Paternalism: From Safe Spaces to Suicide Prevention

Sticks and stones may break my bones, and names will always hurt me”

A Scottish school bullying prevention video, late 1990s

The above quote comes from an anti-bullying video that I watched when I was a pupil in a Scottish comprehensive secondary school, some time in the late 1990s. Although myself and my classmates would have probably been 14-15 years of age at the time of viewing the video, the children featured in this video were pre-pubescent, and would probably have been aged between 8 and 10.

The video started out with the children chanting the well known schoolyard mantra “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”. Some of these children were then interviewed about their experiences of verbal bullying and the impact that this had on them. By the end of the video, all the children features in the video had learned that they should be kinder to each other, because “names” can cause emotional injuries just as “sticks and stones” cause physical ones, and ran round the playground chanting the altered and more enlightened version of the mantra, as quoted in the sub-heading. They would all now be resolved to no longer tolerate any form of verbal abuse, and in the future would report all such altercations to a teacher and no child would ever again be expected to sustain injuries to their inherent human dignity without recourse to an authority figure.

Even in my early teens, it never quite seemed right to me that we should look to the teachers as the first resort for resolving all conflicts; even as someone who himself had copped a fair amount of abuse, both verbal and occasionally physical. And I was never the tattling type, or the type to start crying when a mean boy pushed me over in the playground. For me, it wasn’t so much the case that we owed our persecutors protection, and I didn’t want to be responsible for getting someone else into trouble. It was more the case that I felt as though asking a grown up to intervene in my social conflicts was inherently undignified and that by taking the easy way out by asking someone to deal with my problems for me, I would have been depriving myself of an opportunity for personal growth and to develop resilience. Put simply, I would have felt weak and undignified if I took the easy way out rather than cultivating the capacity to withstand conflict and the occasional unkind word. It felt somehow pathetic to be terrified of mere words to the point where, even as a teenager, I would still be so profoundly damaged by an insult that I would have to hide trembling behind the skirt of my class teacher to give me protection from them. Many of my classmates did continue to demand this sort of protection, and I can remember once being summoned by the assistant principal of the school because I had a jokey little fake territorial dispute with a 14 or 15 year old classmate who sat next to me concerning his workbooks crossing the border between his desk and mine, thus taking up my desk space. Fortunately for my defence, this chap; so beleaguered according to his own perception of the world; had been up and down to the assistant principal’s office on the 4th floor like a veritable Jack-in-the-box; reporting anyone who so much as looked at him squint-eyed, so the assistant principal readily believed me when I said that there was no malicious intent and that this was not part of a concerted campaign of bullying on my part. And for my part, I made concerted efforts to avoid any kind of unnecessary interaction with this boy again.

In The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt examines the ‘safe space’ phenomenon that has emerged within the last 2 decades and has been spreading across university campuses in the US and other parts of the developed world. The authors observe that the generation of youths that have grown up with the Internet as a household technology (referred to in the book as “iGen”) seem to exhibit a markedly reduced capacity for tolerance of ideas which challenge their core beliefs in comparison to the generations which came before them. This is attributed by the authors to the fact that there has been an increasing trend towards overprotection of children, which leads to them failing to develop the strength of character and resilience that would enable them to withstand the social pressures of trying to coexist with others who may have a radically different worldview. Policies which cater towards this intellectual fragility in universities include a demand for “safe spaces”, de-platforming and trigger warnings.

The authors posit that the human mind is naturally “antifragile”, which means that it requires this process of being annealed through exposure to different levels of threat in order to build strength. But if a child grows up being overprotected from any danger or threat, even including intellectual threats, then they will emerge from adolescence with a very “fragile” mind who perceives challenges to their worldview as a threat to their very existence, and is in fact at risk of being traumatised by such encounters. For many within this generation “words are violence”, and therefore it is an imperative that one’s “intellectual safety” is protected through the policing of harmful speech.

In countries like the UK, Canada, Australia and other countries within western Europe, this cultural shift is now reflected in the existence of legislation which polices hate speech, and other language and ideas that may be offensive to certain ‘protected groups’. In Scotland, the ruling Scottish National Party recently attempted to introduce a sweeping expansion to existing laws against “stirring up hatred”, which would potentially have resulted in actors being considered criminally liable for the expression of ideas that offended an audience member; even when expressed as part of a performance.

When students across the western world demanded that school administrators implement policies to help them to maintain a mind hermetically sealed off from troubling thoughts from the outside on the basis that “words are violence”: they were not entering into uncharted territory. In fact, they only needed to follow a path that had already been well trodden by fervent suicide prevention activists.

The Leveraging of the Culture of Vulnerability to Prevent Suicide

In England and Wales, suicide was a criminal act up until the 1961 Suicide Act was introduced. This new legislation came in response to changing attitudes towards suicide and decriminalised the act of suicide. Suicide was now increasingly believed to be an act of desperation by those who were seriously mentally unwell, and thus it would be harsh to consider such persons to be fully morally responsible for their actions. Curiously, the new law still made it a criminal offence to assist in a suicide in any form, even if such assistance merely constituted providing a reliable method, or even providing information on suicide methods. Thus you would be liable for prosecution if you offered another person any assistance (even verbal) in carrying out an act that was itself lawful.

In order to better understand this bizarre paradox, it would be instructive to examine how psychiatry and, by extension, society itself, perceives suicidal ideation. Suicide itself is thought to exclusively or almost exclusively arise as a product of the “disordered thoughts” of a person who has been severely compromised in their capacity to reason; and this incapacity is believed to be so profound that this person is not capable of consenting to a choice of the magnitude of suicide and thus it would be deemed more appropriate to keep this person under some form of a guardianship of the state, rather than allow them to freely make decisions on their own behalf. I discussed this in some detail in my first post on the topic of suicide.

Thus, in the eyes of the law, the relationship between the person merely giving information to a suicidal person on where to obtain a method of suicide (let alone actually providing the method) would be considered to be analogous to the relationship between an adult paedophile or hebephile and their underage sexual partner. Or that of a parent who allows their young children to roam freely in a park that is well known locally to be hotspot for heroin junkies to shoot up and drop their used syringes on the ground.

Yes, it’s quite clear. Rational grown up human beings simply don’t experience suicidal ideation. Believing life to be a futile, Sisyphean task of rolling the boulder of need and desire up the hill every day until death, never reaching any destination, is the first sign that you have taken leave of your senses and perforce need to urgently seek professional help. If you have ever been troubled with such thoughts, then this is prima facie evidence that you are not a competent adult, and require an additional layer of legal protection in order to rescue you from the consequences of your own deranged judgement. Just like the parents of very young children have a duty of care to store the bleach in an area that is as inaccessible as possible to their children, so too does society have a duty to do its utmost, as your guardians, to ensure that you do not have easy access to anything that you can use to hurt yourself (which perversely has special emphasis on suicide methods that don’t hurt at all and which could be used to pre-empt any possibility of being hurt in the future).

If you were to perform a search for the term “suicide” or “suicide methods” on any search engine (or at least, ones that I’ve tried), then the top result will always be for the local suicide prevention hotline, and an assortment of resources for suicide prevention.

Far from bridling in response to this infantilisation from the government and large corporations; it has actually been my observation that many suicidal people (fortunately not all) actually embrace their status as vulnerable people who need to have limitations placed on their rights as an adult, for their own protection. If you were to do a search for suicide forums, for example, you would turn up results such as SuicideForum.com, which is one that I have posted on in the past myself. This is a forum which is run by suicidal people, for suicidal people.

The rules of SuicideForum.com are fairly standard for forums of its type. In addition to the obligatory rules against sharing suicide methods or forming suicide pacts (these are rules that, for legal reasons rather than on any matter of principle, even I have to enforce on my subreddits and on this blog), you have what amounts to a ‘safe space’ rule which ensures that SuicideForum must always prioritise the intellectual and emotional safety of its participants:

“6. SF is a pro-life support site. Discussion and debate on euthanasia and “right to die / right to commit suicide” is not permitted.”

You will struggle to find a pro-choice suicide forum on the Internet through an easy Internet search, as any such forums tend to quickly become the victim of concerted efforts from the public to have them shut down, even in cases where they expressly prohibit discussion of suicide methods or suicide pacts. Reddit itself has seen a slew of pro-choice suicide subreddits banned or quarantined under a particularly strained definition of “inciting violence” as per the content policy, which may be nothing more than validating an individual suicidal person’s choice to commit suicide, or providing tips on where to access reliable methods. When it comes to suicidal people; it isn’t sufficient to merely hide the bleach in a high up cupboard where little arms cannot reach; you have to actually shelter them from the very concept of bleach itself.

The goal is to create an internal, mental safe space for the suicidal person. In just the same way that trigger warnings and university safe spaces exist not to protect students from tangible external threats, but from their own thoughts. Thoughts which might be provoked through exposure to external stimuli and prove distressing to the young person’s mind. The suicidal person is considered to be constitutionally incapable of weighing up the arguments for and against suicide; and thus they must only ever be presented with the pro-life side of the argument. On SuicideForum.com, I can remember that there was one particular user (no longer active, as far as I can tell) who was obviously not having a good time in life at all, and always seemed to be teetering on the verge of a complete mental collapse. Yet was one of the most prolific users on the site and their contributions usually consisted of greeting new users to the site who introduced themselves by recounting the tales of woe with the mantras of the group: “life is important”, “suicide is NEVER the answer”.

The striking thing about this type of safe space, is that it cannot keep you safe from whatever is causing you to become suicidal in the first place, and from the distress that these circumstances are causing you. The only “safety” that they can afford you is by helping you to deny that suicide would be a rational solution to your predicament and protect you from knowing how to carry it out without inadvertently causing yourself to become paralysed for life and land yourself in a far greater pit of suffering which would then be completely inescapable. They can “protect” you from having to accept that as your answer by suspending you in a state of denial that may be less psychologically healthy for you in the long run than if you were allowed to be open-minded enough to give both sides of the philosophical argument due consideration.

It is my (unproven, but based on my decades of experience as a long term suicidal individual) personal theory that much of the distress that arises from suicidal ideation arises as a product of the irreconcilable tension that exists between the ostensible logical appeal of suicide as a solution to suffering (e.g. ‘I wasn’t suffering before I came into existence, and if the afterlife doesn’t exist, then I won’t suffer after I am dead) and society’s intransigent insistence that suicide is always an irrational choice and that people who are seriously considering suicide must be protected from their own madness.

This is very reminiscent of the history (and in the case of much of the world, the present day situation) of how homosexuality has been treated by societies steeped in traditionalist views about the natural teleological function of sexual intercourse. As discussed in my previous post on suicide, homosexuality was once, just like suicidal ideation is today, considered to be a form of mental illness. People who grew up gay in these societies genuinely believed that they were sick in the head, and why wouldn’t they? A natural consequence of this is the existence of gay ‘conversion therapy’ camps to try and ‘cure the sickness’ (which bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to ‘pro-life’ suicide forums) and even latent homosexuals themselves being amongst the most venomous denouncers of the sin of homosexuality .

Pro-life suicidal people also tend to be very militant about defending the “chemical imbalance” myth regarding depression. I can remember having a number of interactions with suicidal people on Reddit in which it has been confidently asserted by my interlocutor that suicide is always, or almost always, brought on by a “chemical imbalance” within the brain, which causes the suicidal person not to be in the “right frame of mind” to make the decision to commit suicide. When I politely provided reasonably authoritative sources debunking this myth, these suicidal people became very defensive and dismissive of what I was saying, calling me a pseudo-intellectual, and snidely referring back to the authority of their doctor (sadly it is true that many doctors continue to use the “chemical imbalance” myth as an explanatory framework in order to reassure patients). I have more than once been accused of preying on the vulnerable merely for providing sources to debunk the chemical imbalance theory, or for denying that suicide is always the choice of an irrational and disordered mind.

What form will the next victory of the suicide prevention zealots take? Will a special license be necessary in order to procure a length of rope at the hardware shop? When one goes to purchase a set of new chefs knives, will one be required, at the cashier’s register, to produce documented proof of having passed a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation to certify one’s soundness of mind?

You might have guessed that I’m being facetious. But such is the absurdity of the suicide prevention movement, that I’m a loathe to even wax satirical in this way, lest I should give them any new ideas.

Alternatively, would it not be possible for pro-life suicidal people to individually sign away their own rights to ownership over their own body, without also signing away mine? Or would the mere knowledge that other people were being able to make decisions on the basis of a philosophical outlook on life which contradicts theirs make them feel too unsafe, because their “mental safety” relies not only on being protected from ideas themselves, but even being protected from having to learn about the fact that other people disagree with their ideas about life, and are actually freely permitted to make decisions on the basis of that opinion?

With the money that we would save from effectively torturing people and keeping them locked up in re-education camps for having the wrong outlook on life, we could potentially hire nannies to come around to the homes of the anti-suicide folk and confiscate all of the sharp and pointy objects to ensure that they have nothing with which they could hurt themselves. And to make sure that they’re always in bed by 10 o’clock, and that they are only looking at Internet resources and books that have been pre-approved by suicide prevention charities to be ‘safe’ for vulnerable minds.

Is the doctrine of “sanctity of life” upon which these anti-suicide laws are founded really anything more than a house of cards which threatens to collapse once any card is removed? Are suicidal people being forced to remain alive not due to the need to “protect” suicidal people themselves, but to protect a set of ideas? In that way, it would seem to me that the laws that restrict people from having a right to suicide is actually more akin to a blasphemy law than to policy set in place to help protect people from harm. And it would seem to me that the policies that we are drifting towards that; instead of innoculating people to offence and fragility through exposure to challenging ideas; we instead sensitise them through over-protectiveness, is itself one of the greatest harms that we could deal to young people. After suicide prevention itself, that is.

Even people who have never been suicidal a day in their lives ought to be profoundly concerned about these developments which seek to protect people from their own thoughts. One in which anyone can be reduced to the status of less than a legal adult and deemed unfit to make important decisions by an institution which lays claim to a scientific legitimacy that it has never earned. And in which any decrees thus handed out by this authority are unfalsifiable, and irreversible, as I will discuss in my next post which will explore the rationality of suicide.

#MyLifeMyChoice

In the meantime, I would like to start a Twitter hashtag campaign to advocate for the right to choose, for suicidal people. For too long, intelligent and rational proponents of suicide have allowed themselves to be marginalised in the media due to the types of stigma that I have been discussing in my posts on suicide (more on this in later posts). So I would like to ask you to retweet the hashtag (and this post) with #MyLifeMyChoice. I am not experienced on Twitter – @existentialgoof is my first Twitter account – so if this name is already in use, we can consider changing it. Please stand up and be counted if you are suicidal yourself and do not believe that you fit the mould of the “vulnerable” person who require perpetual guardianship in order to protect them from thinking for themselves regarding this matter.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to receive updates when future content is published, please subscribe using the form below. You can also visit the homepage, where you can view the index of posts which have been published so far. As usual, please feel free to leave comments below, or visit the blog’s Reddit page: r/BirthandDeathEthics.

existentialgoof – 3rd October, 2021

2 comments

  1. Excellent post. I consider myself not to be suicidal, but I agree with everything presented here, but as I said, I’m not suicidal, still, I do want to spread the word about this, as is everyone’s right to decide what they want to do with their lives, specially when everything else has failed. But I dont think using the hashtag is appropiate, since I dont identify with the demography that its meant to be. Any ideas?

    Like

    1. Hi Daniel, thanks for your post. I am pleased to learn that you support the right to die. I think that you can retweet that (I’m sure you would still want the choice in case something terrible happened to cause you to be suicidal) but if you want it to be made clear that you are not suicidal, you can mention that you’re not one of the people who is currently desiring suicide, but you think that it should be a universal right, and that you are an “ally” (to use that term that has become annoyingly prevalent as a signal of virtue in anti-racism circles) of suicidal people. It would be very helpful to suicidal people to have non-suicidal people endorse this cause as well.

      Like

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