Challenge the ‘culture of death’ — choose life
Bridgend: When newborns are seen as ‘polluters’ and death is described as ‘dignified’, it’s not surprising some youth don’t value their lives.
Suicide readily disturbs the imagination. We find the self-inflicted voluntary deaths of young people especially disturbing. The impact that suicide has on our psyche is clear in the way that people in Britain continually refer to the ‘Bridgend suicides’ in their casual conversations in supermarkets and pubs.
When I went to the barbers last Saturday, the clientele were not discussing the weather or the state of English football; they were speculating about the ‘true cause’ of the suicides of 17 young people in Bridgend, south Wales, since January 2007. Opinion was divided: some believed the suicides were the work of an internet-based suicide cult, while others said a copycat suicide contagion had spread through Bridgend.
Everyone appeared to agree that these suicides were no accident, that there had to be some connection between the 17 deaths. As a sociologist, I felt I was more of a participant-observer in this discussion, rather than a client waiting for No. 4 trim on the back and sides. I listened to the debate, and stopped myself from holding forth on Emile Durkheim’s 1897 sociological classic Suicide, which in my view throws far more light on what’s going on in Bridgend than all of the fashionable explanations in the media put together.
Of course, the regulars getting their Saturday haircut were absolutely right – the suicides of 17 teenagers are not unconnected. These young people inhabit the same moral universe, live in the community, and they are subject to similar social and cultural influences. As Durkheim noted over a century ago, an act of suicide is not simply an arbitrary individual undertaking. Rather, suicide is mediated through the relationship between an individual and society. Relatively high rates of suicide, according to Durkheim, are frequently symptomatic of a weakening of community and group attachments. Often, rising levels of suicide point to social disorganisation, and particularly to the weakening of the taken for-granted values that hold society together. That is why Durkheim believed that the study of suicide can provide interesting insights into the workings of society.
In many respects, from a sociological perspective, how a society responds to suicide is more significant than the individual acts of self-destruction themselves. For example, whether an individual’s passing is recorded as a suicide or an accidental death is influenced by prevailing cultural norms about the meaning of life. Durkheim pointed out that coroners in Catholic cultures are far less likely than Protestant coroners to record someone’s death as suicide. Why? Because according to the teachings of the Catholic Church, suicide is a mortal sin to which considerable stigma should be attached. In such circumstances, where suicide invites strong community condemnation, the authorities tend to be very reluctant to draw attention to its occurrence.
Today, society no longer believes in mortal sin – and its response to suicide shows that it lacks a moral vocabulary with which to make sense of this act. The most striking thing about officialdom and the media’s response to suicide is that they tend to treat it as a normal fact of life. In so far as it is seen as a problem, it is treated as a target-based issue, like literacy rates in schools or reducing the number of obese people. Thus we hear that the Welsh Assembly is going to work out a target for reducing suicide: apparently it wants to see a 10 per cent drop in suicide levels by 2012. Others call on officials to introduce ‘anti-suicide plans’, while mental health professionals insist that teachers should be trained in ‘suicide awareness’. All that is lacking from this repertoire of officialese about targets, raising awareness and ‘lending support’ is for some earnest public-health official to declare a zero-tolerance policy on suicide.
If Durkheim were alive today, it would strike him as incomprehensible that suicide has been disassociated from moral judgment. Of course, society still believes that suicide is wrong, and that suicide is an individual tragedy, especially when young people are involved. Yet running alongside the discussion of suicide as a ‘problem’ is the notion that suicide is also a lifestyle choice. At the very least, contemporary Western culture has become ambiguous about suicide. Many point to the negative influence of certain ‘pro-suicide’ internet sites, or the bad example set by nihilistic rock stars and celebrities who incite young people to contemplate ending their lives (see Venturing into the pro-suicide pit, by Brendan O’Neill). However, this focus on marginal influences that celebrate death as a fashion statement overlook the far more insidious and powerful trends at work today. The real problem is not a handful of sad internet sites but the difficulty that contemporary Western society has in affirming the culture of life.
In recent times, the word ‘dignity’ has increasingly become associated with death rather than with life. Numerous mainstream organisations are campaigning for the ‘inalienable right to choose a death that is dignified’. Their very language of ‘choice’ reflects a radically new conception of death. Death is now seen as both a ‘right’ and a ‘choice’, and something that has to occur at a ‘time of our own choosing’. As a humanist, I can understand why people sometimes feel that they need to end their lives. But once choosing death is turned into something valuable in its own right, then the meaning of life itself becomes compromised. The displacement of what has classically been known as a ‘good death’ by today’s ‘dignified choice’ of death reflects a disturbing diminishing of society’s capacity to uphold life itself.
The diminishing valuation of life
Since the beginning of time, one of the clearest markers of an enlightened civilised society was the moral status it attached to human life. Outwardly, twenty-first century Western societies express an unprecedented degree of affirmation for human life. This is an age when the principle of human rights is widely celebrated and extolled by political and international institutions. The phenomenal growth in health expenditure demonstrates the importance that prosperous societies attach to human wellbeing. In some cases, Western societies go to extraordinary lengths in their efforts to keep alive a premature baby or to prolong the life of an elderly person or someone who is chronically ill. And yet, the ethos of human rights and heroic medicine jars with contemporary’s society’s estrangement from it own humanity. To put it bluntly: it is difficult to celebrate human life when a ‘dignified death’ has been turned into a lifestyle option.
Sadly, the casual way in which life is treated these days does not only impact on the manner of ending it. Many now argue that the creation of new human life is a major problem. Influential environmentalist currents regard people – or at least the growth of the number of people – as the primary source of the world’s problems. Newborn children are discussed as an extra burden on our apparently fragile planet. As potential polluters, babies cease to be lovely cuddly things that bring so much joy to our lives, and instead are seen as destructive beings whose carbon emissions must continually be offset. Robbing babies of what we perceive to be their endearing innocence makes it easier to scare people away from having them, or at least from having too many of them. In recent centuries, babies were frequently seen as a blessing – now many argue that not having a baby is a blessing, at least for the environment.
Environmentalist writer Kelpie Wilson explicitly advocates such a reversal in the valuation of human life. She presents abortion, not so much as a necessary option that allows women to determine their lives, but rather as something we should embrace in the name of reducing the population and protecting the environment. ‘To understand that a tiny embryo must sometimes be sacrificed for the greater good of the family or the human species as a whole is the moral high ground that we stand on today’, she recently argued. Why? Because ‘we have to consider how we will live tomorrow on a resource-depleted and climate-compromised planet’. From Wilson’s perspective, abortion is morally justified as a resource-saving strategy. She believes that ‘most women who seek abortions do so in order to conserve resources for children they already have’. Scare stories about the ‘physical limits of the planet’ are presented as ‘moral arguments about abortion’. (1) In the same vein, others have argued for a carbon-tax on families with more than two children (see The pitter patter of tiny carbon footprints, by Michael Cook).
Since the beginning of the modern era, there has never been a time when the miserable sentiments of Malthus enjoyed so much influence as they do today. Controlling population levels is now depicted as common sense and couples who don’t have children are praised for their ‘ethical’ behaviour. If the creation of life is held in such disdain, why should we be surprised that some young people feel that it is no big deal to end life? When society finds it so difficult to promote a culture of life, why do we speculate about the role of malevolent internet sites in encouraging tragic suicides? It is good that people in barbershops and pubs still talk about young people’s deaths with shock and a degree of reverence. It shows that our humanity is not yet prepared to accept these deeds as ‘lifestyle choices’. Let us now force society to remind itself of the unique status of human life.
Frank Furedi’s Invitation To Terrorism: The Expanding Empire of The Unknown has just been published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit Furedi’s website here.
Mick Hume argued that the really dangerous ‘epidemic’ is one of miserabilism, not suicide. Tiffany Jenkins said Channel 4’s morbid obsessions would not further the conversation about the purpose of life. Frank Furedi confronted the New Misanthropy. Kevin Yuill reviewed a book by Neil M Gorsuch which presented a killer argument against assisted suicide.Or read more at spiked issue Modern life.
(1) See Abortion and the Earth, Kelpie Wilson Truthout, 29 January 2008
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