At the beginning of the year Selfish managed to get me to read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s a strange little book. I found the first half to be very difficult, with its unusual writing style and foreign ideas. But it was well worth persevering. Among many gems, the book delivers a distinctive criticism of the politics of religion and ‘religious science’.
Then, a couple months ago I noticed they were making a film, 2081 based on another one of Vonnegut’s books, Harrison Bergeron. Last night I got around to reading the (very) short story and then watching the 1995 TV movie on google video. I thought the TV movie was a fantastic production, and it introduced several new concepts to the story.
The original story is about a future where equality has been achieved throughout society by handicapping everyone. People of above average intelligence are prevented from being too smart through little ear radios which interrupt their thoughts, preventing them from taking unfair advantage of their brains.
In the TV movie, this idea is expanded upon. In addition to tiny ear radios, the very smart people are required to have neurosurgery to further encumber them. The doctor explains, “We just create electronic blockages at certain points. The brain is forced to re-route messages and information around these blockages. The new routes require double or triple the time. All mental activity is slowed and intelligence drops drastically.”
While this tale of tall poppies sounds fanciful, it’s not difficult to see parallels with our own world. Over the last decade our children’s education has been pushed further and further into a world where struggling students cannot be failed or be held back. A more distant parallel can be seen in the various ways that governments take measures to control people through education or the media; writing the news and editing history. Or, in the context that it was written, we can see it as a satire of the 1960s ideas of communist egalitarianism and capitalist freedom.
Yet, I also see another parallel. About a year ago I spent some time in a mental health ward of a hospital. When detained they inform you (formally, several times) that all treatment is mandatory. You lose the right to refuse medication, and if you’re unable to give consent for Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT) the Guardianship Board can give consent on your behalf.
ECT involves inducing controlled seizures by delivering an electrical charge through electrodes placed on the patient’s head. I wish I knew more about ECT, specifically about the sign up process or the restraints put in place to protect the ill.
I remember a couple of encounters I had with patients shortly after they’d received ECT. They were easily confused, disoriented, and suffering from memory loss. One morning in a group session there were two patients who became distressed when they couldn’t recall why they were in hospital or how long they’d been there.
Where I was staying there were some people who volunteer to be detained. There was one poor bloke who came out of a psychotic episode and discovered he’d tried to slit his throat. Another bloke was desperate to control his anger and anxiety. But there were also people who didn’t want to be there, who’d been sent there by psychiatrists. A therapist told me that we’d been detained due to our potential for harmful/dangerous behaviour, however because the therapy is focused on thoughts and feelings I still find it hard not to think the thought police are out to get me.
While I don’t accuse them of abusing ECT, I’m not sure that I want to entrust people who endorse such treatment with my mental health. Which is interesting, because I was hesitant but co-opperated when they told me they could help me with medication. In hindsight, I feel like modern psychotherapy is a bit of a guessing game.
Even though I don’t fully understand the playing field, I feel like I know enough that I’m opposed to involuntary ECT. As a society you may be opposed to self-harm and suicide but I advocate the rights of an individual over the rights of a state to fry such behaviour into the ether. This advocacy should probably extend to medication and to psychotherapy. Nobody should try to contain or censor your thoughts without your consent. I really do see this as a censorship of thought even if they only do it with the best intentions. It’s a decision you have to make if you’re thinking about seeking psychiatric help; you cannot seek their help without giving up some freedom because they cannot offer help without trampling some freedoms.