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Is suicide ‘cowardly desertion’?

"Is suicide ‘cowardly desertion’?" Continued...

No one can reasonably state that The Courier-Journal’s printing of the article caused the Cahill suicide. Studies show that suicide attempts are generally long in coming, may be touched off in many different ways, and may not be related to newspaper stories. But Courier-Journal editor David Hawpe, to his credit, was still pondering the matter two years afterward. Interviewed in July 1985, he noted that the article exploring it was not written or edited quickly or cavalierly. Hawpe and his associates, he said, spent “a long time” discussing whether to print the story and what to include in it. In the end, though, they followed the regular format: bloodlessness and sympathy.

Questions to raise

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One reason The Courier-Journal editors acted as they did is that late 19th century–style journalistic harshness concerning suicide offends our sensibilities. Furthermore, that style goes against the Durkheimian stress on environmental causes and individual helplessness. But journalists, when they approach their next suicide story, might want to keep in mind a new critique of Durkheim currently appearing in social science literature, and several penetrating comments by Dostoevsky, Dante, and Plutarch.

The critique of Durkheim is a reaction to his assumption that religious faith does not have any real effect on suicide. In 1983, Rodney Stark of the University of Washington argued that it does make “a difference if, on the one hand, one thinks one’s problems are overwhelming and unshareable, or, on the other, if one thinks that Jesus also knows and cares.” Steven Stack of Pennsylvania State University similarly emphasized the importance of believing that God watches and cares about human suffering. Stack noted that Bible readers have role models such as Job who suffer but do not give up.

Those observations were based on several recent sociological studies that suggest that religion is the central explanatory factor in suicide-rate changes. Stark and his associates, after controlling for a series of variables (including rate of population growth, poverty, and unemployment), found a sharp correlation between suicide and lack of religious involvement in the United States’ 214 Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas. William Martin, in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, studied suicide rates during the 1970s and also concluded that religious belief deters suicide. A Sociological Quarterly article reported similar results after its authors studied data from 42 countries.

These findings would come as no surprise to great writers who have looked deeply into the human soul. Fyodor Dostoevsky had his character Kirilov explain that people who might otherwise commit suicide do not kill themselves for two reasons: fear of pain and fear of the next world. We might ask, following Dostoevsky’s thought: What happens if newspapers do not report pain and do not discuss the religious questions involved in suicide? Might journalistic compassion for those contemplating suicide actually require some harshness in coverage of those who have?

Dante, in his Inferno, poetically placed suicides in a dark, pathless wood, where their souls took the shape of thorn-stunted trees. The harpies, with their great wings and feathered bellies, human faces and clawed feet, nested in those stunted trees and tore at the leaves, endlessly repeating the violence the soul had inflicted on itself. Reporters are hardly likely to wax poetic or become neophyte theologians, but if suicides are portrayed as gentle good nights, does that not represent a certain (non-traditional) theology in its own right?

Plutarch, in his tale of the maidens of Miletos, noted that at one point they were hanging themselves in abundance. The perverse craze continued until one of the city elders suggested shaming the suicides’ bodies by carrying them through the marketplace—whereupon vanity, if not sanity, prevailed. In Plutarch’s estimation, suicidal young people could be brought back to their senses when they realized that shame rather than a perverse kind of fame would be the result of their suicidal action.

A reading of new sociological research and old literature makes it appear that today’s journalists have a lot to learn from late 19th century suicide coverage. Harsh, yes. Religion-oriented, yes, and some will object to that. But also: A deeper sense of the reasons for suicide than today’s social cause–stressing coverage. Less romanticism. And, if Plutarch was right, more likelihood of making a potentially suicidal individual think twice.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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