Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Idea Contamination

In an eloquent comment on my piece, "Is Suicide Selfish?" Jim says,
But I think the suicide's problem runs deeper, because his action is an affront to the prevailing mythos of the culture i.e. life is intrinsically good; or, at least, intrinsically worth the cost. He's not only hurting those close to him in a personal, relatively superficial way; he's actually souring the milk of foundational meaning that everybody's sucking down. His threat has become transpersonal, and an insult to THE core belief of most of the species.

What most people tend to misunderstand is that these mythic structures weren't originally top-down edifices; they arose from within pre-societies to support and satisfy individual emotional needs and desires en-masse. Of course, these things tend to take on a life of their own, in a feedback loop sort of way, and pretty soon people are hearing their own petty supplications magnified and bouncing back as the voice of God (or some other sort of moral authority; either concretized, or more abstract). So in a sense, the suicide is spitting in the face of God. And you're not generally gonna get much of a rational...and dare I say, unselfish?... response to THAT! [Emphasis mine.]

I think Jim correctly identifies the source of the vitriol that citizens often direct toward proponents of suicide rights and antinatalism. The suicide, by his act, is making a statement that life is not worth living - and this challenges the deeply held, but largely unexamined, belief that most people seem to have, that life is a precious gift. Even for those of us who have long questioned life's value, it's easy to imagine the feelings of discomfort and fear that might come from being forced to confront, for the first time, the possibility that life is not so great. Suicide, even a mere discussion of suicide, forces people to confront the reality that many people do not think that life is worth living. (I previously posted on the fascist East German government's response to its high suicide rate, a challenge to the government's image, which was to at once vilify and ignore suicide.) The evidence from the "suicide contagion" studies shows that, indeed, suicide acts as a powerful social proof that life might not be worth living, that its value is at least questionable.

It is possible that people hate the idea that life is not worth living because many of them have invested a great deal of cognitive energy in believing that life is worth living, and have built ways of life on top of that fragile foundation. I'm reminded of the recent words of Ill. Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago), in arguing that atheism is a dangerous idea and children should not know that atheists exist:

It’s dangerous to the progression of this state. And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! Now you will go to court to fight kids to have the opportunity to be quiet for a minute. But damn if you’ll go to [court] to fight for them to keep guns out of their hands. I am fed up! Get out of that seat! . . . You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.

I must admit, it is possible that God and the value of life are what "the state was built upon." But that does not conjure them into existence, nor render it morally wrong to challenge their existence.

5 comments:

  1. Holy Granoly! I'd never read that Rep. Davis quotation before. Is this what Jesus would do? (prolly).
    "...dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists!"??? Blimey!

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  2. Yeah, this reminds me of all the talk about lying to kids on Overcoming Bias - specifically, the idea that protecting children's "innocence" by lying to them encourages them to (irrationally) feel confident and safe, and therefore to learn more (but also to be in need of paternalistic state protection, when they grow up). I'm not to keen on this idea.

    But I am really interested in the question of whether there are ideas that are, by their nature, harmful, and should be suppressed - "wrong" ideas, and even "right" ideas or facts. I guess you have to unpack your notion of harm to answer that one.

    I managed to find one example so far of genuine idea contamination - rumors going around of certain vague, hysterical diseases (like, the witchcraft-transmitted variety - "penis theft," for example) seems to increase their prevalence, and the prevalence of witchcraft accusations. Of course, discussing whether witchcraft exists in the first place might reduce that kind of thing. Hard to tell.

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  3. There is also the belief, which took root in South Africa a few years back, that sex with a virgin can cure AIDS:

    http://www.worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=25806

    This superstitious idea is reportedly associated with a marked increase in child rape.

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  4. Ah - that reminds me of Carl Elliot's article in the Atlantic a few years ago on apotemnophilia (amputation fetishism) as a transmissible meme (though not a germ, of course) - I don't know if you've read it, but he even points to a possible analogy with the idea of being transgendered, and I know that topic is close to your heart. It's called A New Way to Be Mad, from 2000. I've read it like 16 times.

    I, of course, am in favor of people's right to safely have their healthy limbs amputated, and change their biological genders, and I don't think it matters where the idea comes from or whether the desire is somehow innate or biological or permanent. Some people only want to assign rights to fulfill unusual desires that are somehow innate and unchangeable, though. I don't know why.

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  5. Fascinating. I printed it out to read after work. Can't help thinking of the "Arturans" in Geek Love.

    WRT the autogynephilia / gender identity controversy, both Blanchard and Bailey embrace and promote your view (that the condition's etiology is irrelevent to interests of the patient). It's a shame how they've been treated.

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