In what is now becoming something like a sacred ritual of the digital age, the following scenario unfolded this week. 1) Something bad happened—in this case, the suicide of a famous celebrity who had long struggled with addictions and depression; 2) People flooded to the Internet to give voice to their opinions about what (if anything) this bad thing meant and what (if anything) we ought to learn from it; 3) Someone wrote something that was perceived to be inflammatory/controversial/insensitive/wrong about the nature of this bad thing (in this case, conservative Christian blogger Matt Walsh, who wrote a post called “Robin Williams Didn’t Die From a Disease, He Died From His Choice” which has generated well over three million views and over four thousand comments at the time of this writing); 4) The Internet heaved and lurched in a maelstrom of fury and passion, whether in opposition to or defense of said article/writer (in this case it seems to be mostly the former; Walsh has apparently even received death threats over this post); 5) After collectively marinating in this unedifying, soupy mess for a few days, we all moved on to other more fertile pastures in which to expend our self-righteous energies.
As I was thinking about these matters on my way in to work today, I began to think about parenting. I thought about squalling babies and petulant toddlers and rebellious teenagers. I thought about what most decent parents try to do when a kid, whatever their age, begins to act out. What do we do? We try to figure out what’s going on underneath the behaviour that is presenting itself. What’s making that baby cry at such ear-splitting decibels? Is it colic? Why is that toddler smearing feces on the wall? Are they not getting enough attention? Why is that teenager lashing out in hurtful ways? Are they being picked on at school? Are they struggling to cope with the many changes in their brains and bodies?
Whatever the situation, in most cases there is something real and worth paying attention to underneath/behind the “presenting” behaviour.
I think the same is true with the angry/righteous Internet mob. We (I) must remember that there are real human beings behind all the anger and self-righteousness on abundant display when bad and unexpected things happen and when people respond to these bad and unexpected things in ways that we don’t like. As tempting as it may be to simply write off the mob as a sub-category of humanity that is beyond hope, we must ask important questions like, What is behind these reactions? What’s going on in the background to produce all of this anger and eagerness to give it voice?
I’m not a psychologist or a therapist, but here’s a first stab at it for me. Human beings are fundamentally meaning-makers and meaning-preservers. No matter what our worldview, all of us have some conception of the value of life and the sense that what we do here matters. We may differ on what (or who) confers this value or about the limits and scope of the meaning available to us, but none of us could get through a day without at least some sense, however tenuous, fragile, and fleeting that our lives are worth living and that they are meaningful.
Suicide is a full frontal assault on all of this. It is a profoundly threatening, disorienting, and terrifying event. It upends many of the categories and assumptions that we need to make sense of our world. And when human beings feel threatened, disoriented, and terrified, they lash out, they reel and stagger, they grope around for intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and moral resources to make sense of what seems senseless, to explain what seems unexplainable, to steady the ship, to restore balance and coherence, to get things back to where they were so that we can live and think and act coherently in the world.
We all do this, whatever position on the conservative→liberal spectrum we happen to inhabit (I realize these terms are inadequate; I use them here for shorthand purposes only). The more “conservative” folks who emphasize the importance of choice and human freedom are trying to give voice to the important truth that what we do as human beings matters, that it has moral significance, that we are more than just passive organisms that are acted upon by forces beyond our ability to control or understand. Suicide is soul-shatteringly awful, to be sure, but the worry here is that if we do not somehow preserve our categories of freedom and choice—if we describe ourselves exclusively as victims of “diseases”—then we have lost something crucial to what it means to be human, and we have few good resources with which to help those currently teetering on the edge of despair.
Those on the “liberal” end of spectrum are keen to articulate equally important and necessary convictions about what it means to be human. We are acted upon by forces that we cannot control or understand. We are vulnerable and fragile creatures. Mental illness and addiction are explicable by reference to chemical imbalances in the brain and it is profoundly naïve, damaging, and objectionable to locate these things exclusively in the realm of spirituality and ethics (if they would have just prayed more or made better choices, this wouldn’t have happened…). The world is not a safe place for so many people, and often the taking of one’s own life is only a “choice” in the flimsiest sense imaginable. The world is a cruel, cruel place to so many, and those whose experience of this is limited ought never to presume to understand why anyone who finds themselves in places of darkness beyond comprehension might see suicide as the only option.
The crucial insight, I think, is that both ends of the spectrum of response that has clogged up the ether over the past few days have important, necessary, and true things to say, no matter how badly or angrily these things might be articulated. Somehow, we must seek to move beyond the polarities and false dichotomies that come so instinctively to us—especially when we are feeling sad or angry or confused or threatened or disoriented by events like this. And especially on the Internet, where it is so easy to forget that the people on the “other side” are no less human than we are, and that their responses—whatever we might think of them—are almost always animated by precisely the same hopes, fears, and longings for meaning and coherence as ours.