Canaries in the Cultural Mine: Suicide and Justice

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” -Krishnamurti

In my experience, few people doubt that when someone commits suicide, it means something was terribly wrong. However, too often we draw the conclusion that something was wrong with the person committing suicide. We often assume in the absence of information that the cause of the suicide was purely internal (e.g., psychological) rather than external (e.g., environmental; social or cultural). We also tend to label people who commit suicide as “selfish.” This assumption is often completely wrong.

In his essay, “Of collateral damage and roosting chickens…” Tim Wise uses the “Canary in the mine” analogy to describe how racism amongst the white working class actually does considerable damage to the welfare of white workers:

Most have probably heard of the way that canaries were once used by miners to check coal shafts for methane gas and carbon monoxide. These potentially deadly emissions being more immediately toxic to birds than people, the miners knew that if they released canaries in the mine and the canaries died, they too would be in danger before long. Over the years, the metaphor of the “miner’s canary” has been deployed by scholars who focus on the issue of race, such as Lani Gunier and Gerald Torres, whose 2002 book by that title explored the way that racial inequity has long served as a bellwether for coming social problems that would affect far more than just people of color.

Much as Guinier and Torres noted then, I would point out now, that in the midst of the faltering national economy we should understand how our inattention over the years to the warning signs of coming crisis explain much about how and why things got to be this bad. And those warning signs were ignored in large measure because they seemed not to impact white Americans, especially middle class and above whites. Because the pain was localized in low income and people of color communities, folks […] could choose to ignore it, not necessarily because they were insensitive or uncaring, let alone racist in the overt sense; but rather, because the immediate consequences weren’t evident to them, and so paying little attention was easy to do.

When canaries died in the mineshaft, no one blamed the canary. No one said, “Geez, that canary had some serious issues.” No one said, “That canary was just weak.” But that’s exactly what we tend to do with people who commit suicide: we blame the victim even as we remain in the toxic environment. In contrast, miners got the hell out of the mineshaft.

We are all different, and have different levels of sensitivity and exposure to different aspects of our environments. Our ability to cope effectively varies. This means that our experience is a combination of both internal and external factors. Thus, the assumption that suicide is purely an “internal” problem is always false. Furthermore, assuming such often amounts to little more than patronizing victim blaming, disguised as a well-intentioned desire to “help” the “(internally) troubled person.” Suicide is a result of sensitivity and exposure to injustice. For example, suicide rates for First Nations youth are five to seven times higher than the Canadian national average.

Do the toxic conditions that prompted someone’s suicide mean that we are also at risk of suicide? Perhaps…but there is a higher probability that it puts us at risk of other health consequences, such as chronic depression and stress. While such health consequences may not cause those of us with less exposure or sensitivity (or more effective coping skills) to commit suicide, they will reduce our overall lifespan and quality of life.

The “miner’s canary” analogy has at least two relevant differences from suicide:

  1. Miners couldn’t control the concentration of toxic gas in the mine. As a result, escape from the mine was their only safe option, and the only way they could control the concentrations of toxic gas around them. However, we have much more control over the social and cultural toxicity of our environment.
  2. In contrast, we often can’t escape the toxicity of our social or cultural environment so easily. Exploitation, mistreatment, dishonesty, abuse are all around us, engrained into our collective psychology, relationships, lifestyles, etc. Furthermore, the toxicity is often chronic: so ubiquitous and commonplace that it hides from us in plain sight. As a result, we may feel a subconscious need to to escape using drugs, videogames, television and other addictive (and toxic!) substances, though these attempts are often unsuccessful.

Fortunately, escape is not our only option. While social and cultural toxicity is often chronic and ubiquitous, it is also something that we have the power to change, so long as we recognize it for what it is.

So why do we treat cases of suicide differently than poisoned canaries in mine shafts? Where does the belief in suicide as a “purely internal problem” come from? The fact that it so often amounts to victim blaming gives us a hint: People who victim blame often do so out of fear of the fact that we live in a dangerous and messed up world. As a psychological coping mechanism, someone plagued by fear may assume that people always do something to deserve the bad things that happen to them. This belief is called the Just World Hypothesis. The logic of the Hypothesis is as follows:

  1. Bad things happen to people who do bad things.
  2. Good things happen to people who do good things.
  3. Something bad happened to Person A, therefore Person A must have done something to deserve it.
  4. Something good happened to Person B, therefore Person B must have earned it.
  5. I don’t do bad things, therefore I am safe from bad things happening to me.
  6. I do good things, therefore I will be rewarded.

This common thought process is a serious logical fallacy. However, it is also comforting for us to believe. The problem lies in confusing what we want to be true with what is actually true. We want people to get what they deserve. But wanting something does not make it true, and our desire for justice alone is not enough: We must follow through with action in order to acheive justice.

So, what to do? The reality of a Just World depends on us. For example, we determine whether karma comes true. We ensure that both the assholes and virtuous get what they deserve. And right now, we are doing a horrible job of it: As bystanders of injustice in our everyday lives, we often reward the assholes and punish the virtuous. Or we stand by passively and do nothing while “hoping” that others get what they deserve.

Being an active bystander for change requires that we recognize the important role that suicides may play in our collective social welfare: They indicate to us that something is toxic — wrong — with our environment. When we demand that everyone just learn to cope with that toxicity, we oppressively imply that we are powerless to change things for the better. In this case, our reaction to the underlying injustice is itself toxic! The resulting disempowerment often leads those with the highest sensitivity or exposure into a downward spiral of despair and internalized self-destruction which may end in suicide.

No person of sound mind will commit suicide. However, few (if any) people are born suicidal. Aspects of our environment make us suicidal. Aldous Huxley understood this well: While John the Savage appears insane to the inhabitants of the Brave New World, it is in reality the ubiquitous, engrained insanity of the Brave New World and its inhabitants that ultimately causes him to take his own life. To live in an insane environment, we must accept insanity as our daily modus operandi. As a result, the person committing suicide may actually be of more sound mind than those of us who blame suicides on “internal issues,” precisely because we are able to better cope with (and accept, and live with) the toxic insanity that swirls around us.

When someone we love leaves us through suicide, we must remember that although they are gone, the conditions which caused their downward spiral may remain. We must work to eliminate the toxic aspects of our environment. Furthermore, by supporting and empowering those who are at high risk of suicide to change the toxic environmental conditions around them, we can also reduce the frequency of suicide in our society.

There is nothing inherently wrong with people who are sensitive or overexposed to injustice in our society. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with those of us who are able to more successfully cope with and remain functional in the presence of injustice. However, we must use our ability to cope and the resultant functionality it gives us to pursue justice, otherwise the injustice will continue to fester, and will cause everyone significant harm.

2 Responses to Canaries in the Cultural Mine: Suicide and Justice

  1. ozob says:

    I’d like to update this post to include the despicable string of mass murders. When people internalize the oppression, it becomes suicide. When people (the vast majority are men, it seems) externalize it, it becomes murder, mass murder and/or suicide. They are all canaries. No one is born suicidal. No one is born murderous. These people were discarded, alienated, abused in some combination that ultimately led them to serving the purpose of the abusers who created them in one last way.

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