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Who draws the line on what is or isn’t a useful life? / 14 January 2016

A photograph of Liz Carr as Clarissa Mullery in the BBC's Silent Witness. The image is a close up on her face with a crime scene in the background.

Liz Carr as Clarissa Mullery. Image © BBC.

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The journalist Matthew Parris has a bit of a thing about ‘usefulness’ as an important human trait. When interviewed by disability activist and wheelchair user Baroness Jane Campbell on BBC Radio 4’s first Today programme of 2016, he branded her as “a clearly useful person” because of her place in the House of Lords.

Parris makes his politics clear. His recent article in the Spectator was headed: ‘Some day soon we’ll all accept that useless lives should be ended’ meaning, of course, the lives of disabled people: not ‘good’ disabled people like Baroness Campbell who contribute by virtue of being part of the Establishment, but ‘bad’ disabled people who are deemed by the media circus to ‘cost money’.

According to Parris, legislation supporting assisted suicide is of no consequence: “the Darwinian struggle for survival” means that “tribes that handicap themselves will not prosper.” His argument is that the acceptance of assisted suicide will come in only a matter of time. He believes that we will learn to elect to end our lives, because history has taught us “that suicide can be a fine and noble thing”.

But did Darwin believe that ‘natural selection’ was dependent on life being able to compete as is understood by the ideology invested in the term ‘survival of the fittest’?

Dr Ju Gosling takes a critical look at Darwin’s theories and their impact on society in her book ‘Abnormal: How Britain Became Body Dysphoric and the key to a cure’. She concludes that a generally accepted misunderstanding of Darwin’s ideas, “appropriated by economists and politicians to give scientific credibility to the field of eugenics”, is responsible for “the biggest impact of all on the way in which we view our bodies today.” P.25

Gosling goes on to explain that by ‘fitness to survive’ Darwin meant the flexibility within species to be able to adapt to their environment. By ‘natural selection’ he meant for example, that “a species that had a thick coat during an ice age was likely to develop a thinner coat during a period when the earth was hotter, or it would become extinct…”

“All of this natural selection depended on there being as wide a range of attributes to choose from as possible, underlining the importance of continuing diversity within a species.” P.26

Living in harmony with other members the species and being physically suited to an environment are critical qualities on the journey towards adaptation. Darwin had little truck with theories of ‘biological determinism’ that were attached to his scientific research, often used to support the beliefs of eugenicists that “humans could be ‘improved’ by allowing only the strongest, sanest, fittest and brightest people to reproduce.” P.27

Going back to Parris’s article, his concept of “the Darwinian struggle for survival” is deeply flawed and far too simplistic to bear relation to what Darwin wrote and believed.

The notion of what and who is ‘useful’ is very subjective and a dangerous imperative. As Quentin Crisp said: “everyone knows the uses of the useful; but no-ones knows the uses of the useless.”

I’m sure that Baroness Campbell sees her ‘usefulness’ to society in very different terms to Parris. On the Today programme she said: “The world is still a barrier to disabled people, but there is an even bigger battle about perception; people thinking of disabled people in terms of the welfare system. You’re either a benefit scrounger or an Olympian.”

Over the last 15 years, society’s attitudes have shifted ever further towards equating the value of human life with monetary worth. Poverty has often been regarded at different periods in history as a sin. During Darwin’s time eugenicists regarded poverty as a crime, rather than a consequence of circumstance.

When, for example as reported recently in The Independent, the Department of Work and Pensions is able to get away with spending more taxpayers’ money on punitive fit-to-work assessments designed to punish disabled people than the programme is actually set to save, then we can see that vested interests are shoring up an insistence that impairment is to be feared and eradicated. It also becomes clear that the argument of economic necessity actually bears little relation to the facts.

Baroness Campbell dedicated a fair bit of the Today programme she edited in reviewing the changes in attitudes 20 years on from the Disability Discrimination Act. “The predominant attitude [then] was pity; that’s still there, but at the time we were not visible in society; not on the streets, not in jobs, not in schools. That’s changed, but we’ve a long, long way to go.”

And there lies the rub. Institutions have closed down and we are more visible, but the reality is that society is scared of what disabled people represent.

I’m not usually a fan of crime drama, but last week BBC One’s ‘Silent Witness’ proved an insightful and entertaining watch. It carried a storyline exemplifying ways in which it is now understood that that fear could manifest.

The first two episodes of the new series followed the investigation of two murders made to look like suicide by the perpetrator. On establishing that both individuals had terminal illnesses, forensic examiner Clarissa Mullery (played by the fabulous Liz Carr - read our recent interview with her here) questions whether the killer saw the murders as “acts of mercy”. The plot later revealed that the motive was revenge, but the storyline suggests the scriptwriters understood how attitudes towards disability have moved further towards ideas of eradication over cure.

Disability is understood in terms of deficit, and the value of disabled peoples’ lives is always going to be in question as long as the attitudes that underline those values persist. But where do you draw the line on who is and isn’t ‘of use’ to society? Who decides? In the current climate there is a dangerous idea that there is a simple equation for what is or isn’t a productive life – centred around monetary worth. And there is a narrow band of members in society whose say counts.

But are asset speculators useful to the continuation of the human race? Are the genes of reality television hosts essential to healthy cultural values? Many would (perhaps justifiably) see the bleating of the middle classes not as ‘culture’ and ‘art’, but as an essentially useless activity. Should we simply euthanise these ‘useless’ people and their pursuits? The idea seems preposterous. Unfortunately, to many like Parris, the idea is not so ridiculous when it comes to disabled peoples' lives.

Keywords: assisted suicide,disability activists,disabled radio presenters,discrimination,liz carr


Merry Cross

18 January 2016

It's a good article and thanks Colin. But we need to shout from the roof-tops that eugenicists and their social Darwinism were in powerful positions all over Europe before and during the second World War. If they had not been, Hitler might never have had the idea of exterminating whole groups of people. So it will never happen again...???

Deborah Caulfield

15 January 2016

Lack of time and energy prevent me responding in a way that would do true justice to your excellent piece here, Colin. So, a couple of quick points.

I believe you're smack on target with your title question; the essential issue is one of power, who possesses it, how they wield it and in whose interests.

I'm not educated to Parris's level but I can do logic and there are many flaws in his argument. But then logic and intelligence are not the most effective weapons against brutality built on numbers.

In my view, Parris's position is pure psychopathy. He sidesteps all moral responsibility for his views, as if he is simply reporting what he would claim is unarguably and objectively the case.

But as someone once said (can't remember who) objectivity is the name some people give to their own subjectivity.

Parris is a narcissistic bully. His views are narrow and devoid of two essential human qualities, imagination and love.

The scary thing is that he is far from alone. Indeed, the world is run by creatures of his ilk.

The good news is that, in making his (and others') views public, we are able to know what they're thinking and can organise our own counter-campaigns. Which is exactly what happened in September last year and I was proud to be a (small) part of it.


15 January 2016

Thanks Esther. It appalls me that there is an accepted idea of what Darwin meant by 'survival of the fittest' that is trawled out bearing little relation to his actual theories. The misunderstanding has become embedded as fact so that when it is quoted there is a general assumption that it is scientific fact.

Esther Fox

14 January 2016

Interesting Blog Colin and it chimes so much with the sort of questions I've been looking to raise in my blog. I also read the article Matthew Parris wrote in The Times and was left with the overwhelming feeling that at the heart of his argument was a confused set of value judgements. Terrifying though his (and others) arguments are, when placing value on human life, much of the economic argument isn't even valid. It is proven with better support for one to one "care" for disabled people in their own homes, we are healthier and happier - therefore less likely to have expensive hospital stays etc etc etc. If the economic argument doesn't stack up - then I think the other issue you have raised is fear - that some people do not like/are fearful of what disabled people represent. Perhaps a reminder of their own mortality.

I think debates like these are essential at this time when medical "advances" are raising very challenging ethical questions and the value of life is called into question - economic value over human value. I'd like to get a sense is there an appetite for a wider interactive public art piece which can capture and explore some of these issues?