Sunday, September 30, 2012

I am a dangerous brainwashed automaton

I just had a--how should I put this--interesting encounter today in the coffeeshop where I often come to do my work (and blog). Actually, it just happened about an hour ago, so this is fresh off the press, so to speak. I was sitting in my more-or-less usual spot in the back of the coffeeshop, doing some annoyingly boring paperwork on my computer which nevertheless had to be done. At the same time, I noticed a middle-aged woman sitting across from me and working on her laptop, next to the floor-length window. It seemed to me that the glare from the light coming into the room and reflecting off her monitor was hurting her eyes, because she was leaning really close to the computer and squinting as she typed on the keyboard. Noticing this, I made a mental note to myself: "Maybe I'll try to find an opportunity to suggest to her that she should try switching her position, so that she is facing away from the sun." So thinking, I went back to what I was doing.

A few minutes later, she got up to leave. As she was leaving, she walked past where I was sitting. I took the opportunity to say to her what I had been thinking, suggesting that she could perhaps try changing her position the next time she comes here. She thanked me for my suggestion, and we started a conversation from that point. It turns out that she is a physician who specializes in treating childhood disabilities at the local St. Luke's hospital. She went on to talk passionately in great detail about what she does, about how most insurance companies do not insure many childhood disabilities, and about how such shortsighted social corporate practices are causing many young children to suffer needlessly from treatable conditions. She lamented about how shortsighted these practices are, because less able-bodied and healthy children right now means there will be less able-bodied and healthy adults in the future, which means the economy will suffer in the long-term from the lack of such healthy and able-bodied workers who would otherwise be able to contribute to it.

Anyway, the conversation went on for about 20 minutes or so, with me listening most of the time, stopping her here and there when I didn't understand this or that medical or technical term she was using. We seemed to be on the same wavelength politically and maybe even spiritually.

And then she asked me what kind of research I was doing. I told her that I had just written a paper on the ethics of stem-cell research, in which I argued that there may be a moral obligation for couples in IVF programs to donate their spare embryos to stem cell research if they are not planning to use these embryos for their own future reproductive efforts, and if they are also not planning to donate these to other couples for use in their reproductive efforts. My view is also influenced by the fact that many couples in IVF programs presently discard their unused embryos. As such, if the concern here is that embryos are being killed or harmed, it's not clear that "killing" them by donating them to stem cell research is any more harmful to these embryos than simply discarding them (and therefore killing them anyway). If the embryos are going to be "killed" anyway, wouldn't it be better to "kill" them in a way that adds to the future welfare of humankind (by donating them to stem cell research) than to "kill" them by simply discarding them? 

I guess talking about my research was a mistake, because the conversation pretty much went downhill from that point. She seemed disturbed by my views, and told me that too many terrible things have happened in this country and around the world (eugenics, etc.) which started from seemingly well-intentioned scientists and philosophers who were trying to advance human welfare (think, also, about the Manhattan project), and that the research that people like me do often leads to legislation that results in much suffering for other people down the road. Well, maybe my views are disturbing; maybe I'm about to become the next Einstein or one of those people who worked on the Manhattan project. If so, well, it's not too late for you to dissociate yourself from me. Stop reading my blog right now, "un-follow" yourself if you are a follower. You have been warned.            

Actually, I also have to admit that I am a little flattered that somebody out there actually thinks my research is "dangerous" (wow, I'm that important!). But anyway, I tried to explain to her that (1) I have no intention of legislating anything (I'm a moral philosopher, and a very struggling one at that, and not a politician), and (2) the whole point of making a moral argument is to present something for people out there to freely decide whether to agree or not to agree to. I certainly have no intention of forcing women to donate their embryos to stem cell research.

But none of that went across very well. She then went on to talk about how the situation is similar to people in China who think they are acting freely and autonomously, but have no idea that they are being indoctrinated and brainwashed. I tried to explain that things are not quite as cut-and-dry as she might like to believe: Not every single person in China is either (a) a brain-washed Communist Party automaton or (b) a dissident. I tried to explain that there is a third option: An entire generation of Chinese people (I know a few of them) have grown up knowing the problems and flaws and human rights abuses of their system, and who are quite willing to criticize it when the opportunity arises for them to do so without losing their livelihoods, but who, at the same time, have no desire to overthrow the system or to become an exiled dissident: Their view is that the way to bring about meaningful change is to change the system "from the inside", through gradual means. I tried to explain this as best as I could, but she quickly dismissed these people as brainwashed and therefore unfree.

Now where is she going with all this? I guess she is probably also implying that I am also brainwashed and unfree. And dangerous, to boot. Wow.


As you can probably imagine, the conversation ended on a somewhat less than friendly note. With an impressive rhetorical flourish ("I've said my piece"), she finished her piece, stood up, packed her bag, and walked away without even introducing herself.  I mean, gosh, am I really that dangerous?

I can't help wondering: How different would things have been if I had encountered this person in a different setting? Say, in a yoga class? Or if I had simply chosen not to talk to her about my research, but had chosen to talk about something else instead (yoga?)? Maybe she would have been one of the many, many "friendly", "nice" people that I encounter in the course of a day? Who knows?

Or maybe I can also flip the question around: How many people whom I seem to be on friendly terms with, whom I encounter in say, yoga classes or workshops or coffeeshops (or even people like you who read this blog) might be people who would hate my guts or think I am a dangerous brainwashed automaton if they knew what my views on donating embryos to stem cell research were? Scary...

Or maybe you hate my guts now. Oh well. As I said, it is still not too late to stop reading this blog or to "un-follow" yourself. Better do it now, while I am still a relative unknown. You definitely don't want to be associated with a dangerous person like me when I have become (in)famous, and then be accused of un-American activities. Consider this fair warning.   


  1. Your first clue that the conversation would not go well was that she talked a long time without knowing you well and without inviting feedback. That alone is pretty rude. Certainly thoughtless.

    And I don't know, maybe I'm weird but your description of the Chinese people who take a middle ground sounds like a lot of Americans I know.

    Off to bed now, this tired Ashtangi can't keep her eyes open, certainly not feeling intelligent enough to talk about stem cell research but I found your argument interesting nonetheless.

    1. Thanks for finding my argument interesting ;-)

      I have to admit that I don't have a good "social radar"; I certainly did not get that first clue. On hindsight (and also after a good night's sleep), I also think that she is quite likely a very overworked and burnt-out person who probably doesn't have anybody she can talk at length to about her work and her socio-political views. I happened to be her first "victim" in a while ;-)

      "...maybe I'm weird but your description of the Chinese people who take a middle ground sounds like a lot of Americans I know."

      Actually, I talked to a friend about this last night. Her view is that we have a perception that we are somewhat free and can change things because we have access to technology and all this social media. Whether we are truly free, or whether we are simply perpetuating an illusion of freedom (which I may be doing right now by writing this blog) is a difficult question to answer.

  2. Perhaps you were both over-reacting. You don't know this woman or what her 'story' is. Maybe she just saw yet another needless surgery or worse death. And why would you share such a heated controversial topic with a total stranger? Just let it go. Both of you were using each other as a sounding board and that rarely goes over well, unless you really know your listener. You mean't well - that's enough. Water under the bridge. Breathe deep.

    Freedom is an illusion, but so is bondage.

    1. Thanks Leslie. Well, I only shared my research interests because she asked. I suppose it is in a sense unfortunate that I could not have picked a less controversial topic for a research topic, but well, it is what it is. Isn't there something about not asking questions you don't like the answers to?

      But you are right that I don't know what her story is; for that matter, I don't know yours either...

      But you are also right that all this is water under the bridge. The trick is to try to breathe deep without getting the water into my nose. I'll try ;-)

  3. I work in biomedicine but follow your blog for the yoga.

    People don't want to think about the costs of biomedical research (like clinical drug trials) but want the new medications to help sick kids. But virtually no biomedical research without causing harm to something or someone--animals, embryos, and poor people. And those new medicines for sick American kids are probably tested on poor children in India.

    In my uneducated opinion, doing a clinical trial on people in third world countries causes more suffering, than the destruction of embryos.
    But it's the embryos that have gotten all the attention in this country.

    1. Thanks for linking to the VF article, Beth. I just read it. I think it's a great article, and I find the things reported in the article disturbing, even though I have known for quite a while about the things that go on with Big Pharma.

      I suppose I can go on and on about people I have known who were on drugs like Seroquel, but well, I won't. After all, this is supposed to be a yoga blog ;-)

  4. You're welcome! RE Seroquel any time you mess around with the central nervous sytem things are bound to get messy.

    I saw today's post and wondered, could forward bends that don't involve LBH make me hungry? I'm not far along (tight hips + bad knee = no 1/2 lotus), but sometimes get ravenously hungry when I'm making headway in the seated forward bends in the first 1/2 of primary. Never occured to me that they could be causing it, though.

    1. I think all forward bends have the capacity to make one hungry, by virtue of stimulating the digestive organs. Seen in this light, getting ravenously hungry is good news: The asanas are doing their work! :-)