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.