Functionalism - the last discrimination

On death, Dawkins, Down Syndrome and dementia. 

I get most of my news these days from twitter. I imagine that someone will (if they haven't already) conduct a survey one day on the attraction and functionality of transmitting the maximum information in only 140 characters.

I love it. It delivers me what I need and want to know in a highly efficient manner - without all the shallow 'click bait' window dressing which seems to be the stock in trade of the general online media services.

The sound of one thumb scrolling. Have I really lost anything much by shunning the daily paper for a medium I can use with one hand whilst tucking into my breakfast with the other? Not really. I still get the weekend papers out of habit more than anything but also because Saturday mornings provide a little more leisure time to ruffle the pages back and forth. It's also a bit of a touchstone to a slower paced life long gone. I might be kidding myself, but I honestly think that my smartphone and my twitterfeed build into my day a level of focus and functionality that enhances efficiency and keeps me on task.

Technology is a great leveller. Access seems ever easier and new devices can help break down the barriers on disability and even overcome the tyranny of distance in new and exciting ways. This creates new frontiers for learning, for access to medical care and other services no matter where we might live.

But there's no escaping the early computer aphorism, 'garbage-in-garbage-out'. It remains ever true that these devices are simply tools that can just as easily be used to bring harm rather than good. Globalized communication also means the globalization of trash stories and trash thinking.

I think that we should create a special area for news webpages dedicated to such trash. It should be right next to the stories with headlines such as: Man takes dog for a walk. You'll never guess what happens next! Some less than savoury titles come to mind for such an area; but for the sake of decorum, let's just call it the 'functionalism' section.

Functionalism is the name given to the idea that people can and should be defined by what they can and cannot do; that their worth can be graded by their skills and attributes. I call this 'the last discrimination' for a particular reason that I will go into a little later on. That it is discriminatory should be beyond doubt. It is, in essence, wedded to the idea of utilitarianism.

In a world of functionalism and utilitarianism, there's little room for those that the Nazi eugenics movement called, 'useless eaters'; people who, either by birth, accident, illness or advancing age, do not fulfil a useful function as defined by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer.

Dawkins recently outraged the disability community and particular, people with Down Syndrome and their families by advising someone in his twitterfeed in respect to a putative Down Syndrome pregnancy, to 'abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring into the world if you have a choice.' In another place, Dawkins goes so far as to call abortion for Down Syndrome as 'civilized'.

Advocating abortion of a down syndrome child as 'civilized' and effectively as a 'moral duty' is a hard sell. But, as already mentioned, Dawkins is no orphan in this regard. Others, like Singer, have gone further, suggesting that infanticide is an acceptable moral choice. Humans, according to Singer, are not born self-aware, therefore, until self-awareness is achieved, they are not human. Singer seems to suggest that an infant reaches self-awareness at about 30 days; so until that time, which is clearly only arbitrary, raising or killing the child is neither here nor there.

But there's another problem here: are not people in a comatose state or people who have otherwise lost the capacity for rational judgement not also in this category? Are they then not just as disposable as a child born with down syndrome according to Singer's logic? What then do we say to the notion of choice? What, ultimately, as Singer and others propose - as is the case with the Groningen Protocol in The Netherlands and the new child euthanasia laws in Belgium - are we to say in regards to consent and the best interests of the person concerned?

British Comedian, Jeremy Paxman recently posited an answer in his recent Edinburgh Fringe comedy show:

"The problem with old people is they are bloody everywhere. You cannot get on a train or go to a country pub. They are all full of old people. Through no fault of their own, they believe the state owes them a living. They are under the illusion they have paid to a pension fund all their lives. But they haven't."
"Their pensions are being paid out of what you earn. So we all have to keep working so they can stay in that state of euphoria. I would like to invite you all to join my crowd-funded project for franchises of Dignitas clinics. We will have them on every street corner. It would be rather like Sweeney Todd's pie shop and will be disguised as tea shops. You will take Aunty Doris there and drop her off and she will say "see you next Tuesday" and you'll say "probably".

If that's comedy then it is in extremely poor taste. But it is just as likely that Paxman was serious. Perhaps not to the extent of a new UK Dignitas franchise, but most likely in the insinuation that the aged are 'a burden'. Again, functionalism: the aged are past being useful and are eating up precious resources (read: there'll be less left for the rest of us).

But if it were simply the prejudice of a sour comedian, perhaps we could dismiss it. But it is not. A recent story in the UK Telegraph talks about community nurses pressing the elderly - at the first 'home visit' mind you - to sign do not resuscitate orders as part of the National Health Service documentation. The Royal College of Nurses responded by saying that such questions should only be canvassed once the nurse had developed a relationship with the person. This, like the public scandal of people being sedated and dehydrated to death using the Liverpool Care Pathway is not so much a problem about malicious intention as it is about treating people so poorly as to simply value them as little more that warmed up flesh occupying bed space or as just the object of a 'tick-box' protocol. The potential for hidden pressure and elder abuse cannot be ignored.

It is also a very poor substitute for individual care and creates questions about the quality and focus of nurse training in the UK.

Is it any wonder that the idea of older or sick people becoming a burden is embedded in the psyche of our seniors? And what about the fear campaigns mounted against the aged and infirmed - sometimes by those people themselves?

The recent suicide of Gillian Bennett in Canadian British Columbia had such elements. Before she killed herself, Mrs Bennett set up a website that describes her reasoning. She was suffering from early onset dementia.

Saying that she, 'wanted to go out before the day when I can no longer assess my situation', she goes on to provide a detailed justification for her actions.

I do not like hospitals - they're dirty places
I would not want to…mess up my decision to cost Canada as little as possible.
All I lose is…years of being a vegetable in a hospital setting, eating up the country's money.
My mindless body…financial hardship for those left behind…perpetually changing diapers…an empty husk… civic duty.

What's an elderly person to think? It's unpatriotic to want to live? Shouldn't they all follow her 'heroic' example? You'll be a burden, an empty husk, a parasite on society? There's very little here that distinguishes this kind of pressure from Dawkin's idea of a moral duty. Once again, a 'past use-by date' functionalism. A clarion call to a false selflessness that is really nothing at all about selflessness and everything about subtle pressure.

This is the environment into which some want to introduce a lethal dose. For those whose integrity and self-worth has been eroded by the seemingly incessant drip, drip, drip from a debased humanity, such functionalism may literally be the last discrimination.