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Citizen disposal

Citizen disposal
Against state-approved suicide

Towards the end of a recent Triggernometry conversation, Konstantin Kisin asks Kelsi Sheren, a former combat veteran, “What’s the one thing we’re not talking about that we really should be?” Without hesitating, she responds, “MAiD. Medical Assistance in Dying and what Canada is doing to its citizens.” In reply, for context, Kisin suggests, although in a questioning tone, that Canada is “basically encouraging euthanasia.” Sheren bluntly replies, “Encouraging? Let’s try this again.”

The death penalty no longer applies in Canada. It hasn’t since 1998, so you can’t lethally inject rapists and murderers. But you can execute law-abiding citizens for being sad. We need to talk about this because so many nations in the world with liberal axioms—axioms that are, in an important philosophical sense, untenable—might sooner or later be adopting some form of citizen disposal in the vein of the Canadian model.

Sheren’s interview is worth watching in full because it is one massive reality check on so many issues around war and conflict. But I just want to focus on this last thing Sheren mentions. She draws attention to the supposedly rational legislation of murder-suicide by lawmakers who, I’m sure, would like to think that they’re wearing a compassionate face. Evil is much more easily done with a smile, ensuring, of course, that all the relevant boxes have been checked. Note this well: evil most commonly enters the world under the guise of benevolence. Good people are easily manipulated because they are so widely oblivious to this fact.

Before I go further, though, here’s a slight disclaimer, just to be sure we’re starting on the same page. I am well aware of arguments around suicide in general, from antiquity to the present. I’m keenly mindful that it is not a simple matter, although I still claim that it is morally unjustifiable in the overwhelming majority of cases. However, I won’t be supporting this claim by argument here. I am only arguing here against the institutionalization of suicide in any form. I believe it is, to put it mildly, unwise to make it possible for a doctor to take on the role of the Grim Reaper.

For starters, I think it is a mistake to include death-dealing within the ambit of medicine, as has already happened in many places and ways. To do so is to create terrible confusion. As Victor Frankl says, to do this would mean that we can no longer tell if a doctor comes to us as a healer or executioner. With this in mind, the case of Canada is not, I think, merely an example of shoddy laws; it is a warning concerning what state-legislated, and often state-enforced, suicide means. I refuse to accept that state-condoned death-dealing just needs to be done well to be okay. It is, in itself, an evil thing. Even those who would be more lax on suicide than I am should have no trouble seeing this.

Sheren discusses how originally MAiD was intended for terminal illnesses. At least, that’s the story that was told, even if it’s not one I believe. But anyhow, it took a very dark turn very quickly. Not long ago, news was made by a disabled man who was about to become homeless. Fearing the agony of being forced to live life on the street, he applied for MAiD and was granted it. Note the role that suicide can and often does play. If it offers relief here as a so-called solution made available by a system, this is only because it leaves all the actual issues of circumstance and existence untouched. It does not address the sufferer in his full capacity as a person of significance. It does not attend to his subjectivity. By implication, it insists that his suffering is caused, not by external or even psychological conditions, but by his very being. That is the thing that must, from the system’s perspective, be solved. From that same system’s perspective, no sufferer means no suffering. To put the matter comically, this is a bit like having someone take a car in for repair only to be told that, the car doesn’t need repairing; if we just get rid of the car owner, the problem disappears.

And here is where I am particularly concerned about creating this particular option within any system of governance. The easy answer of disposing of unhappy citizens is surely, more than anything, a way to avoid dealing with problems created by those very same systems of governance—although, of course, such problems are linked to larger concerns around social arrangements, conscience, and the like. One of the consequences of technological societies is that their inhabitants are forced to internalise their suffering in a way that encourages them to see themselves as inadequate, rather than encouraging them to notice that their miserable experience of the world has been carefully orchestrated by bureaucrats and incompetent politicians and others who couldn’t give a fig about whether they live or die. We have here a case of an abdication of responsibility and people are quite literally dying so that others don’t have to answer for their failures.

Anyway, while caught between Scylla and Charybdis, that poor man’s decision to opt for death was so obviously shaped by external pressures beyond his control and by a perfectly consonant response to said pressures. His despair at his circumstances was so clearly not rational—not a matter of unattached will—that his single case calls into question the entire edifice of the supposedly congenial executioners. In turning doctors into murderers, we are not at all dealing with Cartesian egos or buffered selves and so-called autonomous decisions about living and dying. Our abstractions may protect us from realising the truth. We are dealing, in fact, with porous human beings for that is what we all are. If anything I have said already has struck a nerve or a chord, that in itself is proof of the larger point I’m making. We are existentially entangled and there is no meaning we can make of the world we live in that doesn’t implicate others.

We are, all of us, extremely vulnerable. And this is not just some accident of nature. It is nature itself. Even theologically speaking, there’s a good argument to be made that Adam was capable of stubbing his toe in the Garden of Eden before the fall. Well, fortunately for the poor man I’ve been talking about, thanks to public concern, enough funds were raised to prevent him from feeling the need to submit himself to the death-dealers. Already in his story, though, we have a small indication of something dastardly, pernicious, and pervasive.

As Sheren says in the same above-mentioned Triggernometry interview, since 2019, war veterans like her, suffering from PTSD and desperate for help—and asking for help—had state-assisted suicide recommended to them instead. “Hi, would you mind helping me?” some disturbed soul might say to a doctor. “Of course,” he’ll reply, “have you thought of submitting yourself to an impersonal cohort of evil bureaucrats to be wiped off the face of the earth?”

It’s so desperately dark, it’s almost comical. Even children can opt for death if their parents consent, although who knows how long parental consent will be required given how things are going. Canada now has a Suicide Crisis Line, as well as a phone connected to the MAiD-enforces. There’s one phone line for people who feel suicidal and want to be saved and another for people who feel suicidal and want to die. It’s best not to get those two confused when you’re feeling a tad blue. There is no metaphysical backup for you. The distinction between life and death is fast becoming irrelevant. The question of what a full life actually means is, from what I can tell, hardly ever asked.

But if you want to be confronted with the obliviousness within this Nazi dystopia, you don’t need to look much further than the Canadian government’s own Department of Justice website. There where we learn, “The law no longer requires a person’s natural death to be reasonably foreseeable as an eligibility criterion for MAID.” A person’s natural death is not even a factor anymore. Health care now means looking in the eyes of healthy people and saying, “I think it might be your time to go, don’t you?” You may be perfectly fine in so many respects and still be eligible for the modern equivalent of the gas chamber.

Eligibility criteria indicate that someone who wants to die at the hands of the medical-industrial complex must be: 18 years or older,

“and have decision-making capacity; be eligible for publicly funded health care services; make a voluntary request that is not the result of external pressure; give informed consent to receive MAID, meaning that the person has consented to receiving [sic] MAID after they have received all information needed to make this decision; have a serious and incurable illness, disease or disability (excluding a mental illness until March 17, 2024); be in an advanced state of irreversible decline in capability; have enduring and intolerable physical or psychological suffering that cannot be alleviated under conditions the person considers acceptable.”

You’ll note the March 17 date in this quoted paragraph, which is not far off from the time I’m writing and publishing this. Years ago, Canadian friends told me that, thanks to the horror of the public, at least the government hit pause on allowing people with mental illness to kill themselves but unpause will be hit this week. If that was one so-called safeguard, it is soon to be abolished.

The Department of Justice website suggests several other safeguards but Sheren says what is already widely known. The safeguards don’t work. There’s enough wiggle room to make it possible to apply the rules fairly willy-nilly. And anyway, anyone even vaguely aware of how human psychology works will know that the problems with this system are already in the framing of the eligibility criteria. A person has to have “decision-making capacity” and must not be “pressured” and must make this decision to die for supposedly subjective reasons—even though we know, just from taking a few minutes to think about our own experiences of the world, that our subjectivities are contaminated by the thoughts and whims and wills of others even when we’re sitting alone. The mere presence of the law is the pressure supplied. Just opening the door is enough of an invitation, especially when it is a door opening to those who are already in an unusually vulnerable and often desperate state. Even when you are alone, your environment demands certain things of you that you are unlikely to be consciously aware of. And yet, awareness is not a condition for reality. What you are not aware of is likely to have greater significance for you than what you are aware of.

In 2020, a Canadian government report claimed that MAiD would save the government in the region of 66 million dollars in healthcare spending. Financially speaking, this prediction was off. As Sheren points out, the Canadian government has saved around 98.6 million dollars, so far, that might have been spent on palliative care because of the MAiD programme. Medical bills are expensive. And while there is a cost to killing people, it’s still cheaper than keeping them alive and helping them to find ways to manage pain and discomfort. The question of who benefits from this scheme seems to have slipped the minds of lawmakers and politicians. Actually, of course, it hasn’t. The question is kept quiet because the answer is too revealing.

In 2022, a little booklet was published by the Canadian government to help kids to “explore [their] feelings” with a guide to state-approved murder. Here, perhaps, there was some sort of recognition, shallow though it was and remains, that this institutionalised eradication of citizens might have existential repercussions. But it is so flippant in its tone, so desperately blind to the real nature of what is being proposed. In the book, you find cutesy fonts, bright colours, and saccharine words: “Welcome!” the guide says as you begin to dive into the subject.

The booklet doesn’t say so but still implies that the activities it offers will help you to avoid thinking carefully about why people in your life might want to kill themselves or might be pressured by burdened family members or state support systems into committing suicide. Suicide is proposed as a way to help your body or mind to feel so much better—or so much nothing—when other medicines have failed. Only, now, mental illness and mild disabilities are included in the criteria for wanting to end it all. The subtext starts to scream at this point: the real problems are elsewhere. If you can’t cope with those, then you must be the problem; why not throw in the proverbial existential towel?

Mimetic theory teaches us, and neuroscience and studies on human imitation have confirmed, that all desire is mediated. There is no way to desire without emulating some other. In his 2017 book Strange Contagion, Lee Daniel Kravetz explores the phenomenon of social contagions, noting especially the terrible fact that suicide itself is contagious. This is something Simon Critchley seems remarkably oblivious to in his little book on Suicide. Social contagions, mild and severe, can profoundly shape the behaviours of people such that their desires can override even their instinct for self-preservation. We know about social contagions just by living in the world and paying attention. Because of this, we must at the very least be cautious about legislating—and thus okaying—something like suicide. Suicide is absolutely and unquestionably devastating for those around the deceased, and simply making it a legal norm does not solve the moral and existential conundrums it poses. If anything, it creates confusion as people are likely, once they get used to the new norm created by social engineers, to find themselves agreeing with the system even while, at a gut level, they feel a confusing sense of devastation.

One of the major problems with all of this is that the entire basis of state-approved suicide is not argued for at a moral level. It is argued for predominantly on a merely emotional basis, rooted in a very shoddy understanding of human psychology. It is argued for at the level of those feelings that are most immediately apparent, even though emotion doesn’t endure and can be wildly and easily misunderstood. Any decent psychologist will tell you that emotion is highly manipulable, and trained psychologists know how careful they have to be about supplying interpretations that only seem to fit the experiences of their patients. When someone is in a vulnerable state, you can offer a supposed explanation for what they’re feeling that may be accepted even if it has nothing do to with the actual emotional impression or response. Susceptibility to an answer doesn’t guarantee the correctness of the answer. Plausibility isn’t the same as truth.

“Once emotion is used as the exclusive criterion by which to recognize the good, it condemns contemporary man to superficial moral action,” writes Chantal Delsol in her essential book Icarus Fallen. To point this out is by no means to suggest that we shouldn’t be upset by various goings-on around us. I’m not making an argument against emotion but in favour of treating emotion contextually. I find the promotion of immature death deeply and profoundly disturbing, after all, which is why I’m writing this. Nevertheless, we need to ask very big questions and submit them to reason—in the fullest sense, which includes healthy emotion and careful reflection—to figure out what it means that a liberal society has elected to embrace death as its companion.

The root of the problem, I believe, is in a very basic fact, namely that liberalism fails to appreciate life. I think often of Michel Henry’s phenomenology of life, which I am going to discuss far more briefly than it deserves—although I plan to return to the subject more fully at another time. Some things we immediately perceive as being alive; other things, not so much. What’s the difference? Well, very simply, we connect with the presence of subjectivity in what is alive; and the key to subjectivity is the presence of feeling. This felt subjectivity, this subjectivity in feeling and this feeling in subjectivity, this auto-affectivity, is at the heart of life. The most basic feeling that I am feeling of feeling is the essence of life. Beyond philosophical language, we have the ordinary expression: “I feel so alive!”

What connects me to this feeling, what draws me into my subjectivity and grants this feeling depth and richness—art and poetry and music and love, the deep connections I feel with others and the world around me and more—this experience of my subjectivity is there in the best of culture and religion. I connect to the world and in so doing connect to myself. This is not narcissism. Arguably, narcissism is its opposite—internalised barbarism.

The modern world’s tendency to move against life is precisely what Henry calls barbarism; it is life turned against life; it is life opposing subjectivity. Whatever intervenes to cut me off from my experience of my life is barbaric. This is not just some sort of cognitive error but is evident in anything that detaches me from my subjectivity. I experience this in overly loud spaces, in so many work emails from machine minions treating me as some kind of stockpile reserve, in having demands placed on me with such haste and urgency that I have no chance of being even vaguely present to myself or even to others.

People treat objectivity as most important, adopting their abstractions as fundamental; then, by taking their objectivity too seriously, objectivity soon turns against subjectivity. Barbarism encroaches. I hardly need to tell you what this looks like in practice. It’s everywhere. The systematisation of being and the destruction of subjectivity is almost inescapable. Communication, formerly the emotional upheaval of becoming intersubjectively entwined in life, in the very consciousness of the other, has been replaced by mere information transfer. The ‘follow the science’ meme is one expression of this. The reign of quantity identified by René Guenon is another. State-supported suicide is just the most extreme case of it. It is the imposition of that which would eradicate any chance of subjectivity.

It is barbarism that leads people to turn their feelings against themselves and others. They side with that which is devoid of inwardness against inwardness itself. Yes, I know that what I am saying goes against the usual narrative surrounding the legislation of euthanasia. The narrative is one of compassion and care. Why, after all, would we want someone to suffer when we can end suffering? But when we contextualise this gesture, and its inability to attend to experience, even in an age of really excellent palliative care, we notice how it echoes so many other gestures of barbarism. Values are attacked. Blind processes become more important than the human experience. People become replaceable and even disposable. Barbarism is there whenever the impersonal turns against the personal; wherever systems become the context for being more than cultures and families. What we have here is not compassion but utility.

We can tell because there is, in institutionalising death, no one ultimately there to feel what it feels like to be the one ending the life of another. Doctors are prime candidates for being insensitive to this barbarism because desensitisation is a job hazard. But the fact that death determination has become a matter of state bureaucracy makes it doubly unfeeling. If you want to feel what it means that we have turned against life, all you have to do is imagine someone with “tender emotions”—to use one of Dostoevsky’s favourite phrases—as the instrument of this state-approved annihilation. Get people who feel to attend to what is being done. The horror of this apparatus might then become apparent.

Imagine a child handing the relevant lethal dose to a parent to administer, if indeed that is the process followed. Imagine a friend handing a gun to another friend. Imagine a little girl watching the substance of that lethal injection being deployed into the arm of her mother. Can we honestly reconcile ourselves to what would be required of us to make such acts palatable? Nature may be cruel at times, and life hands very difficult endings to many of us. But to emulate that which opposes life is precisely to side with death. It is to side with the poison, the car crash, and the natural disaster.

Even at its best, quite apart from opening the door to those who feel unusually vulnerable in their illness, the state-mediation of suicide only creates a facade that suggests that what is happening is genuinely done for the sake of love and compassion. But what is required to keep this door open is precisely a mimetic identification with that which does not feel. What is required, by this impersonal configuration, is full identification with tools and systems and laws and procedures. To allow this is to become inhuman. As Sheren intimates, “what Canada is doing to its citizens” is not just a matter of killing those who succumb to this systemic mimetic anti-life machine. It is a matter of taking yet another dramatic step into a world that is utterly barbaric.

Recently, I saw a video of Kathleen Rogers, an Irish woman who is facing death because of illness. She talks about the facts. Her illness is already difficult and she knows just how bad things are going to get. But she courageously says that she will die at the right time when her illness has run its course. She has people around her who love her and support her so there is no need to side with the mimetic slippery slope that would have her submit her soul to the jaws of the will-to-control that has become the standard of all technological societies. As Joseph Campbell said, “Life is pain, and life is suffering, and life is horror, but my god you’re alive and it’s spectacular.”

There is deep wisdom in embracing the doubleness of life’s inevitable suffering along with the gift of life itself. And anyway, medically assisted murder-suicide cannot be legislated without legislating social trauma. It is a technological solution to, and therefore a preemptive refusal to understand, a profound existential battle for human dignity itself. What dying people need is not to be left to a bureaucratic medical-industrial abyss but to be carried and loved. But beyond this, all of us living in technological societies with all kinds of technological encroachments need to recover what it means to be alive. Here’s a start: life is suffering. It is, as that word used to suggest, best understood in allowing. To live is to undergo life. Control, on the other hand, turns life against itself.

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