SUICIDE

This post is about suicide, a subject that has not been studied very extensively since Emile Durkheim published his seminal book SUICIDE in 1897. It’s also about morality and community or the density of connections we have or feel with other people.

For Durkheim, sociology is the science of morality. Morality, for him, is not just an abstract set of ideas disembodied from our lives as we live them. Morality, for Durkheim, is all about how closely we are integrated into our ‘societies’. Societies can be anything from a family to a nation, but are not equivalent to nations or nation-states. Societies organize rules for themselves around who belongs and who doesn’t. These rules may be firm enough in theory, but in practice not so much. And they are based on those things in our lives that matter the most, things that shift constantly over time and space.

Durkheim uses his study of suicide as a way of measuring the density of our connections with others and the ideas/values that dominate our lives whether we agree with them or not. The reason poor people are shunned in our society and considered moral degenerates is because their lives are a testament to their failure to live up to one of our most cherished values: wealth. Our talk of equality is just that, talk. We judge people by their lives and how closely they are connected to social and moral values. Nobody has any value outside of our moral and existential categories. Of course, moral values involve many aspects of our lives like who is allowed to have sex and when, who has a job and who doesn’t, who has an education, takes vacations, has children, votes, etc..

A graphic showing Durkheim’s typology is organized around Durkheim’s concerns with the glue that holds us together in society. He refers to regulation and integration as two key notions or ‘agglutinating’ factors in our lives. He identified (see the graphic) two major types of suicide: anomic and egoistic. These types of suicide do not refer to individual characteristics, but to the quality of social organization. For example, egoism, for Durkheim, refers to a social condition where individuals are not integrated into the social fabric. I would characterize suicide in many Canadian aboriginal communities as egoistic suicides because the individuals concerned are not connected to the broader moral community, not because of any fault of their own, but because they have been systematically and legally excluded by colonialism and marginalization. Anomie, for Durkheim, is a social condition whereby the moral rules people have come to rely upon to conduct their lives are weakened or disappear. Moral confusion leads to anomic suicide.

Durkheim’s research revolved around studies of religion, family, sex, time of year, education, wealth and poverty, etc. Durkheim had a friend who took a job teaching in a provincial school in the south of France leaving Paris and all his family and friends. He eventually committed suicide. Although Durkheim doesn’t mention this case in his book, he was definitely absorbed by it and determined to explain why his friend would do such a thing.

We often think of suicides as people who are mentally ill. Durkheim resisted this theory, pointing out that in many cases, there is no indication at all that a person who commits suicide is mentally ill. Suicide, for Durkheim, is all about the weaknesses of our social and moral rules. Individuals who commit suicide are responding to a lack of their integration into society. People who are ‘schizophrenic’ (a highly contested diagnosis, by the way) may be exhibiting the symptoms of disengagement from a society that doesn’t have a clue about how to communicate with them and often presents them with completely contradictory messages about their importance to others and to society as a whole.

People with the best of intentions, parents, educators, medical personnel and others, may believe they are doing the best for the schizophrenic ‘patient’, but are instead pushing him or her away by their inability to communicate with them on their terms.

This is a touchy subject in our world. Most people can’t understand why a person would take their own life, distancing themselves permanently from the society most people value so highly. We say of suicides that ‘they passed away at home suddenly.’ When have you seen in an obituary that the deceased has committed suicide? Over 3000 people commit suicide in Canada every year. You wouldn’t know that from reading obituaries. We are ashamed of even discussing suicide. It’s such a taboo subject.

For me, schizophrenia and suicide are both rational responses to impossible social situations. I’m sure that’s not a popular view, but after 35 years of study of the topic, it’s a view that I find I cannot dispute. I probably should put together a list of publications that back up my views. I will do that if I get enough interest. I’m open to discussing this at any time with anybody. Just ask.

 

 

My personal statement from 1990 on the Knowledge Network.

Why not post a video I did in 1990. That’s only 26 years ago! Frankly, what I say in this 7 minute clip I still relevant to me today. I think it’s a good way to start off my new set of blog posts. Hope you enjoy it, although ‘enjoy’ may not be the best word to use here. The clip was filmed in Vancouver with a Knowledge Network crew over a 12 hour period in one day. It was part of my North Island College tele course on the Knowledge Network that ran from 1986 until 1992. Interesting times.

Roger

The power of what we think we know or: Marx was a dumbass, we know that!

The power of what we think we know or: Marx was a dumbass, we know that!

by Roger JG Albert

[I published this post in November of last year on another one of my blogs now defunct. I thought I’d publish it again, because I think it is relevant now.]

I write. I used to teach. I suppose that in some individual cases I may have even convinced a few people to change their minds about the way they perceived the world. Mostly my efforts are and were in vain.

Our dominant ideologies around possessive individualism, the nature of countries and what we value in life are so powerful as to frustrate and flummox the efforts of the most competent of teachers to get people to change their minds about anything. 

I’ve changed my mind a number of times in my life but generally in line with added knowledge gained from reading and researching writers and authors who compelled me to see beyond what I had previously accepted as true. I came to understand fairly early in my career that there is no absolute truth, only tentative truth which must be abandoned when confronted with superior ways of explaining things. 

For the first few years of my career as a sociologist I was a Marxist through and through. That early dedication to Marx’s work was soon tempered in many ways by the works of Harold Innis, Thorstein Veblen, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Szasz, R. D. Laing, Erving Goffman, Ernest Becker, Otto Rank and many others. It’s been a ride. Although I’ve gone beyond Marx in many ways, I still often come back to one of Marx’s aphorisms about history in which he said (and I paraphrase): Human history will begin when we stop being so barbaric towards one another. 

He was an optimist who actually believed that this would come to pass with the eventual eclipse of class society, a time in which there would no longer be any reason to kill and exploit because of the rise of technology and the elimination of labour exploitation. 

 

Faced with the litany of accounts of death and destruction perpetrated by groups of people over the face of the earth going back millenia and it becomes difficult to accept Marx’s promise. I also being an optimist agree for the most part with Marx on this especially given globalization, the concentration of capital, the erosion of national sovereignty and the degradation of the natural world. These aren’t particularly uplifting processes for me, but they all point to a time in the future where capital will do itself in by increasingly attenuating the profit margin. 

Strangely, I write this knowing full well that the vast majority of people who on the off chance might read this will not have read Marx and will have no idea of what I’m writing about here. People are generally quick to dismiss ideas that don’t agree with their preconceived notions about things. That’s certainly true when it comes to Marx’s work. People can easily dismiss Marx (and most other fine writers in history) by thinking they know what Marx (and most other fine writers in history) argued and can therefore cheerfully scrub him (and the others) from their minds. Or they think of themselves as anti this or that, in Marx’s case ‘anti communist’ so that anything that Marx argued just cannot be ok. Mind shut, let no light enter. 

One of Marx’s most important ideas was that the division of society into classes would inevitably be relegated to the dustbin of history and along with it barbarism of all kinds. I like that idea, but ‘inevitably’ in this context will probably still be some time in the future. There’s plenty of time left for ignorant, highly suggestible “cheerful robots” (a term from C. Wright Mills) to commit mass murder or other kinds of atrocities in the name of eliminating the evil that they feel is blocking their prosperity or their road to heaven. 

Probably the most influential writer for me over the last 40 years of my career has been Ernest Becker.  His little book Escape From Evil published in 1975 after his untimely death in 1974 of cancer at the age of 49, has most profoundly influenced my way of thinking and seeing the world. Escape from Evil, in my mind contains all the knowledge one would ever need to explain the bloody massacre in Paris on November 13th or all the other atrocities ever committed by us towards others and vice-versa over the last 10,000 years, or for the time of recorded history, and probably even further back. It’s all there for anyone to read. But people won’t read it and even if they do, they will read it with bias or prejudice and will be able to dismiss it like they dismiss everything else that doesn’t accord with their ideology or interests. And there’s the rub.

It’s people’s interests rather than their ideas that drive their capacity to change their minds. Change the way people live and you just may change the way they think. It doesn’t work very well the other way around. 

Given Marx’s long term view on barbarism and senseless violence we cannot hope for much in the short term. We just have to wait it out. Of course our actions speak louder than our words, so within the bounds of legality, it’s not a bad idea in my mind to oppose talk that can incite some unbalanced people among us to violent action. It’s also a good idea to support peaceful solutions to conflict rather than pull out the guns at the first sign of trouble. Violence can easily invite violence in retaliation. We can resist that. It’s tough when all we want to do is smack people for being so ignorant and senselessly violent, but we can forgive rather than fight, tough as that may be. Turn the other cheek as some historical figure may have said at one point a couple of millenia ago. 

We will be severely challenged in the years to come to keep our heads as globalization increasingly devalues our labour and the concentration of wealth makes for more and more poverty. Sometime, somewhere we will have to say enough is enough and mean it in spite of the forces trying to divide us. We can regain our humanity even though it’s tattered and in shreds at the moment. It’s either that or we won’t have much of a future on this planet.

What were you doing on February 29, 1988?

On Monday, February 29th, 1988, early in the morning I boarded CP flight number 502 in Comox bound for Vancouver. I flew to Vancouver like this many times in the late 1980s and early 1990s to make my way to the Knowledge Network studios at UBC, then on Mathissi Place, in Burnaby to get my make-up on and teach live interactive telecourses for North Island College. I taught introductory and advanced study skills and introductory sociology all live with a phone in segment during each show. I did 254 discreet hour long lectures in the studio to be broadcast all over Western Canada.

One year I accounted for 10% of college enrolments by teaching on the Knowledge Network, but I was also responsible for tutoring a schwack of courses at our learning centre in Courtenay. I learned later that some of my colleagues thought I was getting paid extra money for doing this. On the contrary, not only did I not get paid any more but in fact it cost me money personally to do this. And I got burned out…but I did receive and award from the Association of Canadian Community Colleges. It was an honorary mention in the technical category.

That is all in the distant past now.

That is all.

YOU TRUST EVERYONE

YOU TRUST EVERYONE

Driving in downtown Vancouver over the past few days reminded me of something I used to ask my students in a lecture I did about sociality and social integration. I used to ask them whom they trusted. They would invariably point to family or friends or jokingly say they trusted no one. But, of course, we trust all kinds of people implicitly and regularly all the time. Our trust is not restricted to our intimates. It’s tough though because although we consciously and unconsciously think of other people and their effects on us, we deny that they have any control over us. Most of us truly believe that we and we alone are responsible for our lives and actions.

Truth is, we’re so conditioned by the ideology of individualism that we hardly think in social terms at all, about other people and their profound effects on our lives. There was even the spectacle a few years ago of a British prime minister suggesting that there is no such thing as society at all, only individuals and individual action.

Well, we are connected in ways we hardly understand and virtually never attend to and one way we deny that is by labeling other people. We often label people pejoratively in a myriad of ways. We denigrate others and don’t have any sense of connection with them, in fact we are often repulsed by them. Yet every time we get into our cars and drive down a busy street or highway we trust all of them, even the repulsive ones, like they were family.

Just think of the number of people driving anywhere downtown on any given day and there is bound to be a wide variety of people you could think of. There may be commuters, delivery truck and taxi drivers, moms and dads driving their kids to school, police cars and ambulances, service vehicles of all kinds but there could also be murderers, rapists, criminals of all kinds, violent domestic offenders and of course there will be a motley collection of more or less unsavory characters like conservative politicians, bond traders, media hypers, regular bullies and just plain obnoxious people most of whom you would never choose to associate with in any way in any other circumstance. Not all these categories of people are mutually exclusive either. A mom driving her kids to school could be beating the crap out of her kids when they get home in the afternoon and the service van driver could very well be a rapist. We just don’t know. We still trust them.

We trust that if they’re coming at us in the oncoming lane at 60, 80 or 120 k/hour they will not wander into our lane and kill us. Even if we’re going in the same direction as they are, we trust that they won’t wander into our lane and force us onto the side of the road, maybe into an abutment or barrier. Either way we may very well die. Of course there are accidents, but they are unintentional or are supposed to be. We don’t usually ascribe accidents to malevolence. To ignorance and stupidity, yes, but not malevolence.

You may argue that you really don’t trust them. Well, of course you do. You may not like it, but you do. If you drive, you trust. You trust every other driver on the road. I know that’s a scary thought, but that’s the way it is. You trust murderers with your life.

My personal statement [from 1990!]

This ‘personal statement’ was used as an intro for one of my Knowledge Network sociology telecourses in 1990.  By then I’d been doing it for a few years, but I still managed to perform in a very stilted way.  A KNOW crew and I drove all over Vancouver over a 12 hour period looking for suitable locations.  My favourite location is in Chinatown.  I ran across this video while looking through old computer files.

I still like the message.  I’d lose the delivery, though, and I could have made a better sartorial effort!  Apart from that, I think the message still holds even though I did this 24 years ago.  Focus on the message!

You’re doing weddings now?

Well, yes.  I officiated at a wedding yesterday.  It was my first time so, like the first time I had sex, it was a little awkward.  However, I think it went well enough.  The groom seemed to be happy enough about the way the ceremony unfolded and that’s really all that counts.

I’m not at all qualified to conduct weddings, at least not legal ones.  When one of my former students approached me to do this,  I explained that I couldn’t legally marry him to his love.  He said that he didn’t care about that, that he didn’t want any preachers or government person marrying him and that he wanted me to do it.  He said I was suave and well-spoken and that he wanted me to do it.  I had my doubts about my suavity (is this a new word?) and about my well-spokenness (again, my term).  Still,  he insisted that this is what he and his partner (I don’t like this word) wanted.  OK.  So I accepted to do it but I wasn’t sure how to do it.  In the end, I explained to those present, many of who had no idea what they were about to witness, about why I was officiating not being able to actually legally marry them.  I said that because my former student and his love (for lack of a better word) had been living together for some time and already had a baby together that the state already considered them married, so why be redundant and have some unknown marriage commissioner come and ‘legalize’ their marriage relationship?  I argued that this wedding was not about legalities, but about community, about the coming together of two people I consider ‘naturally’ in love.  When they are together it’s obvious how much they love each other.  There’s no strain there, no tension, just acceptance.  Now that’s something to celebrate!  That’s the idea I tried to convey to those present.  I’m not sure everybody at the ceremony ‘got it,’ but that’s to be expected.  This wedding was a mixture of conventional and not so conventional features.  It would not be surprising for some people to be a little confused. No signing papers afterwards but there were vows, people sat in rows in front of the three of us, standing by a small gazebo close to a beautiful beach in an amazing setting in Royston, BC.  There were mothers, grandmothers, assorted brothers, sisters, children and other family members and friends there doing what they would do at any church wedding.  Still, nothing legal about this ceremony.  It’s not uncommon these days to have a wedding on the beach or at some park-like outdoors venue of some sort.  It is uncommon to have a former sociology teacher with no obvious credentials or qualifications to do it, officiate.

This wedding ceremony is a first to my knowledge.  Nothing legal about it and in that I think it marks a new way of getting married.  Because of current law in this province, people living common-law are considered married for all intents and purposes after a very short time, especially if they have children.  So, the legal aspect of the conventional wedding ceremony is somewhat redundant, yet people still want their union to be legitimate and recognized by their community.  This ceremony provided the legitimacy and the community recognition of this wonderful relationship without the redundancy that would be there if a marriage commissioner had presided over the event.  In that sense it was more ‘real’ than most conventional wedding ceremonies and I was quite proud to be a part of it.