Body Worlds – a collision of materialism with dignity?

Originally published in Daily Maverick

Respect should not be granted unreservedly. Not to people, because they need to be reminded that they aren’t gods. Nor to ideas, because we stand little chance of discovering that we are wrong if we don’t ask questions. It can be impolite and for some, perhaps even offensive to talk ill of the dead. But even so, we’re less likely to cause offence when remembering the misdeeds of a Stalin and more so with a Mandela, because of the difference degrees to which they merit our respect.

Conceptions of what merits respect – and how to express our respect – can differ widely across cultures. A naive observer might think burning the dead is disrespectful, until they are told that for some societies, the burning of a deceased person is exactly how we show our deepest respect, while burying that same person would be unthinkably insulting.

My point is that funeral practices are a good example of differences in how values are expressed, rather than differences in the values themselves. Can this principle extend to dead bodies in general? In particular, what are we to make of the moral outrage that has followed Gunther von Hagens and his Body Worlds exhibition ever since the first showing, in Japan in 1995?

Part of a comment on Rebecca Davis’s article about the exhibition reads as follows:

The desensitising effect this will inculcate is just another step in the long path of portraying human beings, and all life forms, as primarily mud, not as sentient whole creatures with purpose and glory. There are two prices to pay for the show – the entry fee, and a further surrender of your humanity.

Those of you who find that hyperbolic, as I do, might be reluctant to acknowledge that Mr Cunningham has a point. Whether he’s right or not – or rather, how we reconcile his view with a more permissive or liberal one – is the more interesting question raised by responses such as his, or  that of Nokuzola Mndende, who labelled the exhibition a “madness”, which was “totally against African culture”. Mndende goes on to say that you “cannot showcase a corpse in whatever form. I’m shocked that our government can allow it.”

As I’ve noted in the past, it’s easy for me to say that offence should be permitted, because very little is offensive to me. When considering the views of people like those I quote above, though, it’s easy to mistake one form of offence (which we can perhaps describe as a simple moralistic revulsion) from a more nuanced one, in which social tolerance of exhibitions like Body Worlds is a signal or manifestation of a diseased society.

One person’s subjective moral outrage isn’t that interesting, nor should it be. If something offends you, it’s difficult to see why anyone else should care – unless, of course, they care about minimising the harms you might suffer. But you, as the offended party, need to recognise that you’re not entitled to that respect or consideration. It’s not an issue of rights or entitlements, but rather of persuasion, and the dictates of civility.

The more nuanced reaction I refer to above is more complex than a mere subjective preference. A conception of the “sacred” is something I’ve spent decades combating in various of its guises, because treating things as sacred is often a way to make them beyond question. For example, in the case of some believers, it’s the fact that God’s will should not be questioned that allows for the occasional tragedy of a child dying because people are spending time praying rather than driving her to hospital. But sacrificing the sacred can sometimes involve the collateral sacrifice of the meaningful, or aspects of the aesthetic dimension of existence.

Leaving the Body Worlds exhibition last week, my wife and I agreed that aspects of it were “creepy”, but as you might expect, neither of us were offended by any of it. In fact, for me – as someone committed to a fully naturalistic worldview – an exhibition like this increases rather than decreases my admiration for the human body (alongside increasing my shame at not taking more exercise than the occasional walk).

But for others (and I don’t presume to speak for Mr Cunningham), there is something distinct and meaningful about being a sentient body, embedded in a complex world of histories, emotions and so forth. Plucking one or more of those bodies out of that context, and displaying it much like a butterfly might be pinned to a board, can appear callous or ghoulish.

Interpreting Body Worlds as pornographic or exploitative is made easier by reference to the character of von Hagens, who appears to take pleasure in provocations such as performing live autopsies. His character is of course not relevant to much besides his motives, and it would be a mistake for us to think the exhibition immoral simply because we don’t like its creator.

The concern that the nuanced critic of Body Worlds might have, though, is that we’re in danger of becoming more like van Hagens ourselves, and that as much as oversensitivity is a bad thing, insensitivity might be equally so. As much as I think it absurdly hypersensitive for Body Worlds to invoke calls for the involvement of the Human Rights Commission (as another of Davis’s commenters suggested), there’s nothing wrong with being cautious about trivialising all our taboos.

As much as people are simple bags of bone, far less significant than they imagine themselves to be, they’re somehow also more than that. Not only in terms of what’s called the “hard problem” of consciousness and how it arises, but also in terms of how we treat each other, despite their being no grand significance to our lives. What significance we do have arises in large part because we treat each other as if we are significant.

So when we ask people to be tolerant of things that offend them and remind them that in a free society, permissiveness is mandatory (as a way of avoiding moral tyranny), let’s not be too smug about it. Yes, of course those who are offended don’t need to go to exhibitions such as these. But it’s perhaps not only the offence of seeing dead bodies on display that bothers them. It’s also the fact that so many of us want to see those bodies – and what that might mean about the living.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.