Friday, August 15, 2014

Matt Walsh Rocks II: Suicide is always a bad thing, and so is sloppy sentimentalism.

While I'm on a Matt Walsh kick...

(Digression: Yes, I do sometimes use the work of more brilliant and prolific bloggers to make up for my own lack of creativity. I've done it before with John C. Wright. Digression on the digression: Wright should take notes from Walsh. In some ways they have similar styles, and they are alike in their immunity to public hysteria over their politically incorrect views, but Walsh is the more disciplined writer. He writes posts that are more like essays and less like free-association fantasias.)

Walsh wrote two posts about the recent tragic death of R.W. (initials used so as not to bring upon myself the venom of the entire Internet). Walsh's posts on this subject seem to me moderate, sensitive, wise, and rightly concerned about the romanticizing of suicide that is prevalent in our culture and that comes out, inter alia, in people's gooey ways of talking when someone talented and famous kills himself. But Walsh committed the unforgivable sin of interrupting Americans in their orgy of sentimental narcissism, and that called down upon him all the vileness that one has learned to expect in the Internet age.

So, while I don't have Walsh's bravery and hence have used the initials of the star in question, let me say right here to my small group of readers that Walsh makes excellent and important points. Suicide is never "freeing." We should never speak of a person who has committed suicide as if we know that he is now happy and free. Think what this says to suicidal people: "If you kill yourself, all of your problems will be over. You will be in the arms of the angels. You will be free of this world and all its troubles. Moreover, just maybe, people will worship you and romanticize you and go on and on about you as they just did over him. Go ahead, try it."

If you've ever seen the slightly creepy scene in Oklahoma where Curly tries to get Judd Fry (the villain) to commit suicide, telling him that then everyone will love him, you may recognize the pattern. Only Curly does it because he hates and fears Judd. These people are doing it because...well, partly because they aren't thinking, partly because they think what they are saying is kind and loving, and partly because they want to make themselves feel better when they are sad over someone's death. Also because some of them, at least, don't really believe that suicide is all that bad. They don't intend to motivate anyone to kill himself, but they could hardly choose a better way to do so if they tried.

Walsh also makes the correct point that phrases like "depression kills" and the like communicate to a depressed person that he is helpless and bereft of free will, that he is simply driven by his dark feelings. Telling a depressed person that will plausibly make him more likely to try to harm himself. So, too, do all the attempts to be compassionate that take the form of saying outright that depressed people are completely without responsibility for what they do. Again, when you tell a man that he can't help killing himself, that his disease of depression has completely taken him over, you are encouraging him to give up.

Now, it's true (and perhaps Walsh could have spent a couple of sentences acknowledging this) that a condition such as depression mitigates the sinfulness of acts committed by the depressed person and diminishes personal responsibility. But it is no true compassion simply to take away from the depressed person any concept of his own responsibility. Indeed, telling a depressed person that he has a responsibility to stay alive for the sake of someone else can be one useful tactic to prevent suicide. But if a depressed person has no choice in the matter, why bother?

Of course, those who are so furious with Matt Walsh aren't really trying to be logical. They will turn from venomous anger at Walsh for implying that a depressed person has any free will to saying, in the next moment, "If you know someone who suffers from depression, get him to seek help." But if he has no freedom, how can he even seek help?

Walsh might also have pointed out that there is a very strong pro-suicide movement in our culture for those who are ill or elderly, so this is by no means a merely theoretical matter. In fact, this post by New York Daily News author Denis Hamill expressly makes the connection to "death with dignity" rhetoric. It's not always the same people, of course. It would be interesting to find out what the ghouls of the Hemlock Society really think, in their heart of hearts, about R.W.'s suicide. How could they oppose it consistently? Much of the nonsense being talked right now is coming from the well-intentioned and muddled. But Christians and anyone else who wants to fight the culture of death cannot afford to be unclear: Suicide is always bad. There is nothing positive, freeing, or romantic about it. That is why we should try to prevent it, for everyone, by helping people to make the choice to live, not to die.

Kudos to Walsh for his courage.


R.C. said...

Hi Lydia:

I especially agree (can someone especially agree? That makes it sound like I agree less with the other parts) with the observation that there is tension between describing R.W.'s death as a "tragedy" and the pro-death movement in medicine.

If R.W. went to one of these pro-death doctors and asked for help in carrying out his decision. is it no longer a tragedy, but instead an expression of autonomy? Why?

Lydia McGrew said...

Yes, Wesley J. Smith is always pointing out (with documentation) that the real Hemlock Society hard-liners do in fact want death on demand for whatever reason, including for people with mental problems such as depression. Depressed people have committed suicide under Oregon's law and, even more, at Swiss death clinics.

There are probably some who are less hard-line who have some vague idea that people should have that choice only when their quality of life is "really low" or when they have been diagnosed with some painful or "undignified" ailment such as cancer or Alzheimer's. The trouble there is that it is very much a matter of making up standards as one goes along. If the right to self-determination regarding one's death is brought up as a rationale, there is no strong reason for restricting that right to those who are ill and/or old.

Lydia McGrew said...

Highly relevant: Peter Singer says "suicide can be rational in the absence of terminal illness" and endorses the radical Philip Nitschke who wants troubled teens to have access to suicide:

steve said...

A lot of people are conflicted in terms of what to say about suicide. They want to express disapproval of suicide without expressing disapproval of suicides. Condemn the action, but not the agent.

On the one hand they are tempted to shame people into not committing suicide by using rhetoric that deters suicide, viz, "suicide is a selfish act," with the implication that this is how we will remember you if you kill yourself. Since you don't want to be remembered that way, don't do it!

But when people do commit suicide, shaming them makes it hard to comfort the family, the survivors.

So people are pulled in two directions on this issue. To the extent that we excuse it, we seem to encourage it.

Then there's the all-purpose fallback on mental illness. They aren't to blame. They were in a state of diminished responsibility.

This overlooks the fact that depression is not equivalent to suicide. Some people are deeply depressed because their situation is depressing. They aren't mentally ill. They may have good reason to be depressed.

Some people commit suicide because they were overwhelmed by emotion. But others were thinking clearly when they ended their life. In fact, Williams probably killed himself because he was in the early stages of Parkinson's disease, and he couldn't face the prospect of a degenerative illness. That's a very lucid decision.

Of course, a decision can be both lucid and morally wrong. Those are separate issues.

Because suicide is such an emotional issue, there's a tendency to overgeneralize.

Lydia McGrew said...

I agree with you, Steve. A lot of this stems from the fact that people simply don't know what to say.

I would add that the statement that suicide is a selfish decision is, I believe, simply true. That saying it may also help to prevent someone from committing suicide is just a bonus.