The Dinner Party Shaman

If you’re developed-world, middle-class enough, perhaps even cashed-up-bogan enough, you should know what I’m talking about.

You’ve gone to a dinner party or a barbeque or some similar gathering, and you’re trying to relax with a beer when someone starts talking about their health issues. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but inevitably like ants at a picnic, this draws the attention of The Dinner Party Shaman.

They’ve traveled all the way from Nimbin, or some other realm of haute-hippie-culture, with the kids Starshine and Moonbeam, begrudgingly in tow, sullenly carrying the funky lettuce salad and the chimichurri-marinated guinea pig kebabs.

Spiralling into your lives like a tie-dyed dervish on acid cast in a David Lynch film, descending amidst an invisible cloud of jasmine and patchouli, The Dinner Party Shaman has arrived to regale you with just how roolly (née really) deep and culchooural (née cultural) they are. To show you how culchooural they are by taking control of the concerns of you suburban philistines.

You just wanted to relax, kick back, and maybe show a little empathy for your ailing or aging friend or family member. A chin wag over a drink about how you’re both getting on.

‘You need a coffee enema!’

‘I have this dong quai tincture that’ll really strengthen your yang!’

‘There’s this aromatherapeutic poultice I could apply…’

‘Hear, let me activate your chakra…’

‘Relax! Touch is a normal part of human communication. You need to lower your barriers and let me touch you where I want to touch you!’

Roughly a third of the audience, seeing spirichoooal (née spiritual) brownie points up for grabs, will nod in the affirmative, listening attentively and urging The Shaman onward with their exposition of supposedly sage advice.

The poor suffering sod you sat down with will listen patiently for the first few moments, nodding, nodding, subtly making anyone with actual empathy aware of their distress, while waiting for the first polite juncture to point out that they’re seeing a doctor, and that they’re really doing as best they can under the circumstances. All they want to do is relax.

But relaxation is not the prescription, especially if you’ve seen a doctor. The Dinner Party Shaman won’t have any of that!

‘Oh no, you don’t want to do that! Doctors will fill you up with poisons!’

‘That’s not nachooral [née natural]!’

‘Come here and let me…’

No ailment is so serious, no suffering so much, no agony so pervasive that they can’t trivialise it by showing everyone their super-psychic, hero-holistic, magical-imaginary, wonder powers. Be the problem big or small, The Shaman has what The Shaman thinks you need!

Irritable bowel syndrome? They know all there is to know about that! Just bend over!

Cancer? Why that’s just another word for opportunity! An opportunity to show everyone just how earnest they are!

When your friend who’s been a bit under the weather, after wearing of having their rest and personal space violated, points out that they’re confident in their doctor’s experience and education, that’s when the show really begins. You see, you mustn’t imply that The Shaman doesn’t have what you need. That would be disrespectful!

‘I studied aromatherapy for eight weeks at the WEA!’

‘I have a stall each year at the Body, Mind and Soul Fair where people come from miles around!’

‘Are you saying that my qualifications aren’t equal to a doctor’s, if not better? Reductionist! I treat the whole person!’

The uncritical parsing of anecdote and bare assertion is all the study that’s required of such deep, deep people. Gifted intuition does the rest.

By this point in the proceedings, you and your busted up friend have really gone and done it. You’ve offended The Shaman. How rude. You’re ruining the dinner party, with your scepticism, incredulity, self-respect and personal space.

Where do you get off thinking you can behave like that? Who died and made you Shaman?

It’s a bit like Benjamin Franklin was supposed to have said…

‘There are no greater liars in the world than quacks — except for their patients.’

Except again perhaps for shamans and their acolytes, and maybe the wording’s a little too harsh; not so much ‘liars’ as self-obsessed, bullshit artists.

There are no greater self-obsessed, bullshit artists in the world than first-world, middle-class, Dinner Party Shamans – except for their acolytes.

With your slight and that of your friend, the party takes a turn for the serious.

You’re in league with oppressive forces; Big Pharma; The Man; Western Imperialism; The Spanish Inquisition (who nobody expects); The Third Expeditionary Invasion Force of The Illuminati-Reptile-People.

Your facts you are told, conflict with and discriminate against their equally true ‘facts’. Something that they, Shamans and Acolytes, have suffered against since the first witch was burnt at the first stake; facts contra alternative facts.

The child who’s died of whooping-cough because their community is sufficiently anti-vaccination to have lost herd immunity, is both dead and living happily in an incense imbued laa-laa-land. Why can’t you see this.

Both can be true. Accept this and you’ll be well on the way to seeing how you’re wrong and they’re right!

You just need to be open-minded, and then you’ll learn. The acolytes are of many persuasions, the better to foster erudition.

The resident visual arts academic will school you on how scientists get more funding than basket weavers as part of a plot to destroy beauty in the world.

Elders in the group through the bare authority of their age, can tell you how modern medicine deliberately obscures the fact that before street lights, there was no such thing as hay fever. Such deliberate obfuscations as how the supposedly much, much older diagnosis of hay fever by Hippocrates around the start of the 4th Century B.C.E., is really a history fabricated into the textbooks by the corporations that fluoridate your water.

Learn how public schooling secretly plots against free-spirited students who would otherwise learn the evils of aspartame, vaccination and shadow government mind-control, by learning in the ideal Steiner school, or in home schooling.

Convincing? No? Then you must be a shallow, close-minded monster. No wonder you’ve upset The Dinner Party Shaman. You boor!

Perhaps you’ve had enough. Perhaps you’re sick of yourself and your friends being poked and prodded by egoists with no respect for other people’s boundaries. Perhaps your sick of the self-deception and banality of this veneer of the considered life. Perhaps you’re sick of the enablers who make it worse and worse every time.

The pretensions of The Dinner Party Shaman and their Dinner Party Acolytes are intrinsically self-absorbed to the point of absolute myopia and screw everyone else. It’s not just their social appendages that they don’t give a hoot about either.

Children avoidably dying of pertussis, or measles, as a result of a reduction in herd immunity and prompted by anti-vaccination disinformation is incredibly tragic. How does it happen? Disinformation. Who spreads it? New Age Shamans. The advocates of alternative(s to) medicine.

But this is just a shallow foray into the consequences of privileged spiritualism. The toll, shockingly, gets much, much worse.

A serious diversion from the sarcastic is in order.

***

Except perhaps for the most oblivious of the most provincial, it’s well-known that many African nations are suffering an AIDS epidemic, particularly in South Africa. What’s not so well-known, is the extent to which this suffering has been avoidable.

Between 2000 and 2005, in South Africa alone, it is estimated that 330,000 people painfully and unnecessarily died because of government obstruction of the availability of antiretroviral drugs even when freely donated, and of Global Fund grants (Chigwedere, et al., 2008). Why?

This tragedy occurs in a context where the South African President of the time, Thabo Mbeki, condemned antiviral medication as toxic and counterproductive, while adopting the position that only medications for opportunistic infections, rather than drugs preventing the advance of the HIV virus, were to be supported by public funding.

How did Thabo Mbeki come to such an appallingly stupid policy position?

I’ll let you glance across Ben Goldacre’s description of how barrister Anthony Brink, after reading alt-med ‘AIDS dissident’ material, was elevated to the status of an ‘AIDS expert’ by Mbeki. Brink would later become an employee of ‘AIDS dissident’ Matthias Rath, of Linus Pauling Institute fame; the same Matthias Rath that declared that the answer to the AIDS epidemic was not antireterovirals, but megadoses of vitamins, while taking his perverse circus of suffering, masquerading as research, on tour through South Africa.

AIDS denialism and the subsequent lethal obstruction of real medicine as policy in South Africa, has clearly and unambiguously been enabled by the developed world luxury known as ‘alternative medicine’, even egged on by parts of the industry. As Goldacre points out, Matthias Rath is still a darling of the alt-med revolution, even with some academics.

Over three-hundred-thousand is a large number of people to die unnecessarily, much, much worse than the number of deaths by pertussis brought about by anti-vaccination disinformation campaigns in the developed world. It’s no act of hyperbole to call this tragedy genocidal in scale.

The developed world exported this tragedy; exported it in the form of luxurious, lavender-scented ignorance.

When Naomi Campbell complained that her testimony concerning a gift of blood diamonds from former Liberian dictator and alleged war criminal, Charles Taylor, was ‘an inconvenience’, people were rightly concerned at her lack of perspective.

Campbell however can call on the defense of having been intimidated, having expressed concern for possible consequences for her family members should she talk.

When The Dinner Party Shaman starts to peddle their blood diamonds casually and without regard for the consequences of their denialist culture, their ginseng tablets, their homeopathic strength ‘cures’ and all the attendant cod-epistemology and conspiracy theory, they don’t have the ‘intimidation’ defense. They aren’t under pressure from the cronies of some warlord somewhere; the greatest threat to their families comes from their own negligence.

What vanity. What empty posturing, calling this self-important, self-absorbed quest for recognition, ‘spiritual’; a quest that through provinciality and in the fashion of the worst solipsism, cuts people off from mere human concerns like the health and well-being of hundreds of thousands of people.

If the word ‘spiritual’ can mean anything, this isn’t it.

Time to return to the party.

***

So there you and your sick chum sit, holding your beers or your Champaign, lectured by The Dinner Party Shaman and told off for your lack of deference by the acolytes, you rude, rude person. Your scepticism and incredulity cast as cynical, reductionist, scientific imperialism, or something approximating such things, you’ve been put in your place.

You’ve ruined the mood. Not the spirichoooal (née spiritual) types, who naturally by virtue of their well-meaning nature, rightly have access to every aspect and orifice of your being.

You’ve ruined the mood. Not the spirichoooal (née spiritual) types, their absorption in the roolly (née really) deep and culchooural (née cultural) too important to be distracted by consideration of human consequences on the mere material, mortal planes.

The Dinner Party Shaman, the person so privileged in their middle-class cocoon as to both be a victim of imperialism while at the same time having their cult’s toxic bilge conveniently exported out-of-sight-out-of-mind to the developing world, is beyond your attacks on their dignity. The acolytes are unimpressed with your reliance on facts, reasoning, and material concern. Bah! Materialism!

So comes the conclusion to the gathering, the obvious obligation; you have to apologise. Otherwise there’ll be no dessert, no second invites for you!

And we all know what’s right and decent at these events, right?

~ Bruce

(Picture Source: Allegory of Vanity, Trophime Bigot).

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Urrrrrrrrggh… More on people who can't cope with your vegetarianism

It’s been almost half a year since I wrote a piece about how people, meat-eaters in particular, try to resolve dissonance brought on by vegetarians, by externalizing guilt, or feelings of insecurity, in typical passive aggressive fashion.*

Things haven’t changed. Indeed it seems more the case in the festive season than any other time, you’re the bringer of bad yule-tidings for not joining the meat-eating collective.

If you’re the vegetarian, it’s you who’s being the aggressive trouble maker.

It doesn’t matter that you avoid didacticism on the grounds of it being a poor means for the proliferation of an ethic. Never mind that you only discuss it where it’s raised as relevant; in public discussion, or where (surprise, surprise) you’ll be eating.

Never mind that you aren’t trying to force any given eating practice on any given person.

“There’s chicken in the fridge! Help yourself!”

“I’m a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat.”

“Not even chicken?!?”

Forget for a moment the obvious taxonomic error that sees chicken as a vegetable, the worst part is this could be the squillionth time this kind of thing will happen with any given problematic person.

“What? Not even fish fingers?”

Not that it isn’t relevant (or funny) but the problem isn’t taxonomy. The problem isn’t memory either, even if the path is well trod.

The response is always obsessive, self-pitying and defensive;  the interest is too deeply riven to be something that just arrived in their mind on a whim. They aren’t so stupid so as to not be able to tell that a rabbit isn’t a fruit either.

The problem, their problem, is that your vegetarianism, your choice (not theirs), reflects upon their character and they aren’t comfortable with that. It’s not about memory.

Yet, you’re told when they are caught for the umpteenth time…

“Oh I forgot! You can’t expect me to consider these things if I forget.”

Just like they can’t expect you to believe that they forget such things, what with the great big deal they make out of you refusing meat. Every. Damn. Time!

Perhaps you think I’m over-reacting in my response to their supposed forgetfulness. Consider then that not only do they make a big deal out of it again and again, more than one of them has kicked up a stink about the last time I wrote here about them kicking up a stink about my vegetarianism.

Surely if it matters as much as they make out, my criticism of their carnivore-dissonance, if it matters so much they write to make editorial demands upon my blogging, they can’t also plausibly claim they forget I’m vegetarian.

Of course “forgetting” comes in convenient when giving “apologies” for offering meat for the 100th time, not realising that I don’t eat “vegetables” like chicken and fish fingers. It also comes in handy during those circumstances when my meal is “accidentally” contaminated.

“These chips have chicken salt on them”.

“Oh sorry, I didn’t think…”

“I asked you less than half an hour ago to get plain salt because I’m vegetarian.”

“I must have forgotten, I usually remember…”

“Yes, you usually do. You worked three years in a job selling hot chips to people who ordered them without chicken salt.”

It also seems more likely to occur when you’re more vulnerable as well; like when you haven’t eaten in a while, and are too worn out to prepair something. When you have less fight in you it’s easier to make you an honorary meat eater by slipping something into your food.

Of course food contamination isn’t the only “forgetful” passive-aggressive trick in the book the insecure meat-eater uses. Oh no.

You’re at a family occasion hosted by a family member you haven’t seen in a while, one who probably doesn’t know you are a vegetarian yet. It’s okay, or it should be okay because you’ve brought your own food.

If it inadvertently becomes an issue, if your host in perfectly good faith offers you some food with meat in it, you’ve done the necessary preparation to manage things without awkwardness. Problem solved, right?

Wrong.

Along comes one of those people who “forget” you’re vegetarian. They search the food prepared by your host for something with meat, then doing their best impersonation of a bad actor in-character as a thoughtful host, proffer the carcass in front of your host.

The moment you refuse, no matter what you say, they’re instantly offended on behalf of your host. They highlight how you’re insulting such fin cooking. And of course they give no hint of knowing you’re vegetarian, no matter how many times they’ve been told.

The opportunity to explain yourself, your choices, on your terms and with those who actually have any standing in the matter has been stolen by someone with an axe to grind.

Yet despite this, it’s usually you who’s created the awkward situation, allegedly.  And not acknowledging they knew you’re vegetarian goes a long way in your antagonist not having to admit they set things up; that they’ve attempted to recruit your host and family member into their pathetic little ego struggle.

It’s only when it starts to become obvious to others that they’ve been dragged into something pre-existing, something that’s become more acrimonious than it ever needed to be, that the old excuse comes out of the deck.

“He’s been pretending to forget I’m vegetarian, and trying to start arguments between me and family members for some time now, because he doesn’t have the cajones to confront me directly, by himself.”

“I did forget! It was an honest misunderstanding! It’s you who’s upsetting people!”

***

The crux of all of this, the reason why I bother writing about it, is because being vegetarian isn’t easy.

I don’t avoid eating meat because I don’t like the taste of it. I don’t do it for health reasons; the research doesn’t pan out.

I’m a vegetarian because I’m not okay with the suffering of those that can suffer; non-human animals included.

Meat is still tempting. Walking past Mc Donalds is more tempting now than it’s ever been.

Being offered meat, even innocently, is stressful. It’s worse when deliberate and repetative.

Then there’s the “self-denying” crap.

“If you want to eat it, then just eat it!”

Consider for the sake of argument, that I told you I had an urge to punch in the face, those people who laid unnecessary temptations in front of me. That this urge is just, if not more tempting, than eating the meat.

Would you have me, to avoid being self-denying, eating the meat and kicking their arse? (At least you’d be being consistent).

I mean, if the suffering of animals doesn’t matter, if it’s all about pure self-affirmation, then you can’t complain about me slicing off someone’s face and throwing it on the barbecue to make crackling, can you? Especially if they tempted me to do so.

I was first taken hunting at two years old. I’ve worked a shitty job in a meat factory. I’ve had attempts on my life. I’ve survived amongst some of the nastiest people in Australia. I’ll be screwed if I’m going to tolerate the gastronomic directives of human herd animals!

In light of this, the step from non-human to human in matters of survival and eating is probably less a graduation than you imagine. My vegetarianism not withstanding, there’s more of the predator inculcated into me than you’ll ever learn from browsing pre-slaughtered, plastic-wrapped, corpse-cuttings at market.

(And technically, I’ve already eaten human flesh – fun story).

I think the emphasis on the logical implications of harm-as-immoral could afford to be reversed for once. Reframed if you will.

Vegetarians often talk of extending the rights of persons to all beings capable of experiencing harm. I adopt the same logic, more or less. But rhetorically turned-on-its-head, morally, the criteria stopping me from eating non-human animals, is the same one stopping me from eating you.

It probably wouldn’t hurt for a few people to learn a thing or two about empathy for animals, and I dare say that if I put them through the experience of being hunted, they’d have such a learning experience. Or taste good trying and frying. Nom nom nom.

This is of course quasi-hypothetical, and I’m having a bit of a laugh. Honest. I’m not about to actually start slaughtering people; I believe I’ve explained why I’m a vegetarian.

But the moral absurdity from this half-reality-half-thought-experiment remains in the real world as well. It persists. It’s annoying and I believe I’ve conveyed adequately why.

Yet it goes on and on, because some people, quite unnecessarily, seeing someone else doing something different, are urged by their frail egos to defend their choice to remain amongst the herd, using disingenuous and universally cowardly means to do so. Nietzsche didn’t cast his net wide enough; you don’t have to be a predator to be an object of ressentiment.

If someone wants to take a shot at my vegetarianism, they should be direct in articulating something logically coherent, factually sound, argued in good faith and at an appropriate juncture. If someone wants to raise the matter, especially when they demand I don’t discuss their antics elsewhere, they should at least endeavour to provide a climate conducive to honest discussion.

It’s telling that instead they resort to stupid mind-games, lame high-school sophistry, pubescent politics, back-handed jabs, egocentric posturing, puerile food-tainting, mock politeness, victim-feigning and infallible fight-starting while I’m just trying to eat!

But hey, I’m the one who started it, right? I didn’t have to start a fight just by being vegetarian.

Merry Christmas!

~ Bruce

* I use the psychology terms more as literary device, than as actual, technical psychology.

(Photo source: Davide Vizzini)