The Slipstream Between Absurdity and Profound Beauty

Terri Schiavo finally died today (objectively yesterday, but subjectively today as I am still awake). I am tempted to say that the body of the former person Terri Schiavo finally stopped working today, but it seems a little too party-line.

As this drama has played itself out, a passage from an old article has acted as an interlocutor as I have turned this issue around in my head.

A few years ago The New York Times Magazine published a few thousand word essay titled “Unspeakable Conversations” (16 February 2003) by Charleston, South Carolina based attorney and disabled persons activist Harriet McBryde Johnson.

The article was more human interest than polemical. It was about Ms. Johnson’s acceptance of an invitation from Peter Singer and Princeton University to participate in two forums on infanticide and assisted suicide.

Mr. Singer, if you haven’t heard his name, is a rather famous philosopher focusing on ethics. Asserting that personhood is coterminous with cognition, he has argued in favor of abortion rights, euthanasia, assisted suicide and in some cases infanticide. Oddly enough, he is also a vegetarian and the author of one of the classics of the animal rights movement, Animal Liberation.

The dramatic tension of the essay was that Ms. Johnson is a disabled persons activist and the Professor argues in favor of killing disabled infants at birth. From her perspective, Mr. Singer is a monster. How is one to behave towards a person held in such contempt? Many of her fellow activists encouraged Ms. Johnson not to legitimize Mr. Singer by appearing with him in the forum, but she accepted nonetheless. After her visit, Ms. Johnson’s sister asks her, “You kind of like the monster, don’t you?” She replies, “He’s not exactly a monster. He just has some strange ways of looking at things.”

The article is a well-crafted and interesting piece of writing. The passage from Ms. Johnson’s article to which I give a few minutes of sustained consideration every couple of weeks when it comes to me is an interchange between the Professor and the Attorney:

In the classroom there was a question about keeping alive the unconscious. In response, I told a story about a family I knew as a child, which took loving care of a nonresponsive teenage girl, acting out their unconditional commitment to each other, making all the other children, and me as their visitor, feel safe. This doesn’t satisfy Singer. “Let’s assume we can prove, absolutely, that the individual is totally unconscious and that we can know, absolutely, that the individual will never regain consciousness.”

I see no need to state an objection, with no stenographer present to record it; I’ll play the game and let him continue.

“Assuming all that,” he says, “don’t you think continuing to take care of that individual would be a bit — weird?”

“No. Done right, it could be profoundly beautiful.”

Profoundly beautiful. That is the phrase that has stuck with me. I think that I am firmly in the camp declaring such a use of human resources absurd. Worse than absurd: granting that preserving someone in a neither-death-nor-yet-life state is morally neutral, pressing their caretakers into empty medical rituals, acts that would be difficult even where the rewards great and obvious, or into meaningless labor, no matter how generously remunerated, is the unbearable pinnacle of absurdity. Doesn’t it devalue life to devote it to so meager an end? The incongruence of the tremendous technological feats and the expenditure of the heights of human ingenuity to no effect whatsoever, in the service of nothing so much as proving a point — a point that could be better made in so many other ways, for life is so cheap in this world — is demoralizing in its own way.

These are all just platitudes. I don’t really have an answer to the proposition of profound beauty. I want to say that there is something gnawing about the statement, but I don’t know if it is the power or the starkness of the statement that provokes me so.

I don’t know how much moral seriousness to accord Ms. Johnson: when presented with her seemingly double standard regarding the value of the lives of animals versus humans in a persistent vegetative state, she cut off Mr. Singer, saying, “Look. I have lived in blissful ignorance all these years, and I’m not prepared to give that up today.” How can one be so morally inflamed about an issue that is obviously of great interest to one’s self, yet insistent on flippant disregard on all others?

One might think Ms. Johnson a profound moral thinker, but this is only the most outstanding example from the piece of what is a sectarian agenda the makes little consideration of anything beyond its own particularistic and selfish aims. And particularistic and selfish is exactly what Mr. Singer has set himself against.

Despite my criticisms, I cannot recommend the essay enough. As a pissed off liberal I have come to hate the word “nuance,” but the article very clearly complexifies (a neologism, but still better than “nuance”) an issue too often portrayed as simple.