Is it wrong to commit suicide? A few years ago, society would have had little problem answering that question, and might have looked askew at you even for asking it. Of course it’s wrong to commit suicide. It’s nihilistic and destructive and damaging to individuals - most obviously to the suicide but also to the friends, family and community that his self-obliteration is fundamentally a blast against. But today, society is far less sure about how to answer questions on the wrongness of suicide. It now goes something like this: ‘Is it wrong to commit suicide? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s not judge.’
The inability of modern society to adopt a clear moral stance on suicide was thrown into sharp relief by the suicide of Robin Williams last week. Williams’ sad, untimely death exposed the extent to which we are now actively discouraged from criticising suicide. So when an American actor tweeted his belief that suicide is ‘a very selfish act’, in which an individual in turmoil is clearly ‘not thinking about your family, your friends’, he was subjected to worldwide Twitterfury and eventually had to recant and apologise for his anti-suicide sentiments. A Fox News anchor was likewise internationally harangued for describing suicide as ‘cowardly’. Media outlets openly chastised criticism of suicide in the wake of Williams’ death, with the Guardian informing us at length that suicide is not a selfish act, and anyone who says it is could apparently be doing ‘more harm in the long run’. Suicides are ‘NOT cowardly or selfish’, decreed a headline in the Daily Mirror (its capitals).
The reprimanding of Robin Williams’ critics echoes earlier controversies around the criticism of suicide. Following the suicide of Welsh football manager Gary Speed in 2011, the footballer Joey Barton described suicide as ‘one of the most tragic, most selfish, most terrible acts out there’ – and he was branded ‘sick’ by the tabloids and self-styled experts for doing so. Frequent foot-in-mouth victim Jeremy Clarkson also found himself in the eye of a Twitterstorm when he described people who commit suicide on the London Underground as ‘very selfish’. Meanwhile, the Samaritans and others issue guidelines to the media about how to cover suicide, imploring hacks to report it in a super-sensitive, non-judgemental fashion.
The turnaround in contemporary society’s attitude to suicide has been extraordinary. Once, it was those who considered or committed suicide who were described as ‘sick’ – now it’s those who criticise suicide who are branded with that s-word. Once, suicide was treated as the ultimate taboo – now it’s taboo to speak ill of suicide, to say that it is bad or immoral or, as that Fox News anchor did of Robin Williams’ suicide, ‘horrible’. Where once all forms of suicide were pathologised, now casting moral judgement on suicide has become pathologised, being increasingly interpreted as a signifier of a swirling, warped mind. Yes, yesteryear’s treatment of suicide as taboo, even as a crime until 1961 (in England and Wales), was problematic, not least because it had the consequence of discouraging the suicidal from seeking help. But the new treatment of criticism of suicide as taboo is also very bad, for it speaks to modern society’s inability to uphold the value of life, the value of struggling to exist, and it could have the unwitting effect of turning suicide into something normal, possibly even positive.
What we’re witnessing is the wrenching of suicide from the sphere of moral judgement. Sure, society generally still believes that suicide is a sad event, and it tries to tackle it. But it increasingly does so in a narrowly technical way. Some officials now treat suicide as something akin to SATS exam results, setting themselves targets for reducing the scale of the problem. ‘Reduce the suicide rate between 2002 and 2013 by 20 per cent’: that has been the Scottish government’s target over the past decade, as if suicide were like road accidents – something that might be pretty straightforwardly reduced through a few technical interventions. But of course, a suicide is not the same as a car crash. It raises infinitely more moral questions than an accident ever could – moral questions about the relationship between the individual and the community, about the social cohesion of society, about the value of life. To implement technical suicide-reduction strategies while simultaneously chastising any moral criticism of suicide is profoundly self-defeating, for without a moral position on suicide it is impossible truly to understand this act, far less to send a signal about its wrongness and destructiveness.