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Don’t Write Articles Like This

I’m looking at Jonathan Jones’ incredibly bizarre article in The Guardian (of all places), which undermines and short-circuits an important moral discussion, about Tony Nicklinson and the right to die. I’ve previously written about Tony Nicklinson and the ethical justifications for his decision. It is important for us to have these discussions, to engage in multiple views, even if we disagree, since the complexity means inviting perspectives we otherwise consider "obviously" wrong. However, even the side we consider wrong can still couch their views in being interested in the arguments, in the situation, without undermining the unfortunate people suffering.

What we should not do is write articles like Jones', which bizarrely offers contradictory ideas in the same breath, inserts bland and bizarre comparisons (to an artwork? Really?!), and offers nothing to the debate.

Mr Jones begins his strange piece by correctly describing Mr Nicklinson’s state.

“Nicklinson is totally helpless, unable to move, yet his mind is fully agile. Modern medicine means he may live another 20 years if he is not allowed the option of euthanasia. It is more than easy to understand why he appears in such despair.”

This might portray Mr Nicklinson as being in perpetual despair – which, according to his and his family’s Twitter account, isn’t entirely true – but that’s not important for now.

“It seems monstrous of us even to be sitting around discussing his case, the philosophical pros and cons, while he suffers in this very visible way despite having clearly and lucidly declared that he wants his life to end.”

I don’t quite know what to make of this. It seems merely an emotional assertion. To whom does it seem monstrous? Jones doesn’t say. “Monstrous” is not a reason not to do something, just as a “disgusting” isn’t sufficient for criminalising. What I think monstrous – keeping someone alive who wishes not to be – and what Mr Jones thinks monstrous – tthat we’re even discussing it – differs, so it can’t be good basis upon which to reason morally. But the other reason is that discussing the philosophical pros and cons, which Mr Nicklinson and his supportive family have been doing for some time now, is essential: it can change minds, it can influence the law, it can reduce suffering of future people caught in such horrible situations, so that they need not be kept alive against their will. Comparing Mr Nicklinson to a piece of art, as Mr Jones does later – I am not kidding – seems to me, if not monstrous, than entirely and utterly unhelpful to this important discussion.

“Video images of this locked-in man's fury and misery are powerful evidence in support of his case. At least, that is presumably why he and his wife allowed a camera to film him at such an intimate and shattering moment… The crying face of Nicklinson speaks eloquently of his desire to die. Is this an exploitative use of a sick man's image? On the contrary, it is clearly his best available way to get his message across, to communicate his anguish.”

Though I think some might perceive Jones as  being cynical or malicious, I think we ought to read him in the best light here. This is merely an assessment of the situation and, I think, probably correct. The problem is what occurs after this.

“And yet, I think it backfires. The image of Nicklinson in despair makes a case for life, not death. I see a lot of life in this man.”

Look carefully at these two sentences: “The image of Nicklinson in despair makes a case for life, not death.” And  “I see a lot of life in this man.”

What does Mr Jones mean by life? Biological life? Even if we assume that Mr Nicklinson could, with proper medical care survive for as long as anyone else, that is not a reason to oppose his decision. Mr Nicklinson does not want mere biological life. The “life” he wants is forever denied him; the life of a normal, moving, self-reliant and “dignified” adult is completely gone.

On what basis, then, is Mr Jones asserting that he sees “a lot of life in this man”? Nicklinson has told us himself what life he wants and that life is no more; what he does have, he doesn't want. Is Mr Jones telling Mr Nicklinson that the latter is wrong? Why? By what standards is Jones saying Nicklinson's view of his own current life is mistaken?

We're not told.

“They are the responses of someone who despite everything, is heroic and tragically strong. Is that someone who should be put to death, however "good" the intentions?”

What does this even mean? Mr Jones appears to be saying that because someone is “heroic and tragically strong”, that this person should not have the right to decide to end his life because that’s not “someone who should be put to death”. That’s a circular argument: because a person is heroic and strong, he shouldn’t be killed. He shouldn’t be killed because we shouldn’t kill people who are heroic and strong. This is a not helpful at all.

“I am wary," says Jones, "of comparing this man's tears with images of sorrow in art.” He then proceeds to do just that in a passage that adds nothing to the discussion, or even to his “argument”.

“Her [Picasso's Weeping Woman's] face is a jagged splinter of suffering, her eyes stars of shattered normality. Her handkerchief is an exploding bomb. Yet her knotted mask of pain is somehow cathartic: out of her agony comes life, in the form of a tear that is a revitalising river.”

Yes, you are reading the same post. What he’s getting at in a very bizarre way is the tired argument that anguish is strengthening, or, as he says, “In these works of religious art the extremity of despair is somehow liberating, the pain of the worst thing imaginable releases a supreme pathos.”

“Lest this be mistaken for a Christian point of view, these tragic works of religious art echo the sorrows of pagan ancient Greece. The most famous image of suffering in the Renaissance was an ancient statue dug up in 1506 of the pagan priest Laocoön being strangled by snakes, his face a contorted image of pure suffering. This statue reflects the emotional depths of Greek tragic theatre which gave us the word "catharsis" in the first place.”

This paragraph is never tied into the post. This and the previous paragraphs are space fillers in a post that ties nothing up, offers no argument, but with a wink-and-a-nod, implies that Mr Nicklinson’s suffering is the sign of a good person that we ought not to let die. Because apparently we don’t let good people die.

But these are not arguments. They don’t justify why we should (or don’t? Again, it’s not clear) let good people die. Surely, that a good person is suffering, that a good person has no life that he wants left, is precisely why we should respect him enough to end his life, at his choosing, with dignity? Mr Jones never clarifies what he means by “plenty of life”, when there’s ample evidence of the contrary. And if he means “biological life”, then that is morally meaningless to this discussion.

This really might be one of the worst pieces of writing, but, furthermore, it’s worse still for invading a complex, difficult discussion that is not aided by stupid paragraphs about art history and Greek mythology.

UPDATE 1:Mr Nicklinson lost the case and died six days later. This is both saddening, but also good - for him. His suffering is now over.

UPDATE 2: Iain Brassington is I think equally disastisfied and horrified by other kinds of responses, especially the smug insensitivity emerging from certain religious corners.

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