On the right to have a story

I have spent the last few weeks reading stories of people who attempted suicide. Some of them were very poignant, very emotional, some of them very factual, almost without any emotionality. All of them very hard to read. But what binds those stories together is how at odds they are with any attempt to police the ‘language of suicide’. Some people might find this post controversial.

Whenever there is a (fairly) prominent article on suicide and someone uses the word ‘commit’ within it, it is the word and how unhelpful it is that dominate the comments. It almost seems that you cannot say anything of interest about ‘suicide’, if you use the phrase ‘commit suicide’. It trumps everything else into oblivion.

Indeed, when you read what now is a plethora of guides on the language of media suicide reports, they all agree that the phrase is inappropriate. Invariably, there is never any argument, let alone evidence of this, inappropriacy of language is always stated. Well, in fact, the statement tends to be presupposed, rather than openly stated. In addition, suicide is not supposed to be ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful’, while an attempt is not supposed to be ‘failed’. You’re not supposed to say that suicide was ‘without warning’.  Some guides advise not to use the word ‘suicide’ itself.

And here we come to the accounts of suicide attempts I’ve been reading. You could actually teach people how not to speak about suicide on their basis. You name a media guides’ ‘don’t’, those accounts will have it, and in abundance. Those people say all the wrong things. Their attempts are failed, in fact, some of them describe themselves as failures for not being….yes, you guessed it, successful. Time and again, the stories I read included bits that would make those who police how we speak on suicide cringe with horror. And yet, the ‘attempter’ story tellers did not care one single bit and continued using ‘inappropriate language’.

And here is the question that arises for me. Should ‘we’ care? Does it matter that there is such a gap between the guides and the stories?

The initial and obvious answer to such questions would be: no. Media guides are expressly aimed at influencing media coverage, that is to say, how journalists communicate in the public domain as journalists and they do not attempt to change how an individual talks. All done and dusted? I’m afraid not. Here is why.

1. My first problem is what the media guides do is they attempt to remove certain ways of speaking from the public sphere. And while that might be desirable from some point of view, I am not convinced at all it is simply universally desired. By removing a ‘way of speaking’ (and I do realise that I oversimplify things and that they could be carefully unpicked), ‘we’ also remove a narrative resource for those who want to use it.

In other words, we gradually remove the possibility for the people whose accounts I’ve been reading to speak the way they speak. And I am not certain at all anyone has a right to do this.

Of course, it is not clear whether there is a link between removing certain phrases from the media and how people speak of suicide and I don’t think there is any evidence pointing either way. The problem is that at the moment no one is really interested in collecting any such evidence. After all, the inappropriate language must be eradicated from the public sphere. Hardly any dissent is countenanced.

2. The second problem I have with the hiatus in the personal and public use of language is that media guides are often extended to professional use of language. Indeed, the report I discussed in this post explicitly talks not only about public use of language, but also about professional use of language when talking about suicide. In addition, there is much anecdotal evidence suggesting that professionals, particularly in clinical contexts, are asked, or required, or forced to follow the media-guide-like rules of language use.

If this is so, it has similar consequences to those I described above. Except that this time we’re not talking about language use in public contexts, but in semi-public, clinical contexts. That is to say, a person who offers an account such as the ones I’ve been referring to, will not be mirrored by a researcher or a clinician, because they are banned from using what is now described as ‘inappropriate language’.

Does it matter? I’d suggest it does. Persistent refusal to use ‘the way of speaking’ accessed by an informant or a patient must be at least disconcerting and potentially undermining. It is also at odds with the pronouncements that patients should be able to offer their own narrative.

Time for some conclusions. First, I am yet to see a reflection on media guides on reporting suicide. The assumptions behind them, largely likely to be well-intentioned, are taken for granted and unquestioned. In other words, the guides simply aim to stop inappropriate language which stigmatises suicide.

In contrast, I think things are way more complicated, as I tried to explain in this post. Media guides are unlikely to be limited only to how suicide is reported in the media. Moreover, I would really like to see some reflection on how suicide is reported in the ‘new media’, for example in blogs. I wouldn’t say I was crucified, but I got much much stick for posting an anonymous letter on suicide (Suicide is outside me) I received. I was told it was inappropriate and irresponsible to post the letter, as if one’s story, the way it is actually told, somehow should be banned. I still have much trouble with the idea that I should not have posted the letter, just because someone invented a media guide.

My second conclusion is the issue of whose language exactly should be policed. As people (activists, researchers, clinicians) attempt to police language, whose language exactly do they try to influence? Is it only theirs? Is it the language of public communicators? But what if you also change the language of those who want to describe their experience?

I have much trouble with people with much (or at least more) symbolic capital telling other people how to speak or write. I have even more trouble when such pronouncements attempt to influence stories of people’s experiences of pain and distress. People have a right to tell their story of their distress in any way they choose, but it seems, despite much lip service on that, not many people seem to care about that all that much.

And so, I would like language police to reflect much more on what exactly they do. Attempting to ban words or phrases which people use to tell a story of their experience is always more complex than appears and has more consequences than appears at first sight. And while the advocated changes are probably well meant, their consequences are likely to go much beyond of what is claimed.

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