On Freedom of Speech, Shaming, and Suicide

I know I haven’t published a post in a few weeks. Some “real life” contingencies clouded my overall worldview, and have made it difficult for me to piece together cohesive lines of thought on pretty much anything. Yet, here I am, writing about a particular experience with Freedom of Speech, because the implications of this situation warrant careful consideration and debate. The tone of this post is drastically different from my usual academic perspective, but I think this conversation is necessary in this very personal way.

Today, I lost a friend, not to death, dismemberment, incarceration or any forces of nature that are outside of our “control”. I lost a friend to privilege, hypocrisy and the abuse of Freedom of Speech and Expression .  For the sake of confidentiality and privacy, I will call this friend “Amanda”. This is what happened:

“Amanda” took to Facebook to complain about the “inconvenience of suicide”. The suicide in question was of someone unknown to anyone involved;  this person committed suicide in a very public way, by jumping in front of a moving bus, causing a traffic jam. What actually happened to that unknown person to compel him or her to take his or her own life in such a public way is unknown.  “Amanda’s” comments were about how this person’s death caused an inconvenience for other people living their lives. In her post, she specifically and blatantly shamed depressive suicidal individuals for “hating those around them” and for essentially having no consideration about the hassles that suicides inflict upon random people. There were several people who commented on her thread,  about the traffic jam. They didn’t express a shred of empathy for the suicide victim, for the life lost, or for the impact of this lost soul on his/her family and loved ones. In fact, they went on to publicly discuss a previously killed murder victim who had “caused” a traffic jam, by inconveniently “getting pushed off a bridge by a psycho”.  That depression and suicide can happen to anyone of us, and that suicide is a last-ditch, desperate attempt for people to reconcile their self-hatred and lack of self-worth, were two points that were completely lost on this group of people.

“Amanda” is also pregnant, which, according to her is a carte-blanche justification to blame her thoughts and actions on stress, hormones, being overworked, and, anxiety about the future of her child. Yes, pregnancy does make women do all kinds of wonky things. Yes, pregnancy most certainly inflicts tremendous amounts of physical and mental trauma on women’s bodies and minds. It does not however, in any shape or form, remove humanity from any of us. In fact, the sanctity of human life and its precious value are only highlighted when one considers that these seemingly callous thoughts are coming from someone who is under insurmountable pressures, while quite literally growing a human being within her own body!

This heartbreaking conversation serves to highlight a greater sin that is tolerated by society in general, namely, the irresponsible ways in which people abuse their freedom of speech.  Voltaire (and Stan Lee) have long been immortalized for teaching us that

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

h-SHAMING-348x516Yet, we see blatantly privileged instances of the systematic abuse of Freedom of Speech in the world around us every day. We have used it to justify the shaming of religious believers all over the world by printing horrific, insulting materials about their Gods. We have used it to condone our own abhorrent thoughts and actions in forcing people to conform to societal “standards of beauty” by engaging in fat-shaming and slut-shaming. We have used it shame rape victims into silence by accepting the unacceptable crimes that happened to them. We have used it to bully people into aligning with socially acceptable behaviors, and, we use it on a daily basis to make entire groups of people feel inferior and worthless – on racial, cultural, educational, socioeconomic and other fronts. We have, in a nutshell, made it acceptable and “normal” to use Freedom of Speech and Expression to systematically denigrate and mislead people into thinking that they are not good enough to belong to “mainstream society” (whatever that may be.) As the New York post put it, Freedom of Speech is now being used to defy common sense and any idea of human decency and courtesy.

So, what gives us the right to use our freedoms to put someone else’s life and difficulties down? Nothing other than privilege and hypocrisy (there is that word again!). This is especially true in the case of mental illness.

Imagine, if you can, a state of mind, where nothing but your own death is the only way to stop the self-perpetuating anguish and internal suffering you live with every single minute of your life. You are ill. You feel like your death is the only solution to your problems, and to those of your loved ones. Imagine the sense of shame you might feel at being so broken that you cannot even consider the option of becoming functional and productive again, ever. Imagine not being able to find a SINGLE reason to continue your existence for just ONE MORE DAY. Imagine the depths of sheer desperation and worthlessness that you would need to reach, in order for you to decide to end your life, at the cost of missing out on everything that life might offer to you in the future. Now, imagine someone demeaning this pain and these problems by calling you an inconvenience and a hassle. They might not insult you to your face, but they have in essence reduced your entire existence to an “unnecessary” problem. This is what happened in the case of “Amanda” abusing her Freedom of Speech and Expression.

People who commit suicide, or even attempt it, do not do so to show their hatred or lack of regard for other people. They commit suicide because, in their illness,  they don’t see any other viable solutions to their problems in life. The nature of mental illness is such that it affects almost all coherent thought possible. Various combinations of physical, physiological and psychological factors involved in mental illness create mindsets where problems become amplified and unbearable, sometimes even after repeated pharmaceutical and medical interventions. We might think that people commit suicide because of cowardice, selfishness, or because they don’t want to accept responsibilities for their own problems in life. These are generally the “reasons” given by “outsiders” to justify suicide. Even after just a cursory examination however, these “reasons” simply boil down mere excuses in the face of the unknown reality of any suicidal situation.

Ultimately, the Freedom of Speech and Expression is indeed a great power; a power that is being systematically abused by those people who consider it their God-given right. But, Freedom of Speech is not a freely granted right to most humans on this planet, and it is definitely not meant to be used to blame victims.  It is a power that privileged hypocrites consistently and persistently abuse. When this freedom is abused, it usually serves only two purposes – to shame the other parties involved, and, to make one feel better about his or her own place in life.

But how do we counteract this shaming process? Do we shame the “shamers”? Do we accept their shaming at face value, and not give them importance, no matter how much it hurts on the inside, while hoping and praying that they “just go away”? Or do we call them out on their vile efforts and shame them back so that they feel even an iota of the pain that they have inflicted on their victims?

“Reverse-shaming” is neither my goal for this post, nor an option that I consider to be healthy and realistic for society in general. I have no personal animosity towards Amanda. I hope that she and her “like-minded” group of friends re-discover their humanity. I hope that they learn not to judge other people’s lives or deaths as mere inconveniences, because it is the human thing to do. At the end of the day, if nothing else, I hope this extreme yet  mind-numbingly common example of “shaming” serves as a warning to all of us, to check our “God-given” privileges, and, to be more responsible in using our Freedom of Speech to express thoughts that are severely damaging and detrimental to our collective humanity.

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