Silencing suicide

Once again I want to revisit the debate on the use of the verb ‘commit’ in reference to suicide.  Yes, even though it’s been done over and over again, and I keep being in what seems a minority, I think the issue is important, so, please bear with me.

This post has a number of inspirations. The first comes from a recent blogpost on shibboleths by Debbie Cameron. She positions the discussion about the use of ‘commit suicide’ in terms of shibboleths. If you use the phrase, you’re not ‘really’ committed to de-stigmatisation. Only the other phrases, such as ‘die by suicide’ (I have already seen ‘die from suicide’, which is astonishing, I think), can get you into the group of people really committed, really caring etc. In consequence, as I refuse to use ‘die by suicide’, I am on the dark side.

Cameron’s argument is extremely well made, I think.  It brilliantly focuses the mind on how the debate can be deconstructed. The question of what the debate is about takes a new and urgent context, I think.

2. The second inspiration comes from an exchange from a young researcher, Karol Strizyk. The exchange made me realise two things.

First, the debate about ‘commit suicide’ considers two groups of people: families of those who took their lives and those who survived their suicide attempt. They are those, it is argued, who are at the receiving end of the connotations carried by the phrase.  But there is one more group of people which, to my mind, is commonly ignored in the debate. It’s the group of people who committed suicide!

And I would like to pose the question. Should ‘we’ consider the views of those who took their lives when ‘we’ talk about suicide? To be honest, I find it quite surprising that the question is not posed more often, in my view, it’s very pertinent. And while there is probably no simple answer, I do have a view. I do believe that I have a fundamental right to describe my experience/act and it is not for anyone, including well-meaning activists, to re-phrase it.

Incidentally, a significant part of patients’ push against psychiatry is a push against its imposition of its linguistic perspective (you know, the ‘labels’) on me and my distress. Indeed, more and more medics, including shrinks, understand that my narrative is important, also in its form (well, they still work on the form thing). And yet, somehow, when it comes to suicide, ‘my’ narrative is blanked. Suddenly, the ‘right way’ is imposed and ‘my’ perspective vanishes.

Of course, I do realise that it’s not always clear what the person who committed suicide would have called it. My point is, however, that their perspective is not even considered.

Now, the second thing I want to write about in this section is the argument from frequencies. This an argument made by Vaughan Bell.

He points out that ‘commit’, apart from ‘suicide’, collocates mainly with nouns referring to things/acts which are negative. In contrast to Bell, however, I wonder whether there is an argument of suicidality to be made with regard to ‘commit’. In other words, if  ‘commit’ is used mostly with ‘suicide’, perhaps it is the word use.

3. My third inspiration comes from a heated Twitter debate during the recent conference of the American Association of Suicidology. The debate, like many others, is founded on the premise that ‘commit suicide’ connotes ‘sinfulness and illegality’. In contrast, I think such arguments are simplistic to say the least.

First of all, one can easily use the phrase ‘commit a mistake’, but I doubt that mistakes have ever been ‘sinful or illegal’. Of the words on Vaughan Bell’s list, at least two challenge the claims of sin and illegality. While violence may but certainly may not be illegal or sinful, ‘acts’ certainly don’t connote anything of the sort. And so, I think the argument of sin and illegality is stretched. If anything, the argument could be of negativity.

But then, things actually get more complicated. I googled the phrase ‘commit an act’ and the results were interesting. You can

  • commit an act of reason
  • commit an act of defiance
  • commit an act of bravery
  • commit an act of love
  • commit an act of kindness
  • commit an act of courage

and that’s only on the first couple of pages. It’s worth noting that ‘committing an act of bravery’ is part of the US congressional record. Also, while it is possible to imagine that an act of kindness can be illegal, I don’t think it will be sinful or socially negative. However, I can’t imagine a context in which an act of courage will be sinful, illegal or negative.

Now, I don’t think there is much doubt that the examples above are likely to be a margin in the use of the verb ‘commit’. The problem is that the arguments against using the verb in reference to suicide deal with absolutes. You don’t use ‘commit’, because it renders suicide as illegal and sinful. Period. And yet, things are much more complicated.

Let me conclude. The debate about ‘commit suicide’ is certainly well-intentioned. It is also meant to be helpful. The problem is that, in my view, it is also silencing. The continual reminders how one should or should not speak are not only, as Debbie Cameron suggests, othering and excluding, but they are also silencing.

Let me put this differently. I am really quite tired of being told (directly or indirectly) that what I say falls outside ‘civilised’ discourse on suicide. In contrast, I think that instead of silencing ‘my’ perspective, I think it would be much more useful to engage with it and to try to understand where it comes from. The phrase ‘commit suicide’ has social and personal functions and I really don’t think anyone has the right to tell ‘me’ whether it’s right to use it or not (have a look at an earlier post with two persons commenting and firmly committing to ‘commit).

And finally, knowing better what language to use is pointless. Language is contextual and just about any word can be overturned by context. The ‘nicest’ of words can be and are used to hurt, the ‘meanest’ of words can be and are used with empathy and love. It’s worth reflecting on it.


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