ‘them.’ So they set about creating any number of fantastical immortality-projects to convince themselves that even if their bodies rotted away that ‘they’ would not because they were not just their bodies, not even essentially their bodies, that they had within themselves an immaterial self that survived the end of their bodies. The anthropological literature is replete with descriptions of the incredible number and richness of ways in which peoples have imagined their immaterial selves. These imagined selves are the Yanomamo hekuru and our common variety soul. “Sure, body, you go ahead and rot. I’ll be around forever though. I don’t need you.”

So, what this leads to is essentially and inevitably the systematic cultural denial of the body. As Becker says in Escape From Evil, disease and death are the twin pillars of evil for us. Disease prevents us from enjoying life fully and death cuts it off permanently. Now, that’s no fun.

But what of women in all of this? Well, I’ll get to that in my next post. Suffice it to say here that a major part of our bodily lives is our sexual lives, procreative or not. For men who want to emphasize their immaterial, immortal selves, sex represents a big problem for them. It’s all about body, the great traitor to our immortality strivings. Men could eventually convince themselves that women were essentially body but that they were essentially soul. Now what are the consequences of that?

 

 

On my way to my Misogyny post: A Note

So, I’ve been reading tons in preparation for writing my post on the roots of misogyny. One thing I’ve done is re-read for the 20th time, I’m sure, Ernest Becker’s Escape from Evil. I have also re-read his Denial of Death again. This time, I read them with a different eye. I was looking specifically for a direct mention of women, or rather of how a woman might experience the creation of immortality-projects and such things. Actually, I found precious little, and it was disappointing.

In terms of bartering with the gods and creating institutions that are there to deny death and promise immortality, women are nowhere to be seen. Men are the priests, men are the leaders, men are everywhere. Women are nowhere. Granted, it’s complicated and to a large extent men took the bulk of the power in society and have since the beginning as best we can guess, although there is some interesting speculation otherwise.

To me, the interesting question is this: in a species that reproduces sexually, both male and female are required to make babies. There is no inherent reason why males should have all the social power and women have so little. So, why and how did men ever get and hold so much social power? That is the question I will address in my next post. There’s no way I can answer it definitively, but I can make an educated stab at it using all the power of research that I can muster. By the way, I’m not suggesting that women are powerless. In fact, in some ways, women are more powerful than men. It is in the realm of the spiritual and in terms of the creation and sustenance of immortality projects that my interests lie. Many women have written about the inferior status of women. I will address some of their thoughts in upcoming posts.

Another disappointment for me in re-reading Becker, something I hadn’t really paid enough attention to before is his insistence that our immortality projects are now secular. According to him, we’ve moved beyond the magic and promises of religion but our new ‘gods’, money and the nation-state cannot promise us immortality. That is a basic lie although they don’t hesitate in pushing that idea. Nation-states have sold themselves as important sources of meaning in our lives, meaning that seems to be worth dying for given the evidence from the carnage of the wars of the 20th Century. Max Weber, the German sociologist, argued that we live in a demystified world. I think that magical thinking is still very powerful in the world today. We are terrified of death and are willing to attach ourselves to whatever scheme we find plausible enough to lead the way into immortality. In many instances, those schemes are passed down through the generations, but new schemes pop up all the time outside of family and often in opposition to traditional familial values.

 

What’s So Scary About Women? Introduction

In my last few blog posts I promised I would tackle a most difficult topic and that’s the misogyny embedded in many of our institutions. Well, that’s what I will do over the next few blog posts.

I’ve always liked to try to figure out how things work. When I was a kid I used to dissect and disassemble things all the time. I was forever curious about how things were made, especially mechanical things. Taking them apart was not usually too much of a problem, but to my father’s dismay, putting them back together was sometimes not so easy. My favourite targets were toys and motors but clocks really topped the list. As I got older and went away to a Catholic boarding school in Edmonton for high school, I still had a live curiosity but the priests were not too keen on seeing things taken apart and strewn here and there on campus. They were especially protective of the lab equipment. Looking back on it, I remember also having a keen interest in why people did things the way they did them. I had a hard time making sense of what I came to know as institutions (crystallized habits of thought and life). And, of course, figuring out why I had a penis and my sisters didn’t was top of mind. That said, I would never have dared, after turning 4, to bring up such a subject at dinner time. The disapproval would have been swift and sometimes mildly violent. I felt very early on that certain subjects were absolutely taboo. Still, lots of sniggering went on because we children weren’t yet completely indoctrinated. Of course, we learned a few anatomical things by playing doctor but it wasn’t easy to figure out the moral issues involved. The questions definitely outnumbered the answers in my first two decades of life on earth.

In my early twenties, after a serious sawmill accident, I had back surgery and wondered what to do next. Well, I went a little crazy for a while, smashed up a few cars, got drunk and stoned frequently but I had a couple of mentors that made a huge difference in my life. They prompted me to go to university. I applied to Simon Fraser University (SFU), but was rejected because my grades in high school were lousy so I attended Douglas College in New Westminster for two years, got an A average, had some great teachers and decided at that time to study sociology. On I went to SFU. That time of my life was super exciting and difficult too because of money, to be certain, but also because of sex. I couldn’t seem to get enough of it and too much of my energy went into pursuing it or worrying about not getting any. The sex drive for me was very powerful. It’s hard to concentrate under these conditions. I was clumsy and ridiculous like most of my friends and acquaintances around the subject of sex, but this was the early seventies for god’s sake. We would have been into some promiscuity and there was definitely some loosening of mores but we were mostly unsatisfied. But when all else failed, we always had some beer and weed to make us feel better. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about sex and women. I should now say sorry to all the women I was a dickhead to in those days. It wasn’t me, it was my gonads. Now that I’m 71 that drive, thankfully, is largely attenuated. Frankly, I don’t know how most of us get through our teen years. Our bodies are yelling at us YES and our damned superegos are blocking our genital paths to glory. Oh well, such is life. Eventually, I met Carolyn and that was that. We fit together nicely.

It took me a while to get settled into the academic life. For a long time I called myself a Marxist but I stopped doing that for the same reason that Marx pointed to French syndicalists in the late 1870s saying that if these people are Marxists then I’m not. I still find Marx’s analysis of history very compelling, but I I strayed from looking only at economic matters to studying schizophrenia (R.D. Laing, Thomas Szasz, etc), mental illness, depression (with which I’ve been on intimate terms with), crime, deviance, social solidarity, morality, Norbert Elias and other things. In my last couple of years teaching I taught a sociology course on love and sex. Given what I wrote above, this fit right to my curiosity bag. I got interested in pornography. What is it about porn that makes it such a lucrative business? It’s one of the top internet money makers( yes, people sniggered.) And, of course, I had a long standing interest in Ernest Becker’s work. You just have to check the archives on this blog to ascertain that. Becker’s book Escape From Evil has a lot to say about sex and about misogyny. In fact, Becker’s work is the foundation of my views on this topic.

So, in the next few blog posts I will address Becker’s work to start with, especially his emphasis on evil, animality and our institutional denial of death. Then I want to look more specifically at woman as temptress, as devil. I will follow that up with a look at language and women before turning to marriage and some of the other cultural institutions of sexual relations. Things may evolve as I go along. The order I present issues may change. Your comments might modify my approach too.

I must say, in concluding this introduction, that I, by no means, intend to glorify women and vilify men. We are all ‘guided’ in our actions by our social relations, our language, our sex, our gender, our economic interests, our egos, and a myriad of other factors. Morality plays a huge role although we barely ever mention it. We swim in a moral world but we seldom recognize it. Like fish who don’t know they swim in water, we are the last to recognize that we swim in a moral world. In this series of posts I’ll try to open up that moral world a bit so that we can see more deeply into want makes us tick as humans.

Shall we have veal for dinner, dear?

From a blog post on January 28th, 2014. The following two paragraphs in italics are a long quote from Ernest Becker’s 1975 book, Escape from Evil, which I used extensively when I was teaching college sociology courses. The language may be somewhat crass and shocking, but it gets the message across.

“Man is an animal…Whatever else he is, is built on this…The only certain thing we know about this planet is that it is a theater for crawling life, organismic life, and at least we know what organisms are and what they are trying to do.

At its most elemental level the human organism, like crawling life, has a mouth, digestive tract, and anus, a skin to keep it intact, and appendages with which to acquire food.  Existence, for all organismic life, is a constant struggle to feed – a struggle to incorporate whatever other organisms that can fit into their mouths and press down their gullets without choking.  Seen in these stark terms, life in this planet is a gory spectacle, a science-fiction nightmare in which digestive tracts fitted with teeth at one end are tearing away at whatever flesh they can reach, and at the other end are piling up the fuming waste excrement as they move along in search of more flesh. I think this is why the epoch of the dinosaurs exerts such a strong fascination on us: it is an epic food orgy with king-size actors who convey unmistakably what organisms are dedicated to.  Sensitive souls have reacted with shock to the elemental drama of life on this planet, and one of the reasons Darwin so shocked his time – and still bothers ours – is that he showed this bone-crushing, blood-drinking drama in all of its elementality and necessity: Life cannot go on without the mutual devouring of organisms.  If the living spectacle of all that he had organismically incorporated in order to stay alive, he might well feel horrified by the living energy he had ingested.  The horizon of a gourmet, or even the average person, would be taken up with hundreds of chickens, flocks of lambs and sheep, a small herd of steers, sties full of pigs, and rivers of fish.  The din alone would be deafening.  To paraphrase Elias Canetti, each organism raises it’s head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.”

I post this in light of an online petition I signed recently opposing the practices of the veal production industry to take newborn calfs, separate them from their mothers and isolate them in veal fattening pens. These are often dome like plastic structures hardly big enough for the calf to turn around. The idea, I presume, is to allow the calf as little physical activity as possible so as to fatten them up and keep their meat nice and tender. Many farmers who send calves off to the slaughterhouse to become veal are humane and treat their animals with a degree of kindness (I actually have no proof of this, only second hand reports). I think the way we treat the animals we intend to eat reflects our values and assumptions about their intelligence and even whether or not we think they feel pain.

I once saw a video of a ‘scientist’ claiming that animals don’t feel pain. In the video he was standing beside a row of beagles with wires implanted through their skulls and into their brains. The fact that the argument is ongoing astounds me. It’s clear from the scientific evidence that animals feel pain, and they have emotional lives. There is a lot of scientific evidence to support this claim yet there is still controversy over it. Carl Safina in a National Geographic article is quoted as saying:

It is incredible to me there is still a debate over whether animals are conscious and even a debate over whether human beings can know animals are conscious. If you watch mammals or even birds, you will see how they respond to the world. They play. They act frightened when there’s danger. They relax when things are good. It seems illogical for us to think that animals might not be having a conscious mental experience of play, sleep, fear or love. 

Safina goes on to say later in the article that:

Many people simply assume that animals act consciously and base their belief on their own domestic animals or pets. Other people do not want animals to be conscious because it makes it easier for us to do things to animals that would be hard to do if we knew they were unhappy and suffering.

Safina singles out lab scientists as a particular group in denial about animal suffering and pain. He is quoted as saying: “However, in laboratories the dogma persists: don’t assume that animals think and have emotions–and many scientists insist that they do not.”

I am going to assume for the rest of this blog post that many animals species feel pain and experience emotional lives. If that’s the case, we have to address how we feel about that and think hard about how we treat non-human animals, especially the ones destined for our dinner tables. More importantly, what can we make of Becker’s argument in the quotation above given what we know about animal pain and suffering?

The vast majority of us have never experienced what goes on in a slaughterhouse. Slaughterhouses are sites of killing on an industrial scale. I can’t imagine anyone working in the killing line of a slaughterhouse not having been effectively desensitized to animal fear, pain and suffering. Obviously, the terror (and I don’t use this word lightly) that a bull feels on entering a slaughterhouse is very temporary. Stunning and then killing takes moments. Does that justify the slaughter in the first place? Should we all be vegetarians or vegans and avoid eating animals at all thus putting all slaughterhouses out of business?

Some people have definitely accepted the argument that a vegetarian or vegan life is much more ethical than the carnivorous life. They don’t eat animal flesh although they may indulge in the consumption of animal products such as eggs and milk. But is the vegetarian or vegan life possible for the majority of humans? Are humans inherently omnivorous or can we give up our animal flesh diets?

In my next blog post I address more directly the issues presented by Becker’s quote above. Are we not carnivorous by nature? How valuable is life? How valuable is death?