“To see suicide simply as an individual mental illness and homicide as a similarly individual moral failing is to ignore the degree to which both are caused in part, by societal, economic forces.”
James Gilligan from “Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others”
To see suicide- all suicides- as caused in part by societal and economic forces makes them a political act to my mind. This is a very intriguing idea. To see suicide bombers and self-immolating priests as making political acts is easy to fathom. Both forms of suicide are strikes against a perceived enemy. To see a depressed and withdrawn individual taking his or her life as a political action requires more consideration.
James Gilligan sees suicide in a larger framework of statistics- a framework where any violent act whether self inflicted or directed against others can be considered a political act by total numbers. He sites statistics in his book that suicide and violence increase to epidemic portions under Republican Presidencies and decline under Democratic Administrations. He shows that this statistic is true from the days of Teddy Roosevelt to our time of Barack Obama. This fact he attributes to the basic tenets of each party. The Republican Party supports the idea that in a free market system all men are not created equal. Some men/women are more superior and more important than others. Society they believe should not bind by rules and regulations people in the exercise of their superiority. The Democratic Party believes all men are created equal and that it is the role of government to regulate the power of superiority (generally exercised as a function of wealth) such that the relationships between all men/women are balanced.
I have simplified Gilligan argument based on his comparison of violent death statistics and the succession of Democratic and Republican Presidents, but I believe I have captured the essence of his position. Gilligan goes on to state that unemployment is always greater under Republican presidents except for Dwight Eisenhower who governed from the middle and was often accused of being a Democrat in Republican robes and under Jimmy Carter where unemployment was as high as his Republican predecessor. He was accused of being a Republican in Democratic garments. How does this all relate to the issue of suicide? To understand Gilligan thinking we must go one-step further.
What interests me here is less the argument about the whether Republicans cause epidemics of violent behavior – although if Gilligan is right the revelation is startling and deeply disturbing- but the underlying issues around unemployment and feeling of negative self worth which lead to suicide and violence against others. Unemployment breeds low self-esteem, and a feelings of worthlessness and despair. Unemployment breeds anger which can be directed inward to suicide or outward to murder. These same feelings of low self esteem, worthlessness, despair and anger can be attributed to suicide not associated with unemployment. Gilligan declares that these feelings arise out of two opposite value systems, and that those value systems create divergent paths to deal with the feelings aroused. These two value systems are: Shame ethics and Guilt ethics. He writes:
“Shame ethics is a moral value system in which the greatest evil is shame and humiliation, i.e. dishonor and disrespect, and the highest good is the opposite of shame, namely, pride and honor (respect). Guilt ethics is a moral value system in which the greatest evil is quilt (also called sin), and the highest good is the opposite of guilt, namely, innocence. But these two value systems are opposites. For example, in the guilt ethic of Christianity, the worst evil, the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, is pride, which is the highest good in a shame ethic. Thus quilt ethics supports egalitarianism, so that nobody can experience the pride of being superior to others (and no one will be shamed or humiliated by being considered inferior others),………”
In our society and other societies where suicide is prevalent, shame arises out of feelings of worthlessness and inability to complete with others. That shame creates the conditions where suicide is perceived as the only way out. The egoists and the confident don’t commit suicide. They see themselves as superior and capable of handling the many situation life presents. The suicidal person sees him or herself as inferior and unable to handle life’s demands. Self–inflicted violence is an ultimate statement of anger against the society that allows suicide to happen.
I think back on my own first attempt at suicide when I was in college. I was failing in all my courses due to the fact I could find nothing I was good at doing. All my friends were academic standouts. I was a baseball player with an injured arm who could no longer play the game that gave me identity. I was ashamed that I had no other strengths. I could see no role for myself in society. Thus I wanted my life to end. I wanted to end the embarrassment of who I was not (a successful student headed for a successful life). I wanted to end the feelings of worthlessness that trailed after me everywhere I went. I never thought of my suicide attempt as anything other than a personal statement of surrender to inferiority, however as I look back on this attempt I can see how my death would be an indictment of my own culture. American culture lionizes competition and individual achievement. If you can’t compete and you can’t achieve you are at odds with the prevailing valves of your society. Thus it could be said my act was political.
Just recently a famous film director, Tony Scott, threw himself off a bridge in San Pedro, California. Why he killed himself is disputed. Some say he had an incurable case of brain cancer, and no longer wished to live. Others say this is not true. His death, while a personal tragedy and indicative of an unstable frame of mind, is certainly a negative statement. In killing himself he indicts (although he may not have been aware of it) the society in which he lived. His death states that he can no longer value himself in a society that only validates winners, and in general turns it face from negative, be that terminally illness or personal disposition. Thus Scott hurled himself from the highest bridge in Southern California creating a media sensation, which gave the dying man one last blip of recognition and caused many statements of incomprehension. Why would a famous director do this? Why would he not? In a celebrity-oriented culture, he thus becomes a loser. Self-inflicted violence rocks the foundations of our culture. It shames the perpetrator, and at the same time shames the culture from which this shame arose.
Consider a person who is unemployed. Not a difficult thing to do in an age, the beginning of the second decade of the 21st Century, when so many have been put out of work, or are young and can’t find work. Unemployment breeds depression and despair. The unemployed person feels worthless and loses self-esteem. If the unemployment lasts long enough, a person will feel there is no future for them and if there is no future, suicide is a viable option. I don’t think an unemployed person who commits suicide is thinking in political terms, but his or her death makes a statement about the inability of our society to create work for worthy people. Thus the death has a political component, which indicts the society from which it arose as uncaring and unable to fulfill the needs of its citizens.
Thus I think that every suicide from the sick killer who guns down innocent people and then commit suicide by cop or their own hand to the sad young person who ingests 100’s of pills to free themselves from their lives are committing political acts. These political acts hold a mirror up to a culture that values pride and success, showing the other unbeautiful failed side. Suicide then is too often an unwitting political action. It is the ultimate statement of criticism to a society that makes some worthless and others glorious.