September, 2015

now browsing by month

 

Us and them

There is something in our evolutionary history that we seem not be able to shake off when we should. We all too easily become tribal and split ourselves into ‘us’ and ‘them’.

We can define ourselves by the groups we belong to, formally or informally. Work (including department versus department, team versus team), school, church, hobbies. All can help us form part of our sense of identity, but the danger is that we then regard those not in that group as ‘the others’. As if any of us defined ourselves by what we are not.

History is rife with examples of extreme consequences of putting people into the category of the ‘others’, different from us in some way.

The Nazis were an obvious example of this. Anyone who did not conform to their concept of what an acceptable human being should look like (both behaviourally and physically) was consigned to be one of the ‘others’, with the terrible consequences that followed.

And then there are the refugees. Another case of them being, in some people’s eyes, no more than the ‘others.’

How-the-others-live

How the ‘others’ live? Discuss…

Politicians are perhaps another example of people we can easily consider different from ‘us’. And that makes it much easier to consider them as fair game. I think it’s perhaps just another form of us wanting to be judged by our intentions rather than our acts, but judging others by their acts rather than their intentions.

And it’s perhaps in that context that I’m now seeing the storm in a teacup that was the Rifkind/Straw case. Someone decided that politicians were legitimate targets for a sting operation. There was, as far as I can see, no suggestion that the twelve politicians who were selected for this operation had previously done anything wrong which merited exposure. It looks much more like a fishing expedition to see what might come out of it. And what did come out of it? That they were considering how to earn a living after they had left parliament. That they were able to command fees which are out of the reach of almost anyone else. Certainly of anyone we might actually know – ‘us’. That they had properly disclosed their existing outside interests, which are allowed under parliamentary rules. And that they – like, I would suggest, every single one of us – said some things in a conversation which were ambiguous, capable of misinterpretation, or downright factually incorrect. Like Rifkind saying he didn’t earn a salary. He now says it was a silly thing to have said and that of course he was being paid a salary as an MP. But none of ‘us’ has every said something which stretched the truth a bit (or a lot), which sought to make us seem in some way better than we are. We just haven’t been recorded doing it. Unless you count the content of some CVs.

Was it a legitimate investigation for the media organisation in question to have run? I think it probably depends on your view of how to judge this. If it had revealed serious wrongdoing, I think we would collectively have concluded that the ends justified the means. And, implicitly, that lying and pretending to be someone else in order to get to a truth which would otherwise remain hidden, is justifiable in some cases. Which is not to say that it was right in principle, without knowing the outcome. And some might say that behaving truthfully trumps the question of the outcome which might result. It’s an age old debate.

Either way it is a far cry from the kind of work others have done. In my case, the man I know best in the area of undercover journalism is a German (surprise, surprise), Günter Wallraff. He made his living for decades by taking on the persona of a member of a societal group which we can so easily think of as the ‘others’. An alcoholic, a homeless person and as a Turkish Gastarbeiter. His book on the latter, Ganz Unten (Lowest of the Low) is one I will never forget. He experienced and recorded what it was like to be a foreign worker in (what was then) West Germany. It was not pleasant, and perhaps for that reason it has stayed in my mind every since. He was not without his critics, including those who considered his methods to be inappropriate (for which read unethical). The main German tabloid, Bild, later accused him of having been one of the East German Stasi’s unofficial collaborators. A court agreed with him that there was no proof that this had ever been true. Back to media ethics again. Ironically, Wallraff had also in the past worked (again, undercover) for four months as an editor at that same newspaper and had exposed some of the practices there. It was also the only newspaper that refused to allow me access to any of its journalists to explore their concept of media ethics with them. They were ‘too busy.’ Clearly more so than those at all the other newspapers. It said a lot.

Survey after survey shows us that we consistently believe ourselves to be better than the average in almost any area (I say almost because there might be an exception rather than because I know of any).

On the basis of the evidence I have of my own actions (even if not recorded for public scrutiny) I don’t think I could claim to be better than anyone else in not getting all tribal and letting my T-100,000 years man take over. But I am pretty sure the world would be a better place if we could move on from that place. We aren’t living in caves any more.

 

Pause.

 

There is another way of saying this that you are much more likely to remember in years to come, because someone else said it better than I can. Martin Niemöller was a German minister who vocally opposed the National Socialists and spent (and survived) seven years in concentration camps. He wrote this poem. It says it all. In someone’s eyes, we are all the ‘others.’

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Caught myself out!

You might have noticed that the last few weeks’ blogs have been longer, and covered thornier issues than running. This is partly because there is not always something topical which grabs my attention, but also because I like trying to understand these types of issues with sufficient depth to ensure that I have been challenged in my own prejudices and pre-conceived ideas. And this week, I caught myself in a huge set of assumptions.

I wrote the bare bones of a blog and then checked the facts. And the facts didn’t fit what I thought they would. The lens I was looking through was so warped that it took a while for the data to seep through and help me see the beam in my own eye. Don’t you just love mixed metaphors? That’s me trying to distract from the real issue here, which is not how to write English but the fact that I ignored checking the facts in preference for my own opinion.

Why did I do that? First, it was a practical issue. I was sitting on Portobello promenade writing it while LoLo was out sailing (for the first time). So I didn’t have proper access to the files I would need and was relying on memory and overall impression. As well as my prejudices. Second, because I was relying on the media portrayal of the facts to be accurate. We should be able to assume the facts are materially correct, should we not? But third – simply because I already thought I knew what the answer would be, the angle I wanted to take, the context in which I was seeing the case.

I am now going to allow myself another week to get to the bottom of the case I wanted to cover, which was the Malcolm Rifkind/Jack Straw case following an undercover media sting.

MR-JS report cover

Of very immediate interest to me is the extent to which my assumptions and prejudices (yes, I know I keep using those words) suddenly kicked in and I assumed there had to be some wrongdoing behind the allegations being made against the two politicians. Because we all know that you can’t trust politicians, don’t we? And that the only thing lacking is some evidence for what we all suspect. After all, wasn’t there that whole thing with their expenses and moat cleaning and what not? So there must be more if only we knew where to find it. Or if we had intrepid journalists rooting out the truth. Modern day Woodfords and Bernsteins.

So rather than write about what I already ‘knew’ to be true, I have spent more than a few hours so far wading through the official report and have started on the several hundred pages of evidence from all sides of the issue. And that, I am afraid, all takes time.

But really my lesson so far is that while I think I am reasonable and rational in how I approach serious issues, I can so easily find myself better unfairly unobjective and believing I already know the answer.

Must do better. I hope to do so next week when I try to do the subject justice.

This too could be me or you

There was an important debate in the UK parliament last week, one which has received relatively little media attention, and yet one which could affect any one of us in the future.

Easeful-Death

The draft Bill was the Assisted Dying (No 2) Bill, which was to ‘enable competent adults who are terminally ill to choose to be provided with medically supervised assistance to end their own life.’

That summary is, of course, very important in setting the context for what it was, and was not, trying to deal with. Unfortunately, because the topic is understandably an emotive one, both the public and parliamentary debates tend to conflagrate a number of issues which, in a more general sense might be seen to have some connection but legally are very separate.

I wanted to give a personal view on the debate. In doing so, I claim no medical expertise. One of my backgrounds is in ethics, which might have made the whole topic of more interest to me, but my starting point is putting myself in the position of someone at whom the Bill was aimed and considering what I would want.

But before we go there, it might be helpful to give some background to how this ended up as a parliamentary debate.

As the law stands, suicide is not illegal. For some people it remains morally wrong, but it is not illegal.  But what happens when someone might choose to end their life but cannot do so without assistance? Assisting another person’s suicide is potentially considered murder under the law, but that is a blunt instrument and does not distinguish between the spectrum of motives someone might have to provide that assistance. The people we wish, I think, to protect in these circumstances are are exemplified by those who are motivated by a desire to relieve the suffering of a loved one, particularly where that suffering has become intolerable.

Several high profile cases (Dan James, Debbie Purdy and Tony Niklinson) sought to clarify the law, albeit – and I think we have to acknowledge this up front – in circumstances which the draft Bill did not seek to address. One of the outcomes was a set of guidelines drawn up by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) on when it would not be considered to be in the public interest to prosecute someone for assisting someone else to end their life. Because this was the uncertainty hanging over anyone considering this course of action – would they (or their loved ones) be prosecuted after the event? It was not simply a matter of what the law said, but of how it would be applied in practice.

However, guidelines on the approach that, after the fact, might be taken on the question of prosecuting an individual, were seen as unsatisfactory, including by the president of the Supreme Court, who said that:

A system whereby a judge or other independent assessor is satisfied in advance that someone has a voluntary, clear, settled and informed wish to die and for his or her suicide then to be organised in an open and professional way would…provide greater and more satisfactory protection for the vulnerable, than a system which involves a lawyer from the DPP’s office inquiring, after the event, whether the person who had killed himself or herself had such a wish.

The Supreme Court said also that resolving this question was a matter for Parliament to address, not for the courts. This, then, was what the Bill was trying to do. There is additional recent history in that this Bill was first proposed by Lord Falconer in the House of Lords, where it was defeated, but I will focus here on the more recent debate.

Let us start with the Bill itself and what it provided for. It’s not a long Bill and it’s well written in that it is clear and you do not have to be a lawyer to understand it.

In a (non-lawyerly) nutshell:

  • If a person has been diagnosed as being terminally ill (defined as having less than six months to live); and
  • That person has made a signed declaration that ‘he or she has a voluntary, clear, settled, and informed wish to end his or her own life’; and
  • Two independent doctors have confirmed both of these conditions and that the person has the capacity to make the decision to end their life; then
  • An application can be made for a High Court judge to permit a medical professional to provide the means for the individual to end their life.

There is a lot more detail than that, but I hope that this summary does justice to the essence of the proposal. So before anyone can be assisted to end their life, there has to be the formal and independent involvement of two doctors and a judge.

What the Bill did not propose – and I include this because too many MPs seemed to be unable to grasp the factual content of the Bill – included:

  • Disability would not qualify for consideration under the terms of the Bill. This was purely about people with a terminal illness.
  • Doctors would not be permitted to administer anything to end the patient’s life. Only the patient would be allowed to do that. A doctor would be allowed only to provide the means to facilitate this, and even then the patient could decide not to  go through with it, at which point the doctor would take the medicine away. It would not be left lying around ‘just in case’.
  • Doctors would not be required to participate in an assisted death. There is a specific clause providing for conscientious objection.

While I was frustrated with the poor grasp some of the MPs had on the facts of the Bill, the real questions they struggled with were those which we would all have to answer for ourselves. There were some clear themes in the debate and I will try to capture them and give my personal reflections on them.

Slippery slope

Helen Jones MP:

This Bill is not simply about those who have a terminal illness and are expected to die within six months, because it will inevitably be extended. It is a Bill that will in future lead to consequences for this society that in my view no civilised society should contemplate.

This is the argument which is advanced against many changes. Essentially it says ‘We shouldn’t just discuss the actual question, but also consider what might happen in the future and base our decision on that as well’. In this case, the Bill was clearly defined. Could it have been worded even more carefully – yes, and it probably needed to be, but that is what happens in the Committee sessions of parliament, which was what the vote was on – whether it should proceed to the next stage of scrutiny. Parliament was being asked solely to consider the specific proposals in the Bill, not to write a ‘blank cheque’ for future changes. Any later developments would have to come back to parliament to legislate for or against, meaning that control would always lie with parliament. And the debate in both Houses made it clear that, unlike so much other legislation where meaningful parliamentary scrutiny is virtually non-existent, this is an area where a great degree of attention would be paid to any later proposals.

Coercion

At one end of the spectrum is the scenario where someone is put under undue pressure to end their life. The less malignant version is where they feel that they are a burden on their family and that they should end their life.

It could happen, of course it could, particularly the second scenario. But the individual would have to convince two doctors and a judge that they – not someone else – wanted to end their life. I am also not convinced that, where safeguards like this are included to protect the vulnerable, we should instead choose to withhold the right to a death of their choosing from everyone. I would therefore want to balance Bob Stewart MP’s comment that ‘If there is just one mistake, and one person dies who should not have done, this House will have failed in its duty’ with ‘If there is one person who suffers an agonising death who need not have, this House will have failed in its duty.’

Is there such a thing as a right to death?

I just suggested that there is a right to a death of our choosing. But is there? I don’t know. But I do know this. At the moment, I cannot imagine a scenario in which I would no longer wish to live. But right now I am healthy and happy. What would that look like in a few decades time if I had an incurable illness that caused only pain, pain that I no longer felt I could, or wanted to tolerate? I might still be able to take some action to end my life. But what if it got to the point that I was incapacitated, unable to fend for myself, and there was no end in sight to the pain, just the hope of eventual release through a painful death?

I am very clear that I would want to have the choice to be helped to end my life before it became intolerable and my last days and weeks were nothing but pain and possibly regret for not having chosen to end my life earlier, which I still could have. Earlier than I would have wanted to – just in case it got too bad later on.

Is it a right? I don’t think it matters, to be honest. I think is humane and compassionate to allow me not to have to suffer because someone else thinks I should have to. In the end, parliament has in effect just decided that they would prefer I suffer in those circumstances.

There are better alternatives

Much mention is made of palliative care as removing the need for assisted dying.

Jonathan Reynolds MP:

There is a right to die under UK law. Any of us has the right to refuse further medical treatment in such a way as to bring our lives to a natural end. Furthermore, a person making that decision can usually obtain pain relief to ease their suffering.

Were this the case, there would not be examples of individuals starving themselves to death as the only way to end their life. For me, that ranks up there with drowning as an unimaginable way to die. For many people, our fear is not of death, but of the process of dying. Refusing medical treatment cannot be the sole answer, nor can pain relief. They may cover a great many situations, and for me the debate about assisted dying is not about saying that palliative care does not lead to a dignified departure from this life in a great many cases. I hope that my eventual death will be something that falls within that category, whether requiring specific measures or just because I stop functioning one day. But there are too many cases where palliative care is simply not sufficient, and although these are at the more extreme end, is it not right that we provide for them as well? I think so.

The letter from some of the faith groups in the UK implicitly acknowledges this:

Sadly, there are still instances of painful or distressing death, though due to advances in palliative care, these are much less common than was once the case. […] We believe that the best response to individuals’ end-of-life concerns lies in ensuring that all receive compassionate, high-quality palliative care and that this is best pursued under current legislation.

It is to the credit of the medical community that these cases of painful or distressing death are less common than in the past. But they still exist, and we should be providing for them in a humane and compassionate way, not saying that palliative care is the answer for all when it is plainly not. It was interesting that a number of MPs declared that better provision should be made for palliative care in the UK. More interesting, perhaps, will be how many of them now do anything about that desire.

I’ve now strayed outwith the parliamentary debate on the topic by bringing in the letter from the faith groups, but I will permit myself one more related tangent. I was disappointed by two aspects of Justin Welby’s summary of the issue (I’ve included a link to the full text as I am aware that I am picking out only his final paragraph for comment):

The current law and the guidelines for practice work; compassion is shown, the vulnerable are protected. In spite of individual celebrity opinions and the “findings” of snap opinion polls (that cannot hope to do justice to the intricacies of the issue) the current law is not “broken”. There is no need to fix it.

But the law, with the guidelines, does not work, either as a legal construct or in practice. As I noted earlier, the Supreme Court was very clear on this. It is very much ‘broken.’ Denial that there is an issue which we should address does not aid the debate. And I find it extremely (and surprisingly) patronising for him to suggest that a view on this which is contrary to this is based on celebrity opinions (I’m not aware of any) or opinion polls. Ignoring the most senior judges in the country does us all a disservice. Disagree with them by all means, but don’t pretend they don’t have a valid view of the law.

Where I stand

So what do I think?

Sarah Champion MP summarised what my personal wishes would be:

We do not know—we do it only once—what our death will be like, but I would like to give people the peace of mind that if the situation becomes intolerable, they can make an informed choice about their own life.

And in somewhat different language, I find John Stuart Mill’s construct helpful:

The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

All I want is the right to be helped to implement a choice I might want to make if the time came. And while I would hope that neither I nor anybody would ever be in the position of wanting or having to consider making such a choice, I know it has, does and will happen. And I could not in good conscience deprive them of what Mary Warnock and Elisabeth Macdonald call an ‘Easeful Death.’

I think this is one of the many difficult topics where fiction can help us get inside the issue in a way in which even the best portrayal of the arguments cannot. I find Jodi Picoult’s book do that extremely well. A novel that deals with assisted dying is a little closer to home and if you wish to disregard my recommendation on the basis that my future inheritance depends on sales of this book, you do not understand the economics of the publishing business. But you can ignore me anyway. I still recommend it.

righttodie-158x240

It could be you or me

Germany’s constitution was born in a period of upheaval in the aftermath of the Second World War, the country divided in two, and conceived as a temporary set of laws, to be replaced when Germany was again united as one country. But years went by and that prospect became more and more remote. The “Basic Law” became permanent and when, over forty years later, reunification finally came about, it was adopted as the constitution of the new Germany. Berlin hosts a cross between a monument and a piece of art on which the constitution is written on a row of large glass plates.

GG

The constitution reflects what was then the very recent history of the Nazis’ setting aside of human rights and the previous rule of law, and it still frames Germany’s attitude towards the world and itself today.

You can hear the echo of the concentration camps in the opening line of Article 1:

The dignity of the individual is inviolable.

Followed not by a caveat, but by ‘It is the duty of the state to protect and honour this.’

Similarly, other principles are outlined in bold statements.

All persons are equal before the law.

Freedom of faith and of conscience, and freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed, are inviolable.

Persons persecuted on political grounds shall have the right of asylum.

This last provision is of course the one most topical, with millions of refugees from Syria and other countries seeking sanctuary for themselves and their families. We have Germany preparing to accept 800,000 refugees and the federal government providing billions of funds to look after these new arrivals. For the German leadership, this is a moral imperative. The Nazi period might lie decades in the past, but it will never be forgotten and shapes Germany’s attitude towards the rest of the world today.

Accepting this number of refugees is a huge step to take and we should not forget that it is not without risk, or indeed its own historical context.

Germany remains a country which even now has not properly decided how to treat the millions of Gastarbeiter and their families, the largely Turkish ‘guest workers’ who came to Germany from the mid-1950s onwards and helped rebuild the country. Contrary to expectations at the time, but entirely predictably, Germany became their home, even more so for their children, but the original workers are still not entitled to German citizenship along side their original Turkish citizenship. And these are people who have been living and working in Germany for the last 60 years.

Even before the latest offer of sanctuary, there was already concern in Germany that, rather than using, and where necessary, renovating existing accommodation – including the building I used to live in in Berlin – refugees were being housed in tents and other pre-fabricated structures, often very separate from where the rest of the population lives. The longer-term question is always how to foster acceptance and integration once the initial rush of generosity dies down, as it always does, and will do in this case. ‘Refugees welcome’ is a wonderful sign of intent, but making that intent something which will be of long term benefit requires early consideration of the practical consequences of immigration on this scale. And as climate catastrophe is one of the root cause of the present humanitarian crisis, this is just the beginning.

There have already been several cases of attacks on refugee accommodation in Germany this year, even before the Syrian crisis really became well known and the scale of refugee movements increased so dramatically. These attacks are perpetrated by a very small minority in the country but they are already reminiscent of similar barbarity in 1991 and 1992 when there was a series of attacks in Eastern German towns against foreign families.

At around the same time, there was a debate in Germany about limiting what had been that unrestricted right to asylum in the country, itself a reaction to the experience of National Socialism and its devastating consequences for the number of refugees both during and after the Third Reich.

The outcome of the political debate in the early 1990s was to add to the previous bold and unrestricted right to asylum several paragraphs of exceptions to the rule. Some of the exceptions were simply designed to aid the practical process of identifying refugees more straightforward and even now, Germany has made it clear that the offer of asylum being made applies only to refugees, not to those from other countries where they are not being persecuted or living in a war zone. Citizens of other EU countries were, for example, excluded from being able to claim asylum in the 1993 change to the constitution . But it was a move which was strongly challenged by refugee organisations at the time and challenged at the constitutional court (which upheld the legality of the changes).

Germany has had a lot of experience with the causes and impact of refugees, not least in the form of the consequences of its own actions in the 1930s and 1940s. But so have all the other countries in Europe at some point. Persecution and migration (for many reasons) have been part of the history of mankind since the dawn of time.

My great-great grandfather (I might be out by a generation) was not exactly a refugee, but certainly a migrant, moving from Ireland to Scotland during the potato famine. I have no idea how he was received when he arrived with what must have been a different accent, little money and looking for work. He changed our surname to make it sound more Scottish than Mahaffy. But within a couple of generations, there had been marriages, children and a sense of being Scottish. A success story then. I am sure there are other stories which did not end so well.

Members of the family I have known longest and best in Germany were also refugees after the war. They were forced to leave Bohemia, then part of Germany, leaving everything behind and walking hundreds of miles, some as young children, to a city which was foreign to them, where the German spoken was different and made them stand out as different, almost foreign. To this day, they can switch back to their native dialect and the cooking I grew up with believing to be standard German fare is in fact largely from that area. Those refugee children were also victims of the Nazi regime and found themselves in a part of Germany that didn’t want them, and found them an inconvenient reminder of the recent past, a past that many would rather not be forced to think about every time the children opened their mouths. But in time the children grew up and their families became part of their new society. Since then generations have grown up in the same city they moved to, creating their own bonds and links with their new home.

But none of that happens by accident, either in the past or now. There has to be a willingness to accept, even embrace, the differences in the newcomers, to share the best of our respective cultures and help them to be able to treat their new surroundings as a home for them and for the children who will grow up there, some knowing the country of their parents’ birth only through stories and pictures of happier times, others remembering all too well what it was they were escaping from and what it had cost to find safety.

In the end, we all come from migrant families. Some of us just got here a little earlier than others. And that difference is nothing more than blind chance. It could have been any one of us trying to escape on a boat or living in a camp, hoping for a better tomorrow, free from fear for their lives and with dreams for their children’s futures.