Whose blame is it anyway? Why internet censorship is not the answer

November 28, 2011 § 16 Comments

What is wrong with internet censorship? Not an article on the rights and wrongs of suicide, and not a platform for debate on whether or not a person has the right to take his or her own life; instead, it is one that seeks to understand how and why we have come to arrive at a culture more focused on seeking to blame following tragedy, than preventing it.

An Essex mother has called for suicide help websites to be banned, after her 22-year old son was found to have taken his life. Stephen was said to have been found dead in the home that he shared with his father, after he allegedly consulted a suicide help site for ‘an unusual method of suicide’, by using a helium canister. I was first alerted to this story whilst watching Channel  5’s news program as I waited to have my hair done at the hairdressers. Following a factual report of her son’s tragic passing, Stephen’s mother expressed her belief that her son would still be here, had he not had access to instructions on how to commit suicide on the internet. I have issues with this line of reasoning. Firstly, people have been seeking to end, and more importantly, ending their lives, long before the invention of the internet, and often without ‘instruction’. Yes, it might help to know how others have gone about doing so successfully, with as little room for error and/or pain as possible, but it is generally something that can be achieved without instruction. What is also interesting is that the method Stephen used was an unusual one. The report remarks on the ‘unusual method’ Stephen used, as if to claim that idea of suicide itself was planted in his head by the website, and that without its influence, he would not have been able to achieve what he did. Might it just be that Stephen didn’t want his death to look like a suicide, was already certain of what he wished to end his life, with or without help, and that his research was purely for the sake of finding a way to eliminate all elements of suspicion surrounding it? It isn’t uncommon for people contemplating suicide to want to cover up how it is they died, especially when they’ve also been trying to conceal any signs of depression in the lead up to ending their lives. Understandably, Stephens parents were shocked by the whole ordeal and that say his suicide was unusual because he ‘seemed happy’. Let us not forget that it is not uncommon for depressed/suicidal people to try and cover up how they’re feeling. His ‘laughter and lighting up the room’, as described by his father, could have been an overt mask, one that helped to cover up how he truly felt.

We find it very difficult to talk about and confront mental illness – depression in particular. People diagnosed with depression are stigmatised for pretty much the rest of their lives, and receiving help is, in my opinion, more difficult than it could be. Support from family and friends is virtually non-existent for many, and the arrival of the internet, has brought with it a platform for vulnerable members of society to find and support each other. There are forums for drug users, forums for people who participate in obscure sexual activities, forums for people who want to discuss and further their eating disorders – it is now easier than ever to connect with the people who used to be leagues away, and no longer do people have to feel as if they are battling problems alone and living amongst people who cannot relate to them. This, I believe, is why suicide websites, websites that support people with eating disorders, carry so much appeal. They’re ‘answers’ to the societal problems we are too afraid to discuss, and explore, in an effort to come up with supportive, if not preventative measures for.

‘But isn’t Stephen’s mum’s call for a ban on suicide websites a preventative method?’ You may say. Not directly, no. What I believe is wrong with censorship, is that in many, if not most cases, it’s akin cutting off the limbs of a tree with diseased roots, hoping that the tree will be cured of all afflictions. This, coupled with the fact that the majority of cries for censorship, seem to be for materials on issues we, as a society, find hard to swallow, or admit are major problems in the first place. Take, for example, the calls in Turkey to censor pornographic websites –  it is no secret that western society struggles to find a place, in itself, for finding comfort in discussing and embracing human sexuality. Or take the calls to censor sites related to Nazism and holocaust denial in France, again, topics seemingly still worthy of debate, but forever tiptoed around, for fear of offending the people directly and indirectly affected by them.

There are, then, of course automatic and unquestionable censors put in place, and these include censors on things like child-pornography, which, interestingly, is something that there is a majority agreement on the need for. It’s interesting because it’s one of those ‘yes-it should-be-censored-without-a-doubt’ areas, simply because it’s horrific. I don’t for a second doubt that it is, but wasn’t murder and brutal violence once abhorred in exactly the same way? One now only has to pop in a DVD with a little red circle in the right hand corner of the box to be in for a ‘thrilling’, and often said to be ‘exhilarating’, gruesome viewing experience. Surely this shift in what does and doesn’t qualify as viewing pleasure will happen with issues currently in the greyer areas of our moral spectrum?

Similar to suicide help websites, there are websites that help to support people with eating disorders. These are places where people with eating disorders can come and discuss successful methods of starvation, ways to combat the side-effects (for lack of a better word) of starvation, and how successful their weigh-ins have been for them, week by week, or month by month. Calls for a ban of these websites have been pushed with the same zeal as this Stephen’s mother’s call for a ban on suicide sites, and I cannot help but feel that it’s yet another example of society looking for someone to blame when it should be focusing on ways to support vulnerable people, or even encourage or positively  subdue curiosity in the case of the young. Eating disorders, depression, suicidal thoughts – they’re never going to go away, particularly not if we keep shying from tackling them head on, instead of alienating the people who carry them. Treating them as and labelling them pathetic victims, and then fleeing for fear of becoming contaminated by them.

Finally, how long will it be before we stop looking for ‘agents’ to blame? In 2009, Daniel Petric was found guilty of shooting his parents because they wouldn’t let him play Halo 3, a first-person video game in which the player must shoot and kill enemies. The story was met with claims that such games are too graphic and violent, and influence children and young people to become so. It’s much more likely that there had been a relationship breakdown between Daniel and his parents, and that he was battling issues few could provide him with the support for.  Is this, then an illustration of a shift in parental authority to state authority? Is it a sign that because we yield to and seek State authority where it should not be filling in for self-sufficiency, subsequently, parents seek to hand, or shall I say, cast their parental responsibility over to the State? Where things do go horribly wrong, rather than question parenting and support methods, instead censorship is enforced, and laws on entertainment are questioned. People call for a ban on things that very many people can enjoy without suffering ill-effects on their characters.

Ultimately, the sooner we stop looking for outlets to pin the blame on, and the sooner we realise that malicious people, the creators of these sites, are always going to exploit the vulnerable positions of those we are too fearful to help ourselves, we can perhaps work towards not being afraid to ask the questions we so clearly need answers to, in order arrive at conclusions that deal with the root of our problems. It is tragic that lives have been and will continue to be lost as we try to fight these problems head on, but at some point, we need to start digging for roots, rather than lopping off branches.


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§ 16 Responses to Whose blame is it anyway? Why internet censorship is not the answer

  • Fullofdreamsxo says:

    I’d like to put out there that I can see where Stephen’s mum is coming from and I get it. If I was her I’d feel the exact same way and probably also be looking for who to blame. The idea as a mother that her child may have been depressed/suicidal and she completely missed it is one that’s gonna take ages for her to truly accept and until that day comes she’s going to blame everybody but herself and her husband. The reality of the situation is one that’s hard to swallow in the sense that her kid was already suicidal – the website just helped aid him along in how to successfully do it, if he wanted to kill himself he would have done it, unusually or not.
    I have my personal opinions on suicide, eating disorders and every other issue you mentioned up there and the fact that other people going through it gather together to freely discuss such things online, but the fact is that it’s a problem that society doesn’t wanna address and that’s why they’re there for real. You can’t put a lid over something and then just hope it goes away it has to be dealt with properly, you also can’t push blame on those who are probably also feeling the same way and want to talk about it with others because truthfully it’ll just makes things worse.
    On that story of the kid shooting his parents because they wouldn’t let him play halo 3 – wow. The game isn’t the problem, I think the child himself just has problems and was probably spoilt and in way over his head. Me and my sisters have played shooting and violent video games forever, we watch violent movies etc and have never felt the need to randomly pick up a gun and shoot/attack anybody – so that’s rubbish. If children are acting this way it’s because there’s something wrong with the individual and not the franchise itself as a whole. Oh please, if they ever tried to demolish games like halo 3, resistance, residence evil etc I would start my own riot.
    Bottom line – Censorship won’t work and they need to allow it and tackle the problem properly. It’s the same way they try and hide things like facebook, twitter etc in some countries but most of the youth still find a way to get onto such websites, it’s frivolous.
    I’m gonna put the link up to this on my tumblrrr, it was a good read xo

    • M says:

      Its interesting that you can empathise with Stephen’s mother in that way, and admittedly – I can too. But again, it’s the fact that we reach out so desperartely to clutch onto something to blame. Sometimes there truly is no tangible ‘blame’. People are just sad and no longer want the lives they live. Sure, they have their reasons, but reason and blame are not one and the same, I guess.

  • kuaint says:

    You pretty much hit the nail on the head. So unfortunately I don’t have much else to add 😦
    I agree with you in saying that it’s always a case of ‘who’s to blame?! *angry politically correct face*’ instead of ‘How can we prevent this from happening again?’

  • mrqanimation says:

    I too agree with what you have written. Stephen’s mother’s stand point is understandable though, I mean if she doesn’t blame the suicide website for the death of her son, then people will look at her and ask questions as to why she didn’t realise her son was in such a mind state.

    Too many people often think that when you try to understand something or something you are instantly in support of it, it always happens in our ‘quick to judge society’, it happened with the riots, it happens with most criminals and it happens in many other aspects of life. As you rightly say, we need to change this mentality, but humans are crap so I would bank on more people to scream for censorship before they try to fix the problem.

    Saying that though, censorship and guidance for minors on the internet is an issue, but it is an issue that parents should take control of. Kids shouldn’t be surfing the net willy nilly with no outside perspective and counter-balance form their family.

  • Yasmin says:

    I definitely agree with you, we as a society always like to blame someone else another group another type for our own problems. I do think though there is a mixture of factors which contribute to certain issues such as in the case of Stephen. I wouldn’t entirely blame the website for ‘assisting’ his death it was after all his own choice and he would have tried to achieve it by other means if there were no sites like these available but I do think people/organisations running sites like eating disorders/suicide/pornography are contributing to some of the problems… its like a fuel. I think they should face up to the responsibility of what part they are playing too. It is most definitely human nature when we get an idea in our head and other people are also into the same thing or are helping you pursue it just fuels the ‘idea’ or ‘action’ to develop further. On the matter of censorship…I think I am undecided I like the fact we have every resource available at the click of a bottom but I think certain areas are grey and perhaps censorship for certain sites like pornography isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
    Great article Kayla

    yaz xxx

  • nicksy says:

    I think many struggle to accept that people are capable of acts of suicide, homicide etc without some ‘external evil’ instructing them to do so. People seem to underestimate the power of individuals (even children) to make rational decisions, free from influence from the internet, video games and the like.

    Also definitely agree with you in saying that the creators of these sites are really just ‘filling the gap’ in communication with vulnerable people, that we have failed/are failing to fill. Very well written/put together!

  • Ndey Ali Cham says:

    Definitely agree with the article. :). We live in a blameless society where everyone will seek fault in someone else rather than in themselves. And certain parents go to extreme lengths to criticise another person’s unruly child(ren) than see that they, too, have demon spawns and the only time they realise that, it’s too freaking late and they’re shifting the blame on the media, celebrities and websites just because their child(ren) happened to have viewed that specific medium. I love watching horror films. But it doesn’t mean that I’m going to go all Michael Myers on babysitters, does it?! No. To each his/her own, and if a person has the audacity to mimic what they see (with the exception of very few groups), then CLEARLY they are perfectly capable of knowing the difference between right and wrong. Then, THEY are to blame for their own recklessness, and no one and nothing else is. Peace!

  • eruzen says:

    For the sake of argument i will side with censorship 🙂 There is a question of where you draw the line. Yes, information should be free for those willing to seek it, but not everyone willing to seek it, should be seeking it. Children do not need to have access to certain things with reasons that range from not being ready, simply to there being no need for them to know such things yet.

    Of course parents should be, first and foremost responsible for what they allow their children to be exposed to, but when you are battling against a behemoth as large as the internet it can get difficult. A mother can lock sites on the computer and her child can go to an internet cafe. Or a friends house who has parents that are conveniently more lax. And how does the mother block sites, key words? There are plenty of sites that have red herring web addresses. Attempting to block individual sites would be impossible.

    So here we are. Information should be free? Yes. Does a young person need to have access to all of it? I would say no. Especially at a time when they are experiencing puberty, a very fragile time where they are changing physically and mentally, literally into the adult they will eventually become. At this time they are highly susceptible to outside influence and yes, certain sites will influence them negatively. So the debate for the internet to be censored is not so easy.

    We ask well, what about parents? Well parents have a very difficult job. A young person can be docile or rebellious and it may leave no indication as to how they feel inside. Think back to when you were younger, did you share everything with your parents? Every relationship is different and a parent is constantly trying to figure out whether they should give their child more or less space.

    Some parents will also look at their young teenager and realise that they have no control over them at all. If we go back in time when children could be hit with a cane in school there was fear there. Now we’ve realised as modern society that we should not be instilling fear into our children or hurting them, but we haven’t as a society made the transition from fear, to keeping values, common courtesy and respect prevalent enough and we are now in a situation where many young kids feel untouchable. At school and at home. Everyone has more and more rights and it leaves a mess if not controlled properly, the state sets the rules for the society, but where is the guidance for the society? Should we be looking to so freely pass blame? No, we shouldn’t, but if there is blame to be passed it will be, whether you look at yourself first or not.

    • M says:

      I think, first, it’s important to note that I’m not talking about in-broswer censor controls, which can be turned on and off by parents — I’m talking about censorship acrorss the board – denying EVERYONE access to sites containing explicit material.

      You’re also right – kids can leave their own computers to seek internet cafes and view explicit material there, and to be honest with you, all I can say is that’s too bad. I am in two minds anyway about what children/teens should and shouldn’t be exposed to, and am often of the opinion that stringent censoring will probably end up doing more harm than good in the long run.

      Take, for example, today’s tram incident. People (the few who did stap in) were calling out about the fact that there were kids on the tram. I’m in half a mind to say ‘so what’. Society is torn. Societies are always torn, and if we carry on sweeping our cobwebs under the carpet, for fear of ‘waking the kids’, society might well continue to be torn. Mighn’t we let them see our big ugly, still-gaping battle scars. Shake them up, scare them a little – show them what not to be come? I can’t help that in concealing our mess, we’re leaving too much for future generations to deal with.

      One more thing I will say, is that, in my youth, even I was privvy to a little explicit internet content. Hasn’t done me any harm.

  • buttonnose says:

    I agree almost wholeheartedly with everything you’ve said here especially with regards to the mother whose son commited suicide. I think it’s very naive of her to believe that it happened because of the website, but then again after such a loss I can imagine that it’s hard to cope with the fact that she was so blissfully unaware of his deeper issues. As for the eating disorder websites etc I do believe that they provide some sort of consolation to the sufferers in a strange way because it gives them the comfort of knowing that there are many others that are going through similar difficulties. All in all though, I think it’s silly to think censoring such things will magically make them disappear. If only it were that simple..

    Enjoyed reading this, job well done x

  • D. Lumba says:

    Firstly, great bit of prose – I agree with the basis of much of what you say, particularly the last paragraph, and also:
    ‘Let us not forget that it is not uncommon for depressed/suicidal people to try and cover up how they’re feeling.’ – is particularly thought-provoking, considering the death of Gary Speed yesterday, less than 24 hours after appearing on a football programme in which he was particularly chirpy.

    I would say though, all in the name of sparking some debate, that perhaps in this instance, prevention is better than the the potential ‘cure’. You say Stephen ‘might’ not have wanted his death to look like a potential suicide – one could argue that its unlikely that a man who chose to take his own life would have been so clear, and cunning (for want of a better word) of thought.

    You also argue that child pornography obviously deserves censoring due to the horrific nature of it (and correctly so) – could one not also argue, that a site detailing manners in which to kill yourself, also falls into such a category? Food for thought, perhaps.

    Regardless, very good article and one which has come at a particularly poignant time.


  • M says:

    There’s no reason why a suicidal person would not be able to ‘sustain clear thought’. I don’t agree that people who are in such a state of mind are ‘unable to think clearly’, as is commonly thought. One reason being, that to take your own life successfully, can actually prove to be somewhat difficult, both physically and mentally. It’s something else I’d like to write on, actually, thanks for that.

    With regard to morally ‘horrific natures’, please note that that wasn’t an expression of personal opinion. While I find it tasteless, disturbing even – I won’t rate it as being worse than adult rape, murder, or anything else which infringes upon another’s well-being. my argument was instead that claims that it is ‘horrific’, are often mindless. I feel that people express their disgust at it, because it’d be socially unacceptable to either not have an opinion on it, to think ;hold on a second, compared to x,y and z, it’s not THAT bad’, or simply, to think otherwise.

  • Shan says:

    Firstly; very well written article and you addressed some very interesting and valid points.

    In the case of Stephen’s mother- I have to say that I understand where she is coming from. (Please note that I am not necessarily agreeing with her). As a mother myself, I would be telling you an untruth if I said that I would not react in the same way as she has. The loss of a loved one, in particular a child often leads to several stages in the grieving process. She is doing what most mothers would do and seeking reasons for her sons death as she is in denial and probably feels a sense of guilt/self blame for not realising that her son felt the way he did.
    …Emotions aside though; I completely agree with you on the issue of censorship- it is not the answer.

  • Not much to say here…

    Internet censorship isn’t the way forward…especially in this case…

    The fact the young man found scoured the internet for an “unusual” manner in which to end his life…one can be assured that he’d have found another means to do it had he not stumbled onto that site…or any other site…

    Obviously the reason for wanting to end his life didn’t come from that alleged site…it was merely his source for ending it all…

    So yes…the root of it all is what needs to be looked at…

    The mother is a little be naive to think if the site never existed…her son would still be alive.

    Censorship however is one of those bogey topics…because one could easily drum up a few examples of when censorship might be the best way forward.

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