When I was seven years old, I asked my parents for a pet cow. They bought it for me. I don’t remember if I was surprised at the time but as an adult it still surprises me. Sure, we lived on a farm and there was plenty of room but a pet cow? For a seven-year-old? I don’t really remember why I wanted a pet cow. But, I got one.
The problem with seven-year-olds is that they are seven years old. It took me all of two days to get completely bored with the chores of feeding and tending to the cow. My parents were none too pleased and told me that if I didn’t take care of the cow they would get rid of it. They weren’t lying. The following year we had the cow put down and butchered. We got about six month’s worth of dinner out of it.
The act of eating my pet cow didn’t strike me as particularly odd at the time. We also had chickens on the farm which we had eaten. One of my earliest childhood memories is watching a chicken that had just had its head chopped off run and jump over a fence that was about twenty metres away. How it knew where the fence was is a philosophical problem that still troubles me to this day. In any case, seeing animals killed and then eating them was just part of life on the farm growing up. I had been rabbit shooting. I had eaten freshly killed kangaroo. It was all perfectly normal.
I’ve always been something of a troll, especially when I was younger, and I’ve always had a fascination with how people react to stories that challenge something at the subconscious level. Every now and then I like to pull out my pet cow story and other gruesome farm tales to see how people respond. I’ve noticed these stories always seem to get a rise out of people who were born and raised in the city.
There’s another story I have that usually gets city people out of joint. Actually, this one is a thought experiment. I call it: The Meat Eater’s Licence.
The idea is simple: in order to be able to purchase meat, you first must get yourself a meat eater’s licence. How do you to that? Easy. You have to kill and butcher one animal with your own hands. You’ll show up at the meat eater’s licence facility and will be shown what to do and how to do it as humanely as possible. It can be a rabbit, a chicken or whatever. We’ll probably have to steer clear of larger animals in the interests of not violating RSPCA regulations. If you decide on the chicken, you’ll be given a hand axe and will cut the chicken’s head off. Once it has finished running around like the proverbial, you’ll do what my parents made me do as a kid and sit there and pluck its feathers and then you gut it. Job done. Now you have your meat eater’s licence and are free to buy as much meat as you like for the rest of your life.
When I started to run this idea past people just for fun, I was surprised by the strength of the reaction it got. Even though it’s just a thought experiment and hasn’t a snowflake’s chance in hell of being implemented, it seemed to touch on something deep. People would loudly insist that they would never do it. That they would rather become vegan (free idea for you vegans out there: badger your local politician to implement a meat eater’s licence).
One guy reacted especially strongly to the meat eater’s licence idea so I threw in the pet cow story too. He was mortified.
“How could you eat a pet”? he asked.
“How can you eat an animal you’ve never even seen when you yourself admit that you couldn’t bring yourself to kill it?” I answered.
My meat eater’s licence had accidentally touched on something very important. I’ve often thought it represents a divide that separates city folk from country folk. But now I believe it has to do with more than just what’s for dinner. It has to do with death in general.
The question of killing and eating an animal that you knew first-hand is an interesting one. For those who grew up in the country or had backyard chickens or rabbits, it’s simply not a big deal. As a child it doesn’t cause you any discomfort or emotional issues (at least it didn’t cause me any). It’s just part of life.
But now that I reflect on it as an adult I would go a little further than that. Killing and eating an animal that you knew makes you more grateful for the animal’s sacrifice and somehow for life in general. By contrast, there is something about buying pre-packaged meat that leads to the opposite attitude. The animal is reduced to body only. Not even a whole body. Just parts of a body. In the background are the industrial farming practices that every now and then make it to the news with all the horrifying images that come with it.
I can sympathise with the vegans for wanting to put a stop to that but I disagree with their solution which is to get rid of all meat eating. My solution would be to put meat eating back into its proper context. An animal had to die. A life was given. Death had to occur so that you might live. You should have to own that and be responsible for it if you want to eat meat.
In most hunter gatherer societies, the killing of an animal was accompanied by a ceremony that gave thanks to the animal for its sacrifice. There was also a lot of skill and effort expended to capture the animal. When we killed our backyard chickens, we knew which one we were eating by name. We had memories of feeding it and of its personality. Again, this was never a problem. Quite the opposite. The chicken had had a good life by chicken standards. It lived on a farm in the fresh air, was well fed and got to run around and live its life. The life of a chicken.
By now you might be thinking: what’s all this got to do with the corona event?
To revisit the story from earlier. My conversation partner said he would rather go vegan than kill an animal himself. He was, however, perfectly happy to keep eating meat that was killed for him. Another way to frame this is that he was happy to allow death to occur somewhere else where he didn’t have to see it but he couldn’t bear to see it with his own eyes and definitely not inflict it with his own hands.
In my role as amateur historian, I would say this attitude of hiding from or avoiding death became very prominent in our society after world war two. I think there are a lot of factors at play. An obvious one is that the extraordinary amount of death in the preceding decades had caused deep psychological scars. Another is the mass migration of people to large cities where there is simply less death around you as a daily fact of life and your odds of killing your dinner are about zero. As somebody who grew up on a farm but now lives in the city I still notice this because a lack of death also equals a lack of life. There is simply more life going on around you out in the bush.
There are two other factors I want to highlight. They relate more closely to the corona event because they have to do with human death, the medical industry and the public bureaucracy.
Firstly, there was the establishment of national health services and the massive expansion in the medical industry after world war two. In Australia nowadays, 6 out of 7 people who die will die in a nursing home or hospital.
Secondly, the increased size of the health bureaucracy led, as it inevitably does, to more and more regulations. In a classic example of regulatory capture, many of these regulations worked in favour of funeral services so that it is now mandatory in some states of Australia for a family to organise funeral services through a licenced company and where it is not mandatory the regulatory burden is simply not worth the effort for grieving relatives to deal with.
Both of these factors have led to a massive shift in the way in which we are exposed to the death of relatives and friends.
It is well known that spending time with a dead body helps the grieving process. In the Irish Catholic tradition the body would be kept at home for three days during which time family and friends were encouraged to visit to see the corpse and pay their respects. Family members would also be involved in the transportation and burial of the body.
Nowadays, all that is handled by a funeral company. In most cases the amount of time loved ones will spend with the dead body is very short and the system does not make it easy for longer periods to be organised as hospitals and nursing homes do not want to keep the body around and many people are simply unaware that they can take possession of the body and take it home. (Whether people would do this even if they knew is another question).
Although I am not a religious person, it seems to me that this is one area where the decline of religion has left a gaping void. We got rid of the time-honoured ceremonies and traditions that aided the grieving process and replaced them with, well, nothing much.
In a fashion typical of the modern world there is a now a disorder called prolonged grief disorder which is apparently suffered by 15-20% of people who do not grieve properly and suffer long term complications. The cure? Antidepressants.
Surely this is just a symptom of a larger problem in our society: we have forgotten how to grieve. Because we don’t know how to grieve, we have never learned how to deal with death. It seems to me this problem has been getting steadily worse in recent decades.
In relation the corona event, an interesting exercise is to find some news reports from the Hong Kong flu in 1968. Bear in mind that the Hong Kong flu was several times more lethal than covid when you adjust for population size and demographic shift. Despite that, the newspaper reports at the time were almost jovial about it. People had been ‘put on their backside’ by the illness which had done an ‘awkward Grand Tour’ of Europe. Any death counts were factual and unemotional. Compare the tone of those articles to the hysteria around the corona event and I think you get a feel for a cultural shift our society has gone through in the past decades.
I believe our society is now in complete denial of death and this denial of death reared its head with the corona event. There are many examples but the most poignant one in my mind was the absurd discussion around the elderly that was used to justify the lockdown measures.
I don’t believe it’s done consciously, but our treatment of the elderly is also a part of our society’s desire to avoid death. We hide the elderly away in aged care facilities and nursing homes. This might be done with good intentions; old people don’t want to be a burden on their families. The outcome, however, is to remove ourselves not just from the death but from the years leading up to the death. We no longer have the same first-hand experience of what it looks like for a person to become old and die. What would once have been a normal, everyday part of life is now almost invisible to us.
What it looks like to get old is that you rack up a series of chronic illnesses. Health problems that you once got over now stick around. You no longer get over them. You carry them with you. Eventually, something like a flu virus comes along and becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
The corona death statistics bear this out exactly. More than 90% of the people who ‘died from corona’ had at least one co-morbidity. About 50% had four or more co-morbidities. The average age of death was about the average life expectancy. In other words, the people dying from corona were old people at the end of their life. This is perfectly normal. Almost every respiratory virus shows the same pattern.
And this is where things get really weird. Because if you pointed out this simple fact in public you were accused of wanting old people to die, which is a complete non sequitur. The tone of it and the obvious irrationality of it reminded me of the discussion mentioned above about killing your own food. That’s when I suspected that the larger issue of our problem with death was at play in the corona event.
Once again, Nassim Taleb deserves a special mention here because he was a primary culprit and in his case the absurdity is greatly exacerbated because Taleb had previously identified a category of fallacious reasoning he termed, in his usual inelegant style, paedophrasty: invoking pathos towards children to try and win an argument. Apparently, he couldn’t see that to do the same with the elderly is simply gerontophrasty and is no less fallacious for singling out the elderly rather than the young.
Gerontophrasty has been everywhere during the corona event. A thought-stopper. A moral high ground from which to beat back all dissent. Who wants to be accused of wanting old people to die? Who’s going to fight that battle in public?
As it turned out, the measures we have taken completely failed to protect the elderly. The majority of corona deaths occurred in nursing homes. In England there were about 10,000 excess deaths of people with dementia in April alone. That’s just the people who tested negative to corona. How many others tested positive and died. They died because conditions in the nursing homes deteriorated and because family members were not even allowed to visit. The lockdown which was justified as necessary to protect the elderly failed to do so.
I don’t believe the lockdown was ever really about protecting the elderly. It was about protecting ourselves. Avoiding death or at least doing what was necessary to avoid blame for it. A cheap moral posturing that hides a deeper problem in our culture: denial of death.
Denial of death is denial of life. The measures we have taken for the corona event have been a denial of life. We have locked healthy people in their homes. We have made healthy people wear masks. We have put a stop to life in the interests of avoiding death. None of that is a coincidence. It’s a systematic, ingrained part of modern western culture.
I think we deny death because we have never learned how to grieve. I also think we deny death because to ruminate on death is to question what you stand for in life and we no longer know what we stand for. I’ll return to that larger question in the final post in this series.
In the next post, I’m going to take a look at the issue of what it means for sars-cov-2 to be “new”. We’ll investigate the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the difference between folk language and scientific language and how that tiny little insignificant word “new” flapped its butterfly wings, the skies darkened and the corona hurricane rolled in from the west.
All posts in this series:-