A Kind of Suicide

August 23, 2019 Updated: August 29, 2019


Jonathan Swift wrote in “Gulliver’s Travels,” “And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”

When I taught masters-level social work students, they tended, when discussing a social problem, to exclaim, “There ought to be a law!” We saw that same tendency in the crowd gathered for a candlelight vigil in Dayton, Ohio, just hours after a young man had shot and killed nine people, including his sister. The crowd chanted at Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, “Do something!” The same sense of urgency beset politicians in Washington.

But what to do and who should do it? The approaches to these questions have been mainly political. The assumption is that politicians can do something that will make a difference—stricter gun control, impeach the president—and that it should be done at the federal level. It’s at this level that the most superficial and partisan point-scoring occurs, and the least serious engagement is found with the phenomenon of mass murders like those in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton.

The most interesting discussions of the recent mass shootings, on the other hand, have one thing in common. They all discuss the work of the great social scientist Emile Durkheim, whose pathbreaking 1897 study described suicide as a social, and not only a psychological, phenomenon.

Suicide rates vary in different times and places. They reflect rapid social change, the decay of institutions of family, faith, and nation that give meaning, place, and purpose to life. Suicide can be one expression of the weakening of moral norms that constrain and regulate social life.

Where young men once followed a life script that gave meaning, purpose, and direction to their lives, they now may find that script inaccessible.

The well-trodden path—to work, engagement, marriage, children, in that order—was reinforced by earnings, responsibility, and honor that increased along with commitment to marriage and family. Departure from the path could result in social sanctions for irresponsibility and caddishness, even the social pressure of a (more or less metaphorical) “shotgun wedding.”

Suddenly, men may find the institutions of family, faith, and community and life script that their fathers followed harder to follow or less compelling. Even their masculinity is called into question as unnecessary, if not toxic. All this in addition to economic changes—effects of technological change and globalization—resulting in loss of jobs their fathers had held for a lifetime and that supported their families and community.

Writing in PJ Media, David Goldman, for example, draws on Durkheim in his own account of mass shootings as a special form of suicide. The shooter doesn’t expect to survive, but resolves to take as many people with him as he can. Durkheim’s 1897 analysis “describes the Columbine perpetrators as well as the 2016 San Bernardino attack by Muslim fanatics, the ‘right-wing’ shooter in El Paso and the ‘left-wing’ shooter in Dayton. They are individuals cut off from society, destabilized by change, and despairing of their own place in the world. Such monsters always have been among us. But now we are cultivating such monsters by destroying the ties that bind us to each other, to our past and to our future.”

We all used to matter, Goldman argues, because all of us were “radically unique” as children and then parents, and members of a congregation standing before God, a community, a nation. Now, the liberal consensus tells us, we are free to invent our own identities, even our own “genders.” We are autonomous individuals unencumbered by ties to divinity or community.

Others, like Thane Bellamo, writing in the Federalist, make a similar point, arguing that “we killed, God, family, and community”—and now the results are killing us. “We have created a society that now offers almost none of the things that make people truly happy. Family, community, spiritual belonging—these are the foundational and primal building blocks of human happiness, and they are rapidly disappearing.”

We are, as associate professor of psychiatry Anton Kheriaty put it, “dying of despair.” We have lost the narratives of our lives, lost meaning and hope and purpose. Suicide rates are rising across income groups, especially among adolescents, but among men and women in every age bracket up to age 75.

High suicide rates in broken cultures are common, Goldman says. Neolithic peoples such as the Guarani tribe in Brazil suffer extreme anomie and have a suicide rate 34 times the national average. “The crisis of Muslim cultures has produced a fearfully large number of individuals willing to kill themselves in order to kill civilians of another Muslim sect, not to mention Americans or Israelis,” Goldman writes. Our own “cultural revolution,” with its repudiation of divinity and community, of family, faith, and nation has the same effect.

“We have hollowed out the sense of purpose in life that formerly sustained us and reduced large parts of our population to atomized lost souls. It’s not surprising that individuals with severe psychological problems lose all restraint and turn into killers,” says Goldman.

A Religious Problem

So why do we yell at politicians to “do something”? What are they to do, except undo much of their legislative work of recent decades? Our legislators, judges, and cultural elites have undermined—sometimes intentionally and sometimes carelessly—marriage and family, faith communities and institutions, a sense of pride in our nation, its history, and a shared sense of gratitude for all those who gave their lives for the country and society we have inherited.

These precious cultural and spiritual resources, which give our lives meaning and purpose, are built up from below, not imposed from above by bureaucrats and professionals. The harm will not be undone by giving the bureaucratic-professional state even more power over our lives and over what our children are taught.

If anything can help, it will be cultural and religious rather than political—a religious revival, large-scale conversion, or great awakening, for example. Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson argues that the phenomenon of mass shootings is a religious problem. It has a religious depth to it, an expression of rage and revenge against God, against reality itself. (See Rule 6 of his “12 Rules for Life,” which chapter he reads in a video on his YouTube channel in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting.)

Peterson has had an extraordinary impact on young men in particular, in giving them a sense of responsibility, hope, and purpose in place of their anger, depression, nihilism, and sense of worthlessness, all of which the liberal media and education systems reinforce on a daily basis.

In this context, there may be no one alive more deserving than Peterson of Swift’s accolade, from the opening quote, about growing two ears of corn or two blades of grass rather than burying oneself in partisan conflicts: He “[deserves] better of mankind, and [does] more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.”

Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.