Thursday, November 17, 2011

Why Don't They Just Kill Themselves?

Fairly interesting article by Desmond Fennell in the Irish Times today, on suicide. (I won't provide a link since this blog seems to mangle all the links I put in; besides, I like the idea of a blog without any links. It seems rather swish.) His argument is a rather familiar one-- that is, that the meteoric rise in the suicide rate in recent decades (a fourfold increase since 1971, though it has dropped a little since the eighties) can be laid at the blame of social anomie, the alienation that occurs when engrained social values are discarded and there is a limbo at the heart of society.

Fennell writes: From the 1960s, American consumerist-liberal values and rules were introduced in the US, and through allies, to its west European satellites. There the inherited European rules system held sway, either by reason of its sponsorship by the Christian churches or by social convention. The message was that everyone had the right and ability to become rich and to consume at will. Everyone could also become enlightened and modern by accepting a series of new values and new rules of behaviour, thought and language which were at variance with the European heritage in key spheres.

Of course, suicide is one of those things (like education) that almost everybody has a theory about. A liberal could easily say that suicide stemmed from religious guilt, or suffocating sex roles, or authoritarian power structures, or whatever you're having yourself. If it was pointed out that the suicide rate skyrocketed after Ireland became less religious, conservative, authoritarian, and so on, all the liberal has to do is argue that people stayed alive, back then, out of a sense of duty, or because there was a religious "taboo" against self-murder.

What is interesting to me is how, almost overwhelmingly, there seems to be a consensus that killing yourself is a bad thing, even in our liberal media and commentariat. Why should this be? Isn't it simply the residue of religion? Even proponents of euthansia (an increasingly large and vocal platoon) usually frame their arguments in terms of debilitating illness or old age.

But really, in a liberal society, why should there be any stigma on suicide? Where do we get this a priori view that life is a good thing? Why do we peddle these platitudes that every human life has value, when we no longer believe that every soul is created by God and was ransomed at an infinite price by his Only Son? Surely we should be neutral towards suicide; it is after all an entirely rational choice, from the liberal-atheist perspective. Existence only has the value we assign it. Indeed, given the increasingly bullish market fundamentalism that seems to be speaking its name in louder and louder tones, how long before some ardent disciple of Ayn Rand declares that economically unproductive people would be doing the world a favour by topping themselves?

Of course, I think that is all diabolical nonsense, my own view of suicide being that of Chesterton, as expressed in such fiery terms in Orthodoxy:

Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world. His act is worse (symbolically considered) than any rape or dynamite outrage. For it destroys all buildings: it insults all women. The thief is satisfied with diamonds; but the suicide is not: that is his crime. He cannot be bribed, even by the blazing stones of the Celestial City. The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them. But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it. He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer. When a man hangs himself on a tree, the leaves might fall off in anger and the birds fly away in fury: for each has received a personal affront. Of course there may be pathetic emotional excuses for the act. There often are for rape, and there almost always are for dynamite. But if it comes to clear ideas and the intelligent meaning of things, then there is much more rational and philosophic truth in the burial at the cross-roads and the stake driven through the body, than in Mr. Archer's suicidal automatic machines. There is a meaning in burying the suicide apart. The man's crime is different from other crimes--for it makes even crimes impossible.

But then, I am a right-wing religious nutjob, a fundie wacko, a worshipper of the sky-god, a devotee of the flying spaghetti monster, and all the other charming epithets that are flung at believers by calm and sober rationalists. Of course I would have an illogical taboo against self-termination. But why do the secular media keep talking as though the public should concern themselves about other peoples' private existential choices? And how long before they stop, and start making snarky comments about suicide awareness campaigns?

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