I think consent is a super interesting concept which we probably don’t think about enough.
One definition of consent is to agree to something – so to give permission for something to happen. Depending on the context this can mean different things. The concept of consent is mainly used within medical treatment, sexual or physical interactions, legal contexts and in connection to governance.
A fundamental thing about consent is that it should be given voluntarily. Consent is not consent if it is coerced or forced. To know whether we do something voluntarily or under coercion we have to have an understanding of power dynamics. If we agree to do something or have something done to us, because we subconsciously fear exclusion, shaming or loss of material security is it then voluntary?
I don’t know. But I experience within myself that I go along with things, consent, comply, agree to things and give permission for other people to do things – not because I have thought about it and then make a conscious voluntary decision, but because I don’t want to make a decision myself. Or because I am scared or because I am confused.
Technology and digitalisation is quite a good example of this. How many times during a day do you have to click ‘I agree’ or ‘accept’ when visiting websites or using apps?
Do you really know what you are agreeing to?
Was your consent voluntarily or did it happen because you just didn’t have the time or energy to read and makes sure you understood completely what permission you gave and to who?
I actually just click ‘I agree’ because I get annoyed… I am not sure that is a good reason to give consent to whatever it is I am consenting to…
We didn’t consent to be born
I really struggle with this. Being fiercely independent is a big part of my identity and I can’t get my head around that I may not have had anything to do with the most fundamental thing about me. That I was born. So I quite like the spiritual belief that some part of me, my soul or spirit or whatever, consciously decided that I was going to become a human being, in this body, in my family, on this planet and in this time. That all the difficult things I have experienced and all the amazing things I’ve discovered through being human, it was all part of a plan that I chose.
I find the sense of control, influence and choice reassuring. So I choose to believe this.
But not only did we not decide to be born – we are born into a completely submissive position. As babies we cannot give consent to anything. Everything happens within us, around us and to us without our permission. We are powerless and dependent.
We are also born into consent in terms of the culture and governance of our specific society. We grow up in family cultures, societal narratives, educational institutions and governing structures and we were never asked if we agreed to the ways of thinking that are imposed on us throughout our childhood.
Imposed through language, through expectations from others, through rewards, through threats and through punishment.
Subtle but powerful punishments such as exclusion, shaming and being neglected, ignored or dismissed. We may not even think or remember that we have been punished in these ways, but I think most of us have or we have witnessed it happening to other children/people and we learned to fear that happening to ourselves.
It’s natural human behaviour. That’s how social control and culture works. We instil rules and moral guidelines in each other so that we can function as a group, as a family and as a community.
External authority and external power is there from the moment we are born. It is part of who we are, we can not separate ourselves from it, nor our thinking. As we grow older we may attempt to establish ourselves as sovereign entities, assert our power and authority over our personal lives.
But when a collective crisis arises – like the current one related to Sars-Cov-2 – it becomes painfully clear how intertwined we are as a human race and within our societies and how complex things like personal freedom, personal choice, authority and consent can be.
Types of consent
I came across a distinction between different types of consent which I think is useful.
- Express consent – is when consent is given clearly and unambiguously e.g. in writing or with witnesses.
- implied consent – is when consent is not given to each action but is understood to be part of participating in a context e.g. within contact sports. Someone who chooses to box, agrees to the rules of the sport and gives consent to being assaulted. It is linked to the common English law doctrine that states ‘to a willing person, injury is not done’.
- If you are my age you will remember a time when you could turn up the volume on headphones without getting a beep sound or a message that listening to loud music could damage your hearing. Our consent was implied whereas today we express consent when we press ‘unlock volume’ or similar.
- informed consent – usually used within medicine when people have to give permission to treatment and is informed of risks and expected outcomes.
- substituted consent – when someone is not considered able to give consent and other people try to establish what they would want if they were ‘competent’ to make their own decisions.
- consent of the governed – this is how our political and educational system works e.g. when we vote we consent to MP’s to make decisions on our behalf.
Another really interesting thing around consent is that we generally tend to assume that silence is consent. I would argue that this is part of a domineering leadership/governance style which has been indoctrinated from an early age, where consent is assumed because of lack of protest or not enough protest… I think for the majority of us we will stay silent if we do not feel safe or competent enough to speak our minds, whether we are in agreement or not.
So context matters when it comes to consent. Which also brings me back to whether voluntary consent is possible in real life. And if it is then what makes is possible?
Voluntary means of one’s own free will. So free will would be fundamental – unconstrained without interference… Choice would be another essential ingrediens.
And what about informed consent? Informed choice?
What does it really mean, in real life, to each of us in our personal context?