The Politics of Suicide

From Tajikistan Travels: “Sharifmo explains that she, her mother and her son, Mustapha – now aged 2, live in one room in her brother’s house (her husband is away indefinitely working in Russia  but they are not wanted there. Her brother is violent and she is scared of him and she has at times felt suicidal. She suddenly stands on a chair and shows us how she wanted to hang herself. Sharifmo was only 12 years old when her parents arranged for her to be married. It was the middle of the civil war and soldiers used to come to her parents’ house and threaten to take her. Sharifmo’s mother told her that it was better for her to marry than be raped.” [Her husband is away indefinitely working in Russia, since there is no work where they live, but can rarely send money, so the family lives in complete destitution].

In nature there are no rights. “Rights” are a human construct, a political and moral idea to regulate human behaviour, reinforced by laws. Our complex and overcrowded human society needs this construct to try to balance people’s freedoms, because so much modern human activity interferes with or restricts freedoms in one way or another. We just don’t have enough ‘room’ (physically or culturally) to allow everyone absolute freedom, so we have established this idea of ‘rights‘ as a means of restricting some people’s freedom to avoid its negative impact on everyone else’s. Rights are a replacement, a compensation, for the reductions of freedom that are an inevitable requirement of civilization. Every right we ‘grant’ reduces the absolute freedom of someone else. My right of assembly reduces your freedom to crush opposing views. A girl’s right not to be forced to marry against her personal wishes reduces many religions’ freedom to subjugate the wishes of the individual in the interest of the collective.

Most scientists believe sick animals go off by themselves to die. This is not purely altruism, though it can free up the rest of the flock from the responsibility of looking after a particularly vulnerable member, and reduce their exposure to any contagious disease. It is rather an instinct to be alone during time of great suffering. Alone, under cover, often means out of harm’s way, less visible to predators, improving its chance of survival if the illness should prove to be temporary.

In early civilization suicide was both illegal and viewed by religion as sinful (and remains so today in many parts of the world). Suicide is, after all, an affront to the political order. It suggests that all is not right with the world, and maybe those in power have some responsibility for that. In the case of prisoners, it is a means of ‘cheating justice’, so extraordinary measures are taken (in almost every country in the world) to prevent incarcerated people from killing themselves, to force-feed them when they go on hunger strikes, and to drug them so they can be declared sane enough to face justice, including execution.

Making suicide illegal is, however, unpalatable to political leaders, since it appears very heavy-handed, so politicians have encouraged religions to make it their business to frighten adherents away from suicide with stories of eternal suffering, and condemnations of cowardice and social irresponsibility. For those not susceptible to religious propaganda or fear of legal prosecution, the state has in recent centuries begun to use the pseudo-science of psychology to declare people ‘mentally ill’ and hence lock them up and keep them alive against their will, indefinitely (a true ‘life sentence’). Most people (who don’t often encounter the ‘mentally ill’) have now been effectively brainwashed into believing that ‘mental illness’ is a real disease (and not what it really is, a metaphor for “socially unpopular thoughts, feelings and behaviours”), and into believing that, with mind-altering drugs and ‘therapy’ it can be ‘cured’. No matter that experiments have repeatedly shown that all animals, including humans, subjected to prolonged crowding or other severe stress manifest endemic “socially unpopular thoughts, feelings and behaviours” (we call these manifestations, among other things, wars — but these manifestations, since they are led by political leaders, are exempted from the definition of ‘mental illness’).

There is no limit to this slippery slope, as the Bush regime is now planning on testing all children who exhibit “socially unpopular thoughts, feelings and behaviours” of all kinds, in the views of government-certified psychiatrists with close links to the pharmaceutical industry, and subjecting them to mandatory expensive drug treatment, and removal from their parents’ custody if they don’t comply.

And of course, when there is no “mental illness” excuse for preventing suicide, as in those who are suffering unbearable and sustained physical pain, the politicians jump back in and ban ‘assisted suicide’, so you end up with the absurd situation that committing suicide is not illegal but assisting someone who begs you to help them do so is murder. Such a tangled web we weave!

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that suicide prevention is always a bad idea. Many people have dark moments in their lives when they did things, or tried to do things, they later regretted. But suicide is not often a spontaneous decision, and I believe there should be limits on the ability of the state to strip away freedoms, including the freedom to take one’s own life, when the exercise of those freedoms does not severely interfere with the freedoms of others, and is prohibited merely as an exercise in complicit state and religious sanctimony. While talking about committing suicide, and even a sloppy attempt at suicide, may in fact be a ‘plea for help’, anyone who thinks people who commit or seriously attempt suicide are merely screaming for attention or attempting to make others feel badly, is guilty of fuzzy thinking, horrific insensitivity to anguish and suffering, and cruelty to all concerned.

Suicide is an act of desperation. Here is a story, written shortly after the photo above was taken, of one such act. It was not the woman in the picture, but another very young woman, with four young children. We do what we can. And if that fails, we do what we must.

The most political suicides of all, of course, are those of ‘suicide bombers’. Bush wants the press to refer to them as something else less suggestive of martyrdom. In an article today in Alternet, Nichole Argo reviews studies of suicide bombers and concludes that bombers are not motivated by brainwashing, religious fanaticism or extreme poverty (they come from predominantly middle-class backgrounds) so much as by peer-to-peer communication and solidarity. Knowing someone personally who has ‘signed up’ to wage war against a perceived oppressor or injustice is the main attribute of recruits. They also have a sense of ‘nothing left to lose’: “As one Palestinian told a reporter: ‘If we don’t fight, we will suffer. If we do fight, we will suffer, but so will they.’ ” The witnessing of civilian casualties, suffering and destruction provides the tinder for suicide bombers to act, she says, but it is social networking, affinity, personal connection, not ideology, that drives it.

It has nothing to do with courage, or with cowardice, and it is not anti-social, and not a ‘statement’. Suicide is a personal act, a final act that acknowledges the actor simply felt he, or she, alone, had no other alternative. In some cases, we might have been able, or might yet be able, in time, to create some other alternatives. In most cases, there is nothing wecan or should do.

Ultimately it is not political, it is personal, a bringing to an end of unbearable individual anguish. It is not about us at all.

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14 Responses to The Politics of Suicide

  1. theresa says:

    This clarifies so much of what I always suspected about suicide but could never fully articulate. I haven’t checked all the links here yet. I agree with everything you’ve said: you do what you can, you do what you must, its personal and there is no alternative. There is something missing here, however and that is that life is unequivocally and always wonderful. Always. That doesn’t invalidate anything you’ve said here but I think it fills in some of what a person must be feeling when they come to that junction in their lives. I call it a junction because there is still a choice if not an alternative. The individual still has to make the final gesture or perform the act. If they ever loved the world it would have to be the most joyless moment of their lives. I’m not trying to say its right or wrong, just the ultimate sadness.

  2. The problem with the “mental illness is a metaphor” thing is that there is often an observable physical side to the illness. It is not only in the behaviour, feelings and thoughts. And it’s not just a question of these being “unpopular” but incapacitating. Have you ever seen someone you love go down the path of deep depression? You would know what I’m talking about.

  3. etbnc says:

    Ouch. Parts of that one paragraph in this post make me wince, too. Perhaps this dialog would proceed most smoothly if we try to be explicit about our generalizations, and try to be clear when we focus on just one aspect among many.Do we really believe that every instance of mental illness is exactly the same, with exactly one cause? I hope not. As Marc points out, there are other perspectives on mental illness, also based on experience and evidence.We have access to a wide variety of evidence that suggests a wide variety of causes and effects, all of which sometimes get lumped together as “mental illness”. I do see value in pointing out thatsome instances of “mental illness” may be social or political repression. I hope we also see value in considering the possibility that some instances of “mental illness” can be traced to real, physical, chemical, and genetic conditions.

  4. Candy Minx says:

    Um, this is heavy and very true fellow commentators. I find resisitance to this notion everywhere I go and to people I talk to about mental illness. People do not want to believe that mental illness can be cured and treated and responded to by vitamins sleep and REMOVAL from the environment that is encouraging the unacceptable thoughts and behaviours. I not only know lots of “mentally ill” people but I have travelled with them, you’d be surprissed how often when they on “holiday” they are suddenly “well.”Look at the patterns of thoughts withing mentally ill people-anger-frustration with co-workers-sorrow at state of world-obsession with sufferings in the world abstracted often-feeling of hopelessness-intense emotions then no emotions to compensate for painful ones-fear of effort needed to deal with life-not wanting to participate in many social responsibilities(often with family and co-workers who are cruel judgemental)I don’t know i have never emt a depressed person and mentally ill who wasn’t RIGHT about their situation…they just complain about it while the rest of us “abide” by our lot with crummy jobs and unsatisfying love life or friends or loneliness or frustrations. Mentally ill people seem to suffer from honesty more than anything else.And this kind of sorrow and sadness can run one down eventually driving the sad person into a worst state we really call psychosis or mentally ill. They suffer from amlnutrition sometimes they abuse substances to kill the pain. Its about pain, and they are honest about how much pain they feel.When we give them pills they go back to their shit jobs and unhappy relationships with parents(who often have emotionally abused them if not outright secually abused them) and they go to parties and “fit in”. Lucky bastards maybe I should take some of those pills…love and peace,Candy

  5. Candy Minx says:

    p.s. Dave YOU ARE ON FIRE these days…I want your secret! Heh heh. And I mean your posts are HOT!

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  7. I agree that removal from the bad environment (or other stressing agents) is a good way to ease, even cure, most of what is seen as mental illness. But not all. “I don’t know i have never met a depressed person and mentally ill who wasn’t RIGHT about their situation.” I have. I’ve seen someone in the throes of depression fed by paranoia. Someone who was simply unable to twist everything around her in a black destructive force. Sure, most depressed persons do not sink that deep. I too have been with many people with mental problems; let’s face it, we live in a world where it’s easy to develop problems. But for some there comes a point when it becomes a true illness.Let’s not put everything in the same basket.

  8. Candy Minx says:

    Hi Marc, okay you’re absolutely correct that some peoples chemical ore motional imbalance can reach a point that they can not see the difference between paranoia and the facts(You aren’t really paranoid till you have all the facts-William Burrouhgs). And I do not want to demean or lessen anyones struggle with childabuse or political torture…or the various options for distress. And I have had a couple friends who were halucinating and paranoid. So I agree. I alos understand that viruses contribute to mental illness. I don’t want to say it doesn’t exist. What I am saying is that kind of paranoia once it gets that deep usually USUALLY has days and weeks of not eating or eating bread, noodles rice, little protein, little sleep-little exercise. Unfortunately mindsets can get so strong doctors and family don’t have the patience to help someone so we land up giving them in pills. And then we tell them they can’t go off the pills forever. I don’t know, other countries, like India have huge families and support systems and depression and mental health manifests differently and the family encourages healing in many cases through care of sleep vitamins.Marc, I promise I won’t put everything in the same basket, okay? But I think we have to at some point say we “create” mental illness by forcing people to keep 40 hr work weeks, poor nutrition like bread, rice noodles as a staple in diet, stress to outperform etc.did you know that some people are doing research on bipolar as a reaction to long work hours…that in pre-agricultural lifestyles, people worked in spurts intense labor then much time of rest and lower outputs…so bi polars may be hold outs of pre-farming, they may even be our “normal” state but unable to fit into this ridiculous life-style anfd farm economy we live by.I used to be a house parent for downs syndrome and autistic kids. I would live with them for a week on and week off. They were rejcted by family sort of a home but with anawesome school programexperimental at the time, common now, and I introduced whole foods and high vitamins and the kids responded immediately they were more attentive and focused and able to learn in a faster manner.(check my blog for interesting facts about mental illness and niacin)

  9. Avi Solomon says:

    Dear Dave,It IS personal, but there are different ways of choosing.Here is something I wrote after the 2001 ‘Martydom Action’ in Jerusalem( are all Suicide Bombers! We are here, living time-bombs on a suicide mission to Planet Earth to GIVE and SHARE and LOVE and LEARN in a circle of compassion. Do the best you can NOW, for you don’t know when this human body-bomb is timed to explode!

  10. “What I am saying is that kind of paranoia once it gets that deep usually USUALLY has days and weeks of not eating or eating bread, noodles rice, little protein, little sleep-little exercise.” Not in my experience, although I agree that sleeplessness often accompanies other symptomes, but let’s not get in the causality fallacy (“if A and B co-occur, A causes B”).I agree wholeheartedly that the society we have built for ourselves is one of the main problems. And that the way we try and cure mental illnesses (for lack of a better term) is flawed, and that closer communities would help, as well as getting rid of the it’s-all-chemical attitude. Actually, I knew someone who became bipolar after a clinical depression (caused in great part by her environment); the bipolar condition probably came about through the use of very strong psythropic medecine.Funny you should mention autism, there was a short-lived debate in a Quebec newspaper about the view that autism is a different point of view, a different intelligence (I simplify) and we shouldn’t try to make them into ourself; the interesting part is that this view was present by someone with autism, and countered by a “normal” researcher.I guess we kind of have similar point of view; it’s just that I loath overgeneralization.

  11. Candy Minx says:

    I really understand when people loathe overgenralization…and I am a big believer in pattern recognition and big picture symptoms…I am a world class overgenralizer ha ha! Um, I was turned on to an incredible autistic web site, I must go look for the address…it’s possible that Dave ehre had it linked but I’ll be back to hook you up. Great talking to you Marc and all, and all of our perspectives are valuable and its important we have been sharing them.Cheers,Candy

  12. zach says:

    Dave defines mental illness as “a metaphor for “socially unpopular thoughts, feelings and behaviours.”” Well then, the government should drop all the funding for mental health, they’re only socially unpopular, they no longer need help. “Making suicide illegal…” I know you could punish those who commit suicide with the death penalty. Oh wait… Not once do you mention the impact on those loved ones left behind. And since when did you become an expert on suicide? Do you have personal experience? Oh ya, you’re an expert on everything aren’t you. Your arrogance truely knows no bounds.

  13. Candy Minx says:

    Hi Zach, Um I wouldn’t say that Dave is an expert on everything. I would say he is very good at research and he knows what to ask and then can find it. I would also say he has a fascinating network of blogs and friends and people that he can refer and throw ideas around with.Zach, I think its totally fair in a public forum to disagree with someone opinion…but when I see someone calling a sweetheart like Dave arrogant forget it. I won’t accept it.I have lots of experience with suicide and I can vouch that nothing in his post was arrogant or ignorant regarding suicide. Dave might be experiemntal…but where is the harm in that.The way most societies funtion…the rules haven’t been working. I think being a little experiemntal might loosen us all up to start seeing things ina new way. Letting go of old rules and attitudes is not arrogant. In fact letting go is one of the most basic humble activities and styles of thinking we can practice.Zack come pick on me I really AM arrogant, but not on a sweet soul like and peace,Candy

  14. zach says:

    Candy and Dave: Sorry, I don’t believe anyone who describes human beings as arrogant monsters, rapacious, destructive, thoughtless, unconscious (Dave’s own words) is particularly sweet. Arrogance is defined as an “overbearing pride evidenced by a superior manner toward inferiors.” Dave consistently demonstrates his superior manner by offering opinions on most everything including psychology, religion, economics, technology, medicine, and of course nature and essentially says the world isn’t working. Then claims HE has the answer!! In my opinion, this blog appeals to those without a sense of belonging, those with an axe to grind, those living in fear, and it burns me to no end, and deeply disturbs me, that Mr. Pollard has such a following.

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