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?

 

Why do we so often refer to sex as dirty?

My next post was supposed to be about morality and that will be the subject of a number of future posts, but I was listening to the CBC this morning and the guest host of the morning program was interviewing a comedian and talking about his upcoming show. That tweaked my interest as I sipped my coffee. The host asked the comedian if his show was going to be clean. The comedian responded that for the most part it would be but that it would also be dirty at times. Well, I just had to weigh in. Morality will just have to wait a bit.

By dirty I know, and you know, that the host and the comedian were referring to the use of  swear words like fuck and shit and piss in his routine. He was not, however, going to make specific reference to the sex act and have some fun with that. That would be too raunchy. After all, you’ve got to keep it safe for a regular audience or they won’t come back to see you again. Swearing, it seems, is fair game. It’s okay to make fun of your wife or yourself in a comedy routine, but it’s not okay to talk explicitly about what went wrong or right the last time you had sex. That will be okay in the not-too-distant future, I expect.

It’s quite telling that in English swearing is almost exclusively sex based or has to do with genitalia or bodily functions of one sort or the other. In French Canada, swearing is entirely different, or at least it was when I was a kid. In French swearing relates to religious things although it can stray into combining sex or bodily functions with objects or persons of religions significance. For instance, a great swearing line in French refers to the ‘holy cream of an old nun.’ It’s probably changing now to a more ‘cleanly’ sex-based expression. Tell me if you know. I’m not up on Québecois swearing behaviour these days. In English, of course, fuck is the word or choice in a number of expressions not at all related to sex, but the word clearly relates to coitus or the sex act. For instance we might exclaim upon seeing a cute cat video: “Wasn’t that just the cutest fucking thing you’ve ever seen?” Or, listen to George Carlin classify people into three categories. He says that there are stupid people, people who don’t give a shit and people who are just fucking nuts!

So, what about this sex is dirty thing? Well, Ernest Becker (in his many books, but especially The Denial of Death and Escape From Evil, concludes that it all goes back to our fear or terror of death,* which also has a lot to say about how women are so often poorly treated in our world and in times past.  So what does considering sex as dirty have to do with our fear of death and the way women are so often (mis)treated?

It’s a bit of a truism to say that we all live and die. Yes, we do, but we don’t necessarily like the dying part so we concoct all sorts of cultural mechanisms to help us deny  that fact. One way we do that is to separate ourselves linguistically from other animal species by referring to ourselves as ‘human’ and to those other things as ‘animals.’ Of course, we are animals and it’s hard to deny that because we’re obviously not plants or rocks, but that doesn’t matter. We deny anyway. That kind of attitude allows us to treat animals in all kinds of nasty ways, because, well, they aren’t human and God did say that he put them here on earth for us to have dominion over. We are spiritual beings, animals aren’t. Enough said.

More significantly however we also take great care to separate ourselves into male and female classes. Yes, I say classes because that’s what’s happening. Just as we consider ourselves spiritual beings and animals as spiritless, we have also contrived historically to consider men as spiritual beings and women as physical beings. In many parts of the world in every time in history women have been considered a lesser species than men.

There’s a simple, yet devastating reason for this. Women remind men at every turn that they are mortal. Women exude blood on a regular basis. Babies are born between shit and piss in an orgy of blood. You lose blood, you die. Men have gone to extraordinary lengths to deny their physicality, their animality, and emphasize their spirituality to the detriment of women. Men in some cultures wear anal plugs to show that they don’t need to shit. They are above that. Menstruating women are often shunned for fear that they might contaminate something or other. Men denigrate women at every turn. Not all men, of course, but our culture and many in the past have built massive institutions that denigrate women. The pornography ‘industry’ is a good example of that. It’s popularity attests to how important sex is to us, but how important it also is to objectify women and treat them as sexual objects and as not quite human. Generally speaking, women are way more important to men for their genitals than for their brains. Hillary Clinton is facing this fact right now in the U.S. Many men just can’t see the president of the United States being fucked. Tell me it ain’t so.

Sin, in Christian, Muslim and Judaic mythology often refers to succumbing to the temptations of the flesh, female flesh that is. The flesh is the territory of the devil. If you want to live forever  in the light of God then stay clear of unauthorized sexual pleasure. “Unauthorized’ here is a critical element in the preceding sentence. Although constantly being revised and rethought, when and how sex gets authorized and becomes okay is strictly defined in cultural precepts. That’s fodder for another blog post.

Oh, we take sex very seriously in our culture, in our time, but we have very contradictory ideas about it. Yes, the sex act is fun and all that, but it also brings us clearly into the physical world and that’s a dangerous place to be if you want to be immortal.

In my next post, I’ll consider how sex and our animality fit into our broader moral world.
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Deep down, are we all racist?

Deep down, are we all racist and xenophobic?

In my last two posts I wrote about a book by Dom Benoit published in 1904 about the Catholic missions in the mid 19th Century in the Canadian West.  The book is a biography of Mgr. Taché, second archbishop of St. Boniface (1853-1894).

Was I unfair in singling them out for a special call-out for being racist?  Yes and no.

It’s pretty obvious that the missionaries understood that the indigenous peoples of the area were human, but that they were significantly different from themselves, especially in the fact that they weren’t ‘children of God.’ The derogatory manner in which they describe indigenous peoples, especially plains peoples, would immediately label them racist in most people’s books.

Their mission’s objective was to make ‘savages’ into ‘children of God’. They may have thought they had accomplished that by baptizing as mahy as possible, but that apparently still didn’t make them equal to white folk in the eyes of Canadian governments, all of which had institutionally racist practices and values regarding indigenous people. There is no doubt that Sir John A. Macdonald’s government was racist to the core. It’s hard not to conclude that most Canadian governments over the decades, both federal and provincial have been racist. Their policies prove it, the Indian Act proves it, all their actions prove it.

So, along with the missionaries of the mid 19th Century, are they special in their racism? Are governments racist, along with a few bad individuals, or are we all racist, deep down? Some of us may deny it vehemently, but the impetus, the imperative, the drive to characterize ‘other’ groups of people and their institutions as inferior or undeserving because of some national or group trait is pervasive. Can we avoid being racist and xenophobic? Can we avoid labelling groups (gender, age, colour, etc.) and nations with sweeping generalizations that deny human individuality and capacity for free thought?

The short answer is that I think we can, but it takes a lot of effort and thought. It means letting go of a lot of ‘isms’ some of which we love dearly, like patriotism.

If we believe that our society, our way of life is the greatest thing on earth, it makes it difficult to just accept others as they are and not to try to convince them, by ideology or coercion, that they should change. The Catholic missionaries of the Canadian West obviously thought that their religious beliefs and practices were the only ones that could lead to salvation, that is to eternal life in the presence of God. It seems to me that they would feel a holy obligation to try to ‘convert’ as many ‘savages’ as possible to save them from being condemned to an eternity in pergatory or hell. One could argue that their drive to ‘save’ the indigenous people is no different from a compulsion we might have to pull someone out of the way of a speeding train in order to save their lives. It’s just something ya gotta do.

So, yes, if we feel we have the only road to heaven, or to salvation, the good life, prosperity or whatever you might want to call it, it’s hard not to want to share it or conversely, to prove to others that ours is a superior way by kicking their asses just to prove it. If, however, we can express some humility in the face of the diversity of human (and other) life on this planet, we can begin to overcome prejudice and ignorance. It’s not easy and it’s not even likely to happen on any scale until the structural and historical conditions in place currently on the planet that make prejudice and ignorance possible and even inevitable are still dominant. 

My rant here is not intended to make you feel guilty or bad because you may harbour secret prejudices or make sweeping generalizations about people. It’s more of an invitation to humility and to critical thought about your world and how it works.

If you ever get a chance, watch a 2003 documentary film called Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortality. It does a beautiful job in visually summarizing my argument above. You can do that, or you can rummage around the archives on my blog to find references to Ernest Becker’s work Escape From Evil. The film is based on his work.

How fragile our egos can be (even for a successful university professor).

This is the fourth post relating to the Ernest Becker Legacy conference held at SFU in early October. However,this last post relates only tangentially to the conference and more to a situation that arose after the opening talk by Sheldon Solomon on Friday evening, October 2nd.

After Solomon’s talk there was time to mingle and have a glass of wine. There were a number of familiar faces in the crowd, some from my time as a student and instructor at SFU during the 1970s and early 80s, some from the Ernest Becker Foundation and some conference attendees were my former students or acquaintances. One couple that stood out for me was a long retired professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at SFU and his wife. I hadn’t seen him in ages, but I recognized him immediately. I’ll leave his name out of this because it’s irrelevant and I would not want to embarrass him in the slightest. I remember taking one of his course and found him to be a competent enough teacher. He produced a number of monographs and I expect his research was much more important to him than his teaching, but that’s pure speculation on my part. I certainly have the utmost respect for him.

In any case, we soon found ourselves chatting over a glass of wine. I doubt if he remembered me although he said he did. It’s true that I was in the department for many years as an undergrad then as a grad student so it’s possible he did remember me. In any case, this conference was about Becker and I expected he wanted to talk to me about Becker’s work at SFU or about his own work. He didn’t. In fact, he seemed anxious for someone to listen to his complaint about Becker, to hear his story of how nasty a character Becker really was. I found this astounding because this conference was really a Becker love-in and not essentially a critical venue with regard to Becker’s work. Why would this esteemed, highly regarded professor, with a good publishing record of his own, bother to come to a conference to listen to nice things being said about a person he loathed?

As he recalled the story, it turns out that in the early 1970s when Becker was still active doing research and what not, he was keen on having as much time as possible to engage in study and writing. He was interested in getting some relief from teaching. This professor to which I’ve been referring was in some kind of administrative position at the time and Becker approached him with his plan for a reduced teaching load. Apparently that meeting did not go well and Becker, according to this professor, was rude and belligerent, to the point where the professor’s ego was severely threatened. He took this perceived attack on his ego very personally.

The reason I bring this up is not to pass judgment on Becker or on the professor in question. It’s to point out how long a slight to the ego can affect us, how long we can carry it around and allow it to sour our thoughts. I’m talking about a period of at least 40 years between when this professor felt slighted by Becker and his recounting it to me (although any willing ear would have done) at a conference dedicated to Becker’s legacy as if it had all happened just last week. Why?

Well, for one explanation we can turn to Becker’s own work. In Escape from Evil, Becker makes it clear that any attack on our ego can mean that we fail to qualify for immortality, that somehow we are unworthy of eternal life. An attack on our individual egos or on our collective egos as embedded in our social and cultural institutions can result in diminishment and reduced qualification for the meaning in life we so desperately seek. This is not doing Becker’s argument justice, so I would suggest reading Becker yourself to get the full story if you wish.

However, the power of an attack on the ego can be devastating, as I think I illustrated here especially if it’s left unresolved. Furthermore, I don’t think that this situation is idiosyncratic. The kind of reaction I’ve illustrated here to being threatened resides deep in our unconscious minds and leaves us unsettled, cautious and wary, as individuals and as societies. In other posts on this blog I’ve addressed the issue of how we defend our egos by linguistic means, by the use of the indefinite ‘you’. I’ll be writing more about the ‘indefinite you’ again soon.

Follow up on yesterday’s post on the Ernest Becker Legacy Conference at SFU

In my last post I mentioned some of the conference speakers, among them Sheldon Solomon and Jack Martin. I quite enjoyed both of their talks which together summarized Ernest Becker’s thought and his biography. To generalize beyond caution, I dare say that every one of us is an ever changing individual confluence of experiences, actions, achievements, ideas, values, etc., bounded by a sac of flesh and bone and  wrapped in a social weave of interdependencies. Solomon and Martin ‘gave’ us the confluence that was Ernest Becker in as much complexity as was possible in a short time.* Of course, the conference title implied that Ernest Becker’s legacy would be the focus of discussion. In Becker’s case the legacy in question refers to the range of ways and means his ideas have informed those of others who have followed him. It’s what he left behind for others to use and build upon. That’s a staggering amount of information, ideas and insights to put it mildly. 

Most people who have used Becker’s work have focussed on this or that aspect of it. There’s too much of substance in Becker’s work spread over too many disciplines, making it close to a unified theory of social and biological life on a grand scale, to use the whole thing as a starting point for further analysis. We can gnaw away at the details and go from there, but it’s most difficult to follow Becker on the grand scale of things. A person would have to share his confluence of influences at the very least. I mean, he described his last book as a synthesis of Marx and Freud. Well, who is competent to judge whether or not he actually did that? Someone who at least shares his reading list and sees the world in ways that he did. Was he referring just to Marx and Freud or were these two names rallying terms for a huge number of writers and authorities that he also used? His Freud also included Rank, Jung (to a lesser extent), Adler, Brown, Jones and many others. His Marx included Frankfurt School types, the more humanistic Marxists like Fromm. In fact, I don’t see a lot of classical Marxism in Becker’s work so he must not have meant Marx,  but Marx-ists.  Becker’s confluence is complex and massive and  hardly matches anyone else’s so I think that we literally cannot follow Becker in the entirety of his thought. In fact, a prerequisite for reasonable commentary on Becker’s overarching thought, I  think, is a familiarity with the bulk of his reading list. You’ll need a few years to get through it.  You’ll also need an openness to his interpretation. 

I’ve already written that people have settled on aspects of Becker’s work to elaborate. It’s probably safer and necessary to do that in any case as I have just argued. So, we come to David Loy, a very nice man if I’ve ever met one, a Buddhist scholar, an activist one by all accounts. Google his name. He’s written a few books. His talk was interesting, but not so much for me because I just don’t easily go to ‘religious’ places in my thinking. Of course I’m probably doing Loy an injustice and I wouldn’t want to do that. Still, I probably wouldn’t read any of his work but I would love to sit and watch a beautiful sunset with him.

Larry Green was another of the conference speakers and a big part of the organizing crew. I have so much respect for all of the organizers and the participants in this conference and Larry is right up there. He earned my respect for whatever that’s worth (I have no illusions about the insignificant space I take up on this planet, so what would he do with my respect? I do not mean this in any kind of self-deprecating way.). He is a long time psychotherapist (44 years) and teaches the odd course at City University Canada. The blurb in the conference document states “His contribution will focus on alternatives to “in-group” identification as a source of ontological security.” That’s a tall order. Becker’s discussion of the moiety in Escape From Evil would be enough to scare me away from suggesting an alternative to how things have been organized socially on this planet for thousands of years with people dividing themselves into competing groups all the better to prove how wonderful and worthy a winning group is in its barter with the gods for immortality. For me, the problem is that Green is focussed on individual accommodation to life on this planet and not on the overall ontological issues around  group formation and social conflict. But that’s not meant to be a criticism, just a problem for me…as a sociologist who taught Canadian history, French, Anthropology and Sociology at a freshman level. Notice, there’s no Psychology in there. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have the utmost respect for a number of psychologists, psychoanalysts and even psychiatrists (one even still living). I just don’t follow them around into theory very far. I’m too much of a social evolutionist and Marxist for that.

Speaking of Marxists, Brad Hornick was one of the speakers. He used his time to talk about his own life and what he thought was necessary for the creation of social change great enough to reverse the insane course we’re on destroying the planet as fast as we can. Becker, in the closing paragraphs of Escape From Evil mentioned that if we could come up with a new immortality project, say one that was aimed at climate change, that we could just change the course of history and maybe save ourselves in the process. I don’t think he was all that confident if would happen, but he threw that in as a possibility. Hornick argued that capitalism has to go in order for any positive advances can be made to this planet’s climate. Commodity fetishism is not going to allow us to easily let go of our obsession with possessing goods, so we have to get rid of commodity fetishism. Frankly, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for humanity, but Hornick isn’t giving up and I respect him for that. He’s a grad student at SFU in my old S&A department there. I wish him all the best. It’s a tough row he’s decided to hoe. I doubt if many people at the conference had any idea of what he was talking about but it may have challenged them a little and prodded them to think of how Becker’s work can be used to address some of the fundamental social issues of our time. 

The last speaker I  took in during the conference was Andrew Feldmár. I’ll save my comments on him for tomorrow. I’ll also discuss briefly a couple of other speakers not yet mentioned. Tomorrow it is.


 

  • Confluence means flowing together, as in rivers and such things. The idea of a person as a confluence, that is, the sum total of ideas, values, experiences, influences, etc., all come together in a sac of flesh and bone surrounded by, interweaving and interdependent with others in a social maelstrom came to me in the shower the other day. It’s what accounts for what we call our individuality. No two people share perfectly the same set of ideas, values, experiences, etc., but some of us  overlap in those areas and we form communities on the basis of those overlaps (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes by accident or necessity, sometimes by circumstance).
  • I could not have come up with this idea if I had not read widely in sociology and other related disciplines. It’s only on the basis of my reading list that I can even conceive of such strange things. Some of you may shudder a bit while reading this as you try to make sense of it from the point of view of your own confluence. The more you read the same kinds of ideas I did (and do) and share the same class background, etc., the more you may be able to parse my meaning. Very few people on the planet share my reading list or yours for that matter, that is if you have a reading list. Most people don’t. That in itself is neither here nor there. I can say though that having an extensive reading list in certain disciplines is definitely not a prerequisite for a happy life. In fact it can complicate life beyond salvage resulting in an inability to enjoy the simple things. But aren’t I getting serious now? Time to lighten up a bit. 
  • © Roger J.G. Albert 2015

Mutiny of the Soul – Reality Sandwich

Mutiny of the Soul – Reality Sandwich.

I find this quite refreshing.  A perspective that argues that the world drives people crazy and sick.  This isn’t the first compelling argument I’ve come across on this subject (see René Spitz, Thomas Szasz, R.D. Laing, Otto Rank, Ernest Becker, etc.) but most people are so totally ignorant in this regard that any article that comes out that even hints at a socially-based explanation for depression, fatigue, mental illness, and I pay attention.  It’s good to share too, isn’t it?  My mom always said it was.

There is a reference to this article on Facebook.  I thought I’d share.

Why are we afraid of people in wheelchairs?

[This is a bit of an exploratory post.  I have ideas here that I want to develop further, but rather than trying to refine them now to a publishable state, I’m putting them out there in a somewhat disjointed and unrefined state so that I can think about them further and get your comments on them if you are so inclined].

 

A couple of days ago I posted a comment here about an injury I suffered last Thursday evening to my ribcage after a bad fall resulting in a hospital visit and a great deal of pain to an area of my body that had already been traumatized by cancer surgery.  Well, that personal story was just a way of leading into today’s post.  Of course, everything about the report I made a couple of days ago was true.  I’m still in a great deal of pain.  I haven’t driven our vehicle since my injury and I’m not sure when I will be able to again.  Maybe later this week sometime.  The good news is that I do feel some improvement in my pain levels already and some improved mobility.

That said, there are many people with immobility issues that cannot look forward to any improvement whatsoever in their conditions.  I feel temporarily humbled by my lack of mobility in a mobility driven world, but they must only feel permanently humbled and even humiliated.  Someone I am acquainted with has muscular dystrophy.  He’s my age, a little older actually.  He lived a ‘normal’ life for decades before being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, but his mobility has continuously declined since his diagnosis.  He is now confined to an electric wheelchair and a scooter that allows him a certain degree of mobility.  He can even visit me in Cumberland from Courtenay (8K) although not in my home because it is not wheelchair accessible. There’s actually very few locations in the Comox Valley accessible to wheelchair bound people, homes or businesses.  As an educated guess I would say that about 1% of Valley homes are wheelchair accessible.  The big box stores are all accessible, but not many of the businesses along 5th Street or anywhere downtown are. I know other wheelchair bound people in the Comox Valley with varying degrees of immobility, but all have very mobile and agile minds.  Of course, like the rest of us, not all wheelchair bound people have agile brains and some have difficulty communicating with ‘normal’ folks.  I’ll get back to that in a bit.

My point is that we treat people immobilized by various kinds of physical ‘disabilities’, ‘abnormalities’, or whatever other qualification we might use in describing them, with a curious dismissiveness.  We don’t take them seriously and don’t expect anything intelligent to come out of their mouthes.  Mainly, we don’t address them at all and if we must, we’d rather do it through an intermediary, like a caregiver or companion. I use ‘we’ here because this is a generalized social reaction with few people being self-aware enough to realize what they are feeling and why they are feeling that way.

What I am arguing here is not that individuals in our society are insensitive or uncaring about people who are ‘differently-abled’ as they sometimes describe themselves, but that we have a very deep-seated fear of immobility because of its association with death and we are culturally programmed to shun it.  If you think about it for a moment you’ll soon realize that we unconsciously equate mobility with freedom and wealth, immobility with death and confinement, either, for example, in a wheelchair or in prison.  We punish people in our society by removing their mobility.  We laud people who are mobile.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve been asked since I retired from college teaching where I’ve travelled to (nowhere, actually) or what travel plans I have.  Our obsession with mobility is virtually universal, goes a long way back and is deeply embedded in our cultural fabric.

Colin Turnbull in his 1960s ethnography of the BaMbuti tribe of the Ituri Forest in Central Africa described how the BMbuti had developed a system of describing how dead a person was.  If a person was unable to speak because of a stroke or such ailment, that person would be described as partially dead.  The greater the inability to keep up with the group, communicate and contribute to tribal life, the more dead a person was considered to be.  There was always a danger that a person might be considered dead even though they still had a pulse.  I can’t remember which anthropologist it was, writing at about the same time as Turnbull, who described in his notebooks a tribe in the New Guinea highlands that buried people alive because they had lost the ability to speak. For this tribe, he wrote, an inability to communicate verbally was a sure and certain sign that the person was dead. Burial would follow no matter how much movement was evident in the rest of the affected person’s body.

So, part of our common human cultural heritage seems to associate immobility and its various manifestations in individual human beings with death, the ultimate evil (in Ernest Becker’s words).  It doesn’t seem to matter what part of the world we are from, what language we speak or what tribe we belong to.  If we cannot speak, have various ailments that confine us to a wheelchair or we are somehow immobilized in body or mind, we are somehow lesser human beings no matter what other qualities we may have.  If we are on crutches because of an injury caused during a hockey game we will face a wait-and-see attitude.  If we are playing hockey again in a reasonable period of time all is forgiven but if we fail to get back to the game in a timely manner or are prone to injury and hence immobilized too frequently we will be considered a slacker and not really a good team player. Hero status goes to the player who plays on despite being injured, flaunting pain and immobility.  If we are in a wheelchair with obvious mobility limitations there in no wait-and-see-attitude, there is just ostracism and sometimes revulsion.

This all takes me back to wheelchair bound people, ‘mobile’ and agile brains.  My friend with muscular dystrophy has a very active mind, is from a professional background, is community-minded and involved in various social groups and activities. He is articulate and fully capable of expressing himself. His scooter is quite impressive and commands respect, but even he has commented to me that on more than one occasion when he was in his wheelchair accompanied by one of his caregivers that a clerk or other frontline worker would address the caregiver rather than him even though it was his business that was being discussed.  They often behaved as if he weren’t even present and, without asking him directly, would address his caretaker with:”…and would he like a drink with that?”    He reported on these occasions of feeling somewhat humiliated and disrespected, even if it was just for a moment.

We seem unwilling to tolerate immobility in any of its manifestations.  As noted above, we find physical immobility disconcerting and we feel uncomfortable around people in wheelchairs.  People who are ‘mentally’ immobile are particularly scary for us because they cannot move a conversation forward in a predictable manner.  We feel afraid or disdainful of people ‘talking to themselves’ while walking down the street. And while we are fine with immobility on vacations, lying around beaches reading novels, it must only be as a temporary interlude in a busy work schedule.  We heap scorn on ‘lazy’ people.  We find the immobility brought on by poverty particularly vexing and distasteful.   We describe children and retired people as ‘unproductive’ because they fail to contribute to the forward mobility (growth) of the entire community.  Combine any number of physical and mental immobilities and the disdain and fear we experience are compounded.

One mental struggle I’ve had for decades now is determining just how much of our fear of immobility is driven by our biological built in urge to avoid death like every other animal species and how much by culturally specific imperatives, including learning and education.  It’s hard to dispute the idea that over our history on this planet (and even now) individuals might at any moment have had to flee a predator or fight for survival.  The ‘fight or flight’ reaction would have been severely impaired by individual immobility.  Obviously, anyone who was immobile for whatever reason might put a whole family or tribe in danger.  The consequence of being immobilized by injury, hunger or any number of other conditions could be catastrophic.  How many times in the movies have you seen a war scenario where there was great gnashing of teeth over whether to flee and leave behind a wounded colleague or endanger the whole group by dragging him along and slowing everybody down.  Of course, if the wounded colleague was a hero he might just commit suicide, thereby releasing the group of its obligation to him and ensure the safety of the whole group.

There’s no denying that we are animals and have animal preoccupations around sex and survival.  However, that doesn’t mean that our behaviours are forever destined to be driven by our animal natures.  Ernest Becker argued that it’s our ingenuity and not our animal nature that has pushed us into perpetrating more evil on this planet than ever before.  Is it our destiny to always fear immobility and death?  Is it possible for us to ever develop cultural and moral principles and imperatives that strive to accept immobility and death rather than to fight them at every turn?  Will we ever be at peace with the fact that we are a weak, vulnerable, finite animal that has limitations or are we driven inexorably to apotheosis and hubris?  Will we ever treat each other with respect no matter what our level of mobility?  I’m afraid I’m not very optimistic about our chances of answering any of these questions in the affirmative, at least not in the short term.