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"Harnessing the Power of Friendship"

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Facebook is “harnessing the power of friendship” so suicidal people can get “help” – that is, it’s ordering users to call the police when any user mentions suicide, so that such users are (a) denied the opportunity to talk about suicide, and (b) forcibly prevented form committing suicide.

To get an idea of what the euphemism “help” refers to, see, e.g.:

Please don’t help enforce unethical laws or policies like Facebook’s.

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Written by Sister Y

March 8, 2011 at 8:28 pm

The Most Politically Correct Article on Suicide of All Time

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An article entitled “No surge in teen suicides, but many myths,” by Jeremy Olson of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, doesn’t actually say anything, but may be the most politically correct article on the topic of suicide I have ever read. It author carefully follows the questionable “media guidelines” for reporting of suicide, meant both to dampen the (questionable) phenomenon of suicide contagion and to be extra-polite about suicide.

The author carefully refers to the fact that a student “died by suicide” – avoiding the more natural construction “committed suicide.” He states that “[m]ental illness is the most proven risk factor” for suicide; although it is questionable what meaning that statement has, suicide.org encourages the media to emphasize this “fact.”

Most insultingly, the author accuses teenage suicides of shortsightedness. “Despondent teens perceive suicide as an end to their personal pain, but don’t see the torture it brings to those left behind,” he says. On the contrary. I think it is more accurate to say: Parents perceive reproduction as an end to their personal feelings of meaninglessness, but ignore the torture existence brings to their children.

Written by Sister Y

November 2, 2010 at 5:15 pm

Peter Singer: Should This Be the Last Generation?

with 15 comments

The philosopher Peter Singer discusses the ethics of procreation and voluntary extinction in the New York Times:

To bring into existence someone who will suffer is, Benatar argues, to harm that person, but to bring into existence someone who will have a good life is not to benefit him or her. Few of us would think it right to inflict severe suffering on an innocent child, even if that were the only way in which we could bring many other children into the world. Yet everyone will suffer to some extent, and if our species continues to reproduce, we can be sure that some future children will suffer severely. Hence continued reproduction will harm some children severely, and benefit none.

Two things are surprising about this:

  1. The antinatalism question is appearing in a major media outlet at all.
  2. The treatment and the comments are surprisingly balanced and intelligent, especially given the nature of the medium and the audience.

Singer does throw in the usual dash of Pollyanna-ish, feel-good idiocy:

In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living. Even if that is not yet the case, I am enough of an optimist to believe that, should humans survive for another century or two, we will learn from our past mistakes and bring about a world in which there is far less suffering than there is now.

Overall, however, it’s a huge step forward for the antinatalist cause.

A thoughtful comment from “sarah” in Brooklyn:

I think about this a lot – so many pregnant women are out there, and I wonder where they find the hope to have children. My son is a young adult, and I feel that the likelihood of his living out a natural lifespan is small. Environmental disaster, terrorism, the end of the world feels awfully close. Frankly, I love the idea of a planet devoid of people, healing itself from our damage, taken over by animals and plants. I don’t think most people lead such fabulous lives, and I don’t think it’s worth sacrificing our beautiful home to let more people slog along.

Thanks Rob!

Written by Sister Y

June 7, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Censoring Murder-Suicide: What If Everything Is Contagious?

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Ecological studies suggest that highly publicized suicides cause more suicides. But what other behaviors are media-contagious – and why are we so slow to censor (or even study) them?


Idea Contagion

For good or ill, behaviors among humans pass not only by genes, but by language. A judgmental way to put this is that behaviors and ideas are “contagious.” Pathological homesickness, apotemnophilia,[4] multiple personality disorder, and even Ursuline convents in seventeenth-century France[6] have been posited to arise from contagion.

In particular, suicide is widely accepted as a contagious behavior. The posited contagion even has a name – the “Werther effect.” Belief in the media contagion of suicide is so strong and pervasive that “media guidelines” – a form of voluntary censorship – are widely observed in reporting on suicide.

There is evidence that many behaviors other than suicide are similarly “contagious,” however. Violence against others, in particular, is well-studied in its relation to media contagion. The harm of violence, especially homicidal violence like murder and murder-suicide, is much greater than that of suicide. And the evidence in favor of “violence contagion” is stronger than that of suicide contagion. Why, then, are reports of suicide voluntarily censored, while reports of violence are not?

Suicide Contagion: The Evidence

The evidence for suicide contagion through the media is almost entirely ecological. The studies that provide the basis for the phenomenon of suicide contagion are somewhat questionable.[7] Many suffer from lack of control for important variables; those that are controlled suffer from problems with the control groups or small sample size. Some ecological studies have indicated that the suicide contagion phenomenon is real;[2] others have contradicted those findings. Even among studies that find a correlation between suicide rate and media reports of suicides, the correlation is often much weaker than the correlation of the suicide rate with other factors, such as the unemployment rate.[9]

Of course, there is a more abstract critique of ecological-level data in general. A criticism[1] of David Phillips’ ecological data on suicide contagion and fatal aircraft incidents goes as follows:

Phillips asserts that the statistically significant increase in aircraft fatalities can be explained due to suicide, as well as a “consciously or unconsciously” induced motive on the part of the pilot to also murder some person or persons. What Phillips does, in effect, is impute suicidal motives to some deceased persons on the basis of the statistically significant increases in accidents. Such a jump is conceptually unwise because it is based on a tautology: the statistical increase is the basis for defining some cases as suicide, but these cases are also used to explain the increase. [Citations removed.]

At any rate, a major problem with suicide contagion research is a lack of empirical evidence at an individual level. The one case-controlled study that I am aware of[7] fails to demonstrate any link between hearing media reports of suicide and making a suicide attempt – and, in fact, demonstrates that hearing a media report of suicide has a significant protective effect against suicide attempts.

The study authors interviewed 153 people, ages 13-34, who were “victims” of nearly lethal suicide attempts and who had been treated at local emergency rooms in the Houston, Texas, area. A control group of 513 subjects was similarly interviewed. The conclusion? Not only did the study fail to demonstrate any sort of “suicide contagion,” but, as mentioned above, the authors note a statistically significant protective effect when a subject heard a news report of suicide within 30 days prior to the suicide attempt or had a friend or acquaintance make a suicide attempt. That is, the ER suicide-attempt group was actually less likely than the control group to be aware of a recent media report of a suicide, or to have experienced the suicidal behavior of an acquaintance! The suicide attempt of a parent or relative had no statistically significant effect on suicidal behavior, whereas the usual “suicide contagion” sources had a statistically significant protective effect – the opposite of what the suicide contagion model predicts.

Violence Contagion?

The evidence for violence contagion is much stronger than that for suicide contagion. But whereas suicide censorship is widely accepted, censorship of other-directed violence in media stories is rare.

Violence contagion is demonstrated by the same type of ecological study as suicide contagion.[8] In addition, unlike the suicide case, there is a body of laboratory evidence suggesting that exposure to violent stimuli increases aggressive behavior. However, despite both sources of evidence, the theory that media reports of violence “cause” real-life violence is not at all universally accepted.[5] And the idea that the media should voluntarily self-censor with regard to reports of violence is much less widely accepted than self-censorship of reports of suicide, despite greater evidence for a causal link in the former case.

Contagion and Moral Responsibility

I believe that the insistence that suicide is media-contagious, but violence is not, is not rational, but is a consequence of the differential attributions of moral responsibility in cases of suicide versus other-directed violence. Suicide is seen as an irrational act; the actor, as the story goes, is not in control of himself, certainly not sane, and is therefore vulnerable to external effects.

On the other hand, the idea that violent acts like homicides are attributable to media suggestion is generally seen as a pathetic excuse. Perpetrators of violence are perceived as much more morally responsible for their acts than suicides; despite evidence to the contrary, idea contagion is psychologically ruled out as a cause of violence, but not of suicides (though there are exceptions to this line of thinking[3]).

Is political corruption contagious? Adultery? Prostitution? Drug abuse? Such questions are rarely even studied. Obesity certainly appears to be contagious. If so, should we censor reports of these topics to avoid a contagion effect? To do so would seem ludicrous and counter-productive, not to mention contrary to our political ideals. But the censorship of suicide goes unchallenged.

Moral Responsibility and Willingness to Censor

The more an actor is seen as the agent of his actions, the less outside influences are seen as affecting his actions. Therefore, in cases where moral responsibility is strongly attributed to an actor, outside influences are unlikely to be taken seriously as a cause of his actions – and, therefore, it is not necessary to censor these “outside influences” (such as media reports).

It is my belief that the widespread voluntary censorship of reports of suicide – from use of politically correct language to pervasive norms of message content – are the result of the modern trend to exculpate suicides from moral responsibility and redefine suicide as an act of insanity. There is, however, little evidence that suicides are any less morally responsible for their actions than murderers. Certainly, many other behaviors are media-contagious – but they are not censored, nor are many of them even studied.

I think that one possible explanation is that, at a deep level, people understand that suicide is just not that bad compared to actual acts of violence – despite hysterical language describing suicide as “self-murder.” We want to exculpate people from acts to which we are sympathetic. While we often refuse to define acts outside of societal norms as “not wrong,” we may nonetheless refuse to attribute full moral responsibility to these acts. However, this sort of sympathy backfires in our society. People who are “not responsible for their actions” must be “protected,” often in painful and dehumanizing ways; and society is responsible for their “protection,” often to the detriment of freedom.

Think of the children.


On a largely unrelated note, could this be the stupidest news story about suicide of all time?


Works Cited

1. Altheide, David. “Airplane Accidents, Murder, and the Mass Media: Comment on Phillips.Social Forces 2:593-596 (Special Issue, 1981).

2. Bollen, Kenneth, and David Phillips. “Imitative Suicides: A National Study of the Effects of Television News Stories.American Sociological Review 47:802-09 (1982).

3. Coalition of Law Abiding Sporting Shooters. “Ideas Kill: Science Shines a Light on Port Arthur Deaths.” Retrieved from http://www.class.org.au/ideas-kill.htm on 04/06/2009.

4. Elliot, Carl. “A new way to be mad.The Atlantic, December 2000.

5. Gunter, Barrie. “Media Violence: Is There a Case for Causality?American Behavioral Scientist 51:1061 (2008).

6. Jones, Marshall, and Elizabeth Rapley. “Behavioral Contagion and the Rise of Convent Education in France.Journal of Interdisciplinary History 31.4:489-521 (2001).

7. Mercy, James, Marcie-jo Kresnow, Patrick W. O’Carroll, Roberta K. Lee, Kenneth E. Powell, Lloyd B. Potter, Alan C. Swann, Ralph F. Frankowski, and Timothy L. Bayer. “Is Suicide Contagious? A Study of the Relation between Exposure to the Suicidal Behavior of Others and Nearly Lethal Suicide Attempts.” (American Journal of Epidemiology 154:2 (2001).

8. Phillips, David. “The Impact of Mass Media Violence on U.S. Homicides.American Sociological Review 48:4:560-568 (1983).

9. Stack, Steven. “Divorce, Suicide, and the Mass Media: An Analysis of Differential Identification, 1948-1980.Journal of Marriage and the Family 2:553-560 (1990).

Written by Sister Y

April 9, 2009 at 6:58 pm

Is Webcam Suicide Ever Appropriate?

with 35 comments

The cause of suicide rights seems to suffer anytime someone commits or attempts suicide on camera with folks on the internet watching. When a suicide is completed, the public demands to know why no one intervened. When intervention appears to prevent a suicide, the public unquestioningly gives its support to the intervenor. (In the most recent such case, Chris Matyszczyk cheerfully informs us in rather Orwellian terms that “The police arranged for [the suicide] to receive the appropriate care.”)

Perhaps this is as it should be, since most of the time, someone who attempts suicide in front of a camera is clearly a victim of the dangerous fantasy of rescue, hoping to be “saved” before his suicide is successful. (Of course, changing the law to forbid intervention with suicide attempts would be better than the current situation for both those who genuinely want to die and for those who engage in potentially self-lethal behavior in order to be saved.)

Is there ever a good reason to die on camera? I propose two possibilities, both with limits.

1. Not wanting to die alone

It is understandable for a human being who genuinely wishes to die to also not want to die alone. Many people call suicide hotlines for this purpose, rather than in hopes of rescue. Suicides regularly seek each other out in order to die together. In his book Why People Die By Suicide, Thomas Joiner refers to a 2004 Chicago Tribune article about people who commit suicide by jumping in front of trains:

Almost always, suicide victims [sic] peer into the locomotive cab in their final moments. They stare right into the eyes of the engineer, perhaps reaching for a last human connection.

. . . [Metra engineer Raymond Baxter says] “I’ve heard other engineers say [people committing suicide] look at you. I don’t know why they do it. I sure wish they wouldn’t, because the picture stays with you. You try to forget about it, but you don’t ever, really. It ain’t easy.”

The desire for human contact at the last moment is poignant and understandable – but it is awful to force this attempt at connection on an unwilling train engineer. It would be much better if a suicide could agree with a willing person beforehand to be with him while he died – even if it only meant watching over a web camera. This would spare the feelings of unwilling witnesses, such as the poor train driver, yet it would not force upon a suicide the cruelty of dying alone.

As it is, there are major problems – most of them legal – faced by people who would comfort a suicide in his last moments. In a 2007 This American Life episode (How to Rest in Peace, at 39:35) a son (“Edward”) describes helping his mother to commit suicide, at her insistence – but not being able to be with her while she died, for fear of being prosecuted for having a role in her death. His mother was forced to choose between dying alone and staying alive against her will – and chose to die. But she should not have been forced to make this choice.

Barring major changes in laws against assisting suicides, pre-arranged company via web camera offers a measure of comfort to a dying person. (Still, allowing one’s suicide to be viewed by one person or a few people seems more justifiable than publicly broadcasting one’s suicide to the entire internet.)

2. In the interest of providing information

Despite hysterical claims to the contrary, there is very little information available about dying certainly and comfortably. (Even The Peaceful Pill Handbook is not ultimately helpful without access to barbiturates.)

However, if a suicide were to demonstrate a method in the interest of increasing available information, it would be a public service to other would-be suicides to share the method and experience – good or bad. Others would be able to see first hand the use of the method and its apparent effects. While some viewers might find this disturbing, I think it is ethical as a civil disobedience against the unethical suicide prohibition, especially if the video could only be accessed by those who specifically sought out such information.

From the This American Life episode mentioned above, at 51:20:

Ira Glass: It just seems so sad that she has to be alone at that moment. It seems like that’s the moment where, of all moments, she would want somebody with her to hold her hand and comfort her.

“Edward”: It was terrible. It was terrible. Exactly. That was probably the worst part of it, that she had to do it alone. Me and her other family members could not be there, because we live in a society that does not respect people’s desire to control the end of their life.

Written by Sister Y

February 6, 2009 at 10:41 pm

More Evidence for Rational Suicide

with 6 comments

A letter in the upcoming January 2009 issue of the journal Psychiatric Services (Psychiatr Serv 60:126, January 2009) reports on the relationship between suicide method and past health care contacts. The authors of the letter report that people who commit suicide by charcoal burning (a method of carbon monoxide poisoning gaining popularity in Hong Kong and Taiwan) are significantly less likely to have had mental health care (or hospital visits for any reason) than people who commit suicide by hanging or solid or liquid poisoning. That is, there is an identifiable population of people who commit suicide using relatively painless means that require preparation, and this population is less likely to be mentally or physically ill than people who commit suicide using other means. These results are in line with past studies, and “corroborate findings from Hong Kong that victims [sic] of charcoal-burning suicide were less likely to have pre-existing mental or physical illness,” say the authors [emphasis mine; citations omitted].

The letter displays problematic logic in the interpretation of its findings. In relevant part, the authors say:

Our results support the point previously raised by researchers from Hong Kong that this new method may have attracted individuals who would otherwise not have considered suicide. Acute stress, particularly economic difficulty, rather than mental disorders may be the major precipitating factor of suicide in this suicide subgroup. Population-based prevention strategies to prevent charcoal-burning suicide that might be considered include efforts to destigmatize mental illness to enhance appropriate help-seeking behaviors, restrictions on access to charcoal (for example, by removing charcoal from open shelves and making it necessary for the customer to request it from a shop assistant), and guidance for the media on how to report on suicide events. [Emphasis mine; citations omitted.]

The authors’ perspective is that the availability of the method is what is causing the suicide. But isn’t it the individual’s choosing to commit suicide that is the proximate cause of the suicide? Is the “cause” of suicide the man or the gun?

The authors assume that suicide should not be allowed and that it is right to prevent it. Why should this be? No reason for or defense of this position is given. People committing suicide using the charcoal burning method are not likely to be mentally ill! Why shouldn’t they be allowed to choose to commit suicide in a relatively painless manner? Even forced life advocate Ezekiel Emanuel purportedly favors a “negative right” to suicide for rational people.

In addition, the authors’ proposed solution to the problem of non-mentally ill people committing suicide is: destigmatize mental illness. Huh? My interpretation of the data is that charcoal burning suicides are likely to be rational suicides – not the product of mental illness. How will destigmatizing mental illness help anything here? The authors also, predictably, recommend coercive suicide prevention methods (using the laughable tactic of restricting the sale of charcoal – no picnic barbecue for you if you look sad!) and media censorship.

There is little evidence that “destigmatizing mental illness” will prevent suicides in these cases. And even if coercive suicide prevention does prevent some suicides, they will be the wrong suicides. Take away the right to charcoal burning (not to mention the right to barbiturates), and you force people to choose between committing suicide by violent or ineffective means, or remaining alive in misery. And that is wrong.

Written by Sister Y

December 30, 2008 at 5:26 am

Censoring Suicide

with 5 comments

Well-meaning anti-suicide groups publish “media guidelines” that promote myths and increase the pain for survivors of suicide.


In London, Paul Day’s compelling, emotionally dense frieze was pulled from a rail station because it depicted a skeleton driving a train and a commuter “wobbling precariously” close to the tracks – alluding to suicide by train.

Pepsi apologized for, and retracted, ads (published in a German magazine) that depicted a “lonely single calorie” committing suicide. The self-appointed censor who received the apology indicated that electronic communication will help him carry out his inquisition into commercial art: “The lesson here is that social media has eyes everywhere and the network to make sure that advertisers can no longer hide stuff in niche markets,” said Chris Abraham.

Art, advertisements, and video games that deal with suicide – entry points for conversations about suicide among ordinary people – are unjustly criticized, censored, and destroyed. There is only one appropriate way to speak of suicide, one appropriate attitude toward it, and all others are quickly suppressed. This is not the case for other controversial topics – murder, race, gender, drug use – nor should it be. Suicide is tabooed in a unique and unfortunate way.

Joan Wickersham, author of The Suicide Index and daughter of a suicide, thinks that more conversation about suicide would be a good thing:

“I think there is a kind of shame and a kind of taboo attached to suicide,” she says. “We would prefer to think it doesn’t happen. I think we have to acknowledge it does happen. We have to acknowledge that it’s a mystery, that we don’t understand it very well. I just wanted to give a sense of what it is really like to go through this.”

Wickersham says there is a reluctance to talk about suicide, adding, “I would love to see more honest conversation about it.”[“World Suicide Prevention Day seeks to raise awareness,” Voice of America.]

Contrary to Wickersham’s goal, “honest conversation” about suicide is suppressed in the media when a suicide occurs, often based on well-intentioned but flawed “media guidelines” published by anti-suicide groups. In addition to the fact that these guidelines promote the ethical position that suicide is wrong, I see two major problems with these guidelines: one, they promote myths about suicide as if they were facts; two, they increase the guilt of survivors by portraying suicide as preventable.

The “Media Guidelines for Suicide” on suicide.org advise reporters as follows:

Emphasize the number one cause for suicide:

The number one cause for suicide is untreated depression.

And then indicate that depression is treatable, and thus anyone suffering from depression needs to receive IMMEDIATE help.

This is in contrast to the scientific studies, which show that depression only slightly increases the risk for suicide – a fact which in itself carries little weight, since suicidality is one of the possible criteria for diagnosing depression. According to Thomas Joiner (Why People Die by Suicide, p. 195-196), borderline personality disorder and anorexia nervosa are far more predictive of suicide than depression; BPD has a 10% lifetime risk of suicide and a 50% lifetime rate of at least one very severe suicide attempt.

Even given a slight correlation between depression and suicide, it’s overstating the case to say that depression causes suicide – even Thomas Joiner would not agree with that, as stated. It would be more accurate, but less satisfying, to say that the desire to die, coupled with the acquired ability to die, is the leading cause of suicide.

The suicide.org guidelines also recommend using the “fact” that “Over 90% of the people who die by suicide have clinical depression or a similar mental illness when they die.” I have extensively attempted to debunk this statistic, but the comfortable idea that suicide is caused by mental illness is hard to dislodge and unlikely to be questioned too closely.

Other “media guidelines” offered by suicide.org range from silly to intrusive to “whoa, thought police”:

Do not begin a television newscast with a suicide story.

Do not place suicide stories on the cover of newspapers or magazines.

Never portray suicides as heroic.

Never say that a suicide “ended pain” or “ended suffering.” Suicide CAUSES excruciating pain for suicide survivors.

Also, people need to be alive to feel relief from pain. Suicide CAUSES pain.

Do not use the terms “successful suicide” or “committed suicide.” Use the term “died by suicide” instead.

The term “committed suicide” is NOT accurate and is VERY hurtful to those who have attempted suicide and to suicide survivors. Say “died by suicide.”

The media guidelines proposed by suicide.org strictly fit the definition of politically correct bullshit I proposed in an earlier piece: they express majority opinion in a manner unconcerned with truth, and have the function of a moral taboo to protect an important cultural narrative from negation.

The guidelines promulgated by the National Institutes of Mental Health are much more harmful, however, in that they function to increase the pain and guilt experienced by people close to a person who committed suicide. The message promoted by the NIMH guidelines is that suicide is always preventable, and there are always warning signs. The guidelines advise reporters that

Studies of suicide based on in-depth interviews with those close to the victim indicate that, in their first, shocked reaction, friends and family members may find a loved one’s death by suicide inexplicable or they may deny that there were warning signs. Accounts based on these initial reactions are often unreliable.

That is, there are always warning signs; push family remembers until they “remember” the politically correct story. Reporters are advised to ask survivors questions such as

  • Had the victim ever received treatment for depression or any other mental disorder?
  • Did the victim have a problem with substance abuse?

The message is that there were warning signs that, had the family cared enough to look, would have revealed the suicide’s intentions so that the suicide could have been prevented. Unfortunately, this serves to increase the guilt of survivors, legitimize increasingly coercive suicide prevention tactics, and increase the survivors’ sense that the suicide was a tragedy because it was “preventable.”

The problems I identify – promoting false information and unnecessarily increasing survivors’ guilt and pain – are in addition to the harm to the marketplace of ideas that is done in the name of curbing the controversial phenomenon of suicide contagion. A single ethical idea is given precedence over all others, and false facts are repeated in the name of protecting it, and of protecting the institutions that depend on it (“Mention that Suicide.org is available 24 hours a day for anyone who is suicidal,” advises suicide.org).

Update: zarathustra at MentalNurse discusses media treatment of suicide in “How should the media report suicide?

Written by Sister Y

December 5, 2008 at 2:18 am