A COLUMN by Catherine Bennett in The Observer last week took issue with the apparent hypocrisy of the British Christian Right. She started by revisiting the 2015 parliamentary debate on assisted dying, on which she takes the humanist line. Then, “Sir Edward Leigh said: ‘There is just one, overwhelming, fundamental human right: the right to life.’
“Leigh . . . [was] recently to be found demanding evidence that Christmas worship was a health risk. ‘Outlawing religious services is a disproportionate response,’ said Leigh, who is still sitting on any evidence of divine aerosol suppression.
“Sir Desmond Swayne, likewise protective in 2015, recently objected that doctors diagnosing terminal illness might make mistakes; assisted dying ‘put the vulnerable at risk’. He later complained that lockdown regulations, already too late to guarantee enough ventilators for Covid’s vulnerable, are ‘pervaded by a pettifogging malice’.
“Without — presumably — having formally exchanged ostentatious piety for ruthless utilitarianism, a striking number of those advocating policies that would have exposed more older people to an agonising death also belonged to 2015’s sanctity of life faction. Not that they had any guarantee that likely human sacrifice would be restricted to the over-60s who, according to leading anti-lockdownists, are probably sickly and certifiably expendable.”
For Bennett, it is obvious that these anachronistic, if still carnivorous, dinosaurs are wrong on both counts, as well as monstrously hypocritical.
I am less certain. The hypocrisy of these opponents of assisted dying illustrates the point that they want to make better than their sincerity ever could. Against legalised euthanasia, they argue that young and healthy people will selfishly pressure the old to die; and they are right. Their own behaviour proves it. Admittedly, they are keener on other people’s grannies’ dying than their own, but the point still stands. And if even a Conservative Member of Parliament is tempted to profit from the deaths of innocent but undeniably inconvenient old people, how can the rest of us, by definition of a lower moral stature, be expected to resist the temptation in our turn?
BUT, if being shamed by journalists had any effect on public figures, the world would be a very different place. I’m not entirely sure that it would be better, though. There is a psychiatrist in San Francisco who wrote a blog for many years under the pseudonym Scott Alexander. It was a big part of the so-called rationalist movement, which is, I think, the only living part of humanism today, in the sense that it is not parasitical on Christian habits of mind. Although they don’t believe in original sin, they really do believe in human fallibility, not all of it other people’s.
This autumn, The New York Times wanted to profile him, and then demanded that they print his real name as part of it. He asked them not to. They replied that their policy demanded it. So he shut down the blog and removed the archives from the internet. His noisy and various enemies then published his real name everywhere that they could.
Now, he has reappeared on the website Substack with some reflections. “No, seriously, it was awful. I deleted my blog of 1,557 posts. I wanted to protect my privacy, but I ended up with articles about me in New Yorker, Reason, and The Daily Beast. I wanted to protect my anonymity, but I Streisand-Effected myself, and a bunch of trolls went around posting my real name everywhere they could find. I wanted to avoid losing my day job, but ended up quitting so they wouldn’t be affected by the fallout. . .
“ . . . Well, suppose Power comes up to you and says hey, I’m gonna kick you in the balls. And when you protest, they say they don’t want to make anyone unsafe, so as long as you can prove that kicking you in the balls will cause long-term irrecoverable damage, they’ll hold off. And you say, well, it’ll hurt quite a lot. And they say that’s subjective. . .
“In the New York Times’ worldview, they start with the right to dox me [to expose his offline identity], and I had to earn the right to remain anonymous by proving I’m the perfect sympathetic victim who satisfies all their criteria of victimhood. But in my worldview, I start with the right to anonymity, and they need to make an affirmative case for doxxing me. I admit I am not the perfect victim. The death threats against me are all by losers who probably don’t know which side of a gun you shoot someone with. If anything happened at work, it would probably inconvenience me and my patients, but probably wouldn’t literally kill either of us. Still! Don’t kick me in the fucking balls!”
It’s a sobering thought that, in this trade, we almost always hurt people by accident. I mean, sometimes the cruelty is deliberate and successful, but that works only on weakness, even if that weakness is only the vanity of your victim. But real power sails above all that — not least because the really powerful own newspapers, or Facebook, anyway.