Listening to a talk show at work yesterday, I heard some fall-out from the recent suicide of the young girl who had been “duped” on MySpace. When I first learned of this tragedy, I ran through a series of thoughts about the dangers posed by the interfaces we use these days, which put us often too early and unprepared into contact with things in another era we would simply have had no opportunity to encounter. This girl was a casualty of the wavefront of experience that comes now in new forms and through media that never before existed.
I never once thought it was her fault.
How could you? She’d been deceived. Inexperienced, unwitting, she invested a bit too much, and it put her over the edge to discover that what she thought was “real” was in fact a deception.
History is full of examples of people committing suicide over things with only marginal reality. Especially among adolescents. We’ve learned in the last decade a great deal more about brain development than ever before, and one of those things is that adolescence is the time of some of the most intricate and fragile growth–physically–within the brain. The hormone storm that is unleashed at the onset of puberty, the growth spurts visible in every other part of the body, the physiological changes of emergent sexuality and secondary sexual characteristics, all have their equivalent in cognitive development. It makes perfect sense after the fact, but for a long, long time we blithely assumed that adolescents were more or less just like adults. Instead we find that, because of the rapid and complex changes they are going through, teen-agers who appear out-of-control, impulsive, overly-sensitive, clueless, clumsy–in short, borderline insane–really are all those things and it is the responsibility of the adults around them to set guidelines and provide aid to get them through this period to the other side and (hopefully) “normality” and sanity. (When this fails, we have all manner of screwed up adult.)
Which is why holding a teenager responsible for not behaving like an adult is absurd on its face.
And consequences of this journey can run the gamut from perpetual clumsiness to neuroses to schizophrenia to manic-depression to suicide.
It is one of the challenges of our new awareness of these things to take actions to mitigate the worst effects and to do what we can to ensure a healthy mind in the emergent adult.
Something like this tragic suicide occurs, though, and when we listen to what comes after we discover how unlikely that is for some people. Many people emailed this talk show to express their opinion that the dead girl “got what was coming to her.” It was somehow her fault.
When we tease through this senseless reaction, we come to the bottom line opinion that what she was doing on MySpace was something she shouldn’t have been doing, something that is to some people Bad. In fact immoral. Evil. That she reaped the rewards of an inappropriate indulgence.
This is pathetic. But rather than condemn it outright, maybe we ought to take a look at this and see where it comes from. This echoes similar responses to other events, like rape. “She shouldn’t have been out that late, she shouldn’t have been with Those People, she shouldn’t have been dressed Like That.” We’ve heard all this. After enough of it, you’d think the poor rapist had absolutely no choice but to attack That Female. It was all her fault, she brought it on herself.
Blaming the victim.
This happens to men, too, but in less obvious ways. Job situations, traffic incidents, fights in school or elsewhere…if a negative consequence results, somehow, for some people, it is the victim’s fault. (One of the most frustrating comments I used to hear during the heyday of student demonstrations in the Sixties and Seventies was, in the aftermath of police crackdowns, “if they’d all been in class studying where they were supposed to be, none of them would have been hurt.”)
Take this line of reasoning far enough and the perpetrators of crimes should get off scott free, since they themselves were the dupes of the seductive and taunting actions of morally suspect victims.
Partly, this kind of thinking seems to come from the way in which our public discourse is driven by value judgments. Nothing seems to be value-null, that is without a moral aspect. Back in the Fifties there were people who condemned hoola-hoops because they were immoral. That hip-movement, especially in young girls, was licentious.
But especially when bad results. MySpace must be immoral because its use by this girl resulted in her suicide. We don’t seem to know how to just take things at face value in the “Shit Happens” mode of value judgment.
A meteor falls out of the sky and crushes the house of someone certain people don’t like. Judgment from god? How dare the man put his house right there. He had it coming.
Silly? Perhaps, but we probably all know people who would pass such judgments.
The other aspect of this is that we humans, even when we don’t know how to do it, try to find reasons for everything. Things don’t “just happen.” There must be a reason. The entire Why Me? ethic is based on this quest for causality. As if at some point along the way we might have done something to avoid the tragedy.
What complicates this is that in some instances it’s true. Prophylactic living is not a stupid idea. If she had stopped smoking she might not have gotten cancer. If he had stopped drinking he might still have a liver. If they had kept up their insurance premiums, when the meteor hit the house it might not have cost them all they had.
But there are things that go beyond the power of anyone. If he hadn’t driven down that street at that hour, he might have missed being hit by that bus.
Reason, as much as I value it, only extends so far. Sometimes bad things just happen.
And it is never the victim’s fault.
A woman should be able to walk naked down any street anywhere and be free of the threat of molestation. Anyone ought be able to park their expensive new car in any neighborhood and not worry about it being stolen. We should be able to leave our doors unlocked and windows open and not be victim to unwanted invasion, robbery. If we suffer harm as a consequence of any of these things, it is not our fault.
However. If you goad the dog behind the fence with the Beware sign on it and it bites you when you stick your hand in, that’s on you. The owner of the dog should not be made to compensate you for your stupidity (or cupidity). If you make that upcoming curve at 20 or 30 miles over the recommended speed limit and total your vehicle and maybe kill someone, that’s on you. If you break into someone’s home to rob it and get shot by the owner, that’s on you. The owner should not be made to compensate you for your hospital time or be sued by your family should you die.
Between those two sets of examples, however, is a whole range of actions which do not lend themselves easily to value judgments, and the only thing that can be done is to perhaps pay more attention to each other and what we do and how we respond. Especially kids, who are still learning about the cruelties and senseless perversity of the world.
I think it is safe to say that the unfortunate suicide of a young girl, triggered by the revelation of a deception against which she had no defense, was not the consequence of one thing. For her to have been that fragile, that susceptible, other factors must have been involved, and the only tragedy there would be that she never told anyone she was having trouble, that she was confused or frustrated or in pain, and no one got the chance to intervene before the triggering event pushed her too far.
But it was not, in any formulation I can think of, justice. She did not “have it coming” as some ignorant, intolerant–and probably frightened–people would claim.
The future is frightening. But it is also inevitable. It’s like the front line of a battle. You can drop down and bury your head in the dirt if you want, but when you look up and find that the person next to you took a bullet, you can’t blame him or her for looking into that future.